The line has survived two attempts at closure during the 1960s and another when the Humber bridge was opened in 1981, and somewhat miraculously - apart from heavy losses at New Holland - much of the early infrastructure is still in place. However, with still four manned signal boxes and crossings between Ulceby and Barton, the branch is clearly an expensive one to run. In 2015 Network Rail undertook economies in signalling in the wider area (see below). More recently at Goxhill semaphore signals were converted to colour lights and at New Holland semaphores were replaced and barriers were installed at Barrow Road crossing.
In an attempt to cut costs, a few years ago proposals arose to skip-stop some of the stations along the line, but this was strongly opposed by FBL on the grounds that - on an already sparse service - most of the selected stations were those which served the most isolated communities.
However, an area where significant savings could be made is in automating the manually-operated crossing gates and modernising the signalling. Of course in doing so much of the heritage value of the route - currently so popular with enthusiasts - would be lost. Nevertheless, this is a sacrifice which FBL would be prepared to accept should it need to be made in order to keep the line open. In an effort to mitigate this eventually, FBL continues to play its part in striving to increase the patronage of the service.
There have been suggestions also to single the double track between Ulceby and Oxmarsh but FBL feels that this would be a mistake and this is currently unlikely. The removal of the second track would eliminate the only remaining refuge able to cope with maintenance and exceptional circumstances. Should there be an excursion train or maintenance train on the branch or the Barton service be returned to hourly, this short-sighted policy could lead to a blockage on the main line in the event of a unit being held at Habrough to await the departure of the extra train or a delayed unit from Barton.
Also there has been consideration of reinstating the freight track from Killingholme to the Barton line as this would assist with the oil traffic. The line would curve round from East Halton and south of Goxhill to join the Barton line at Thornton Abbey in the direction of Ulceby. Nothing more of this project has been made public of late, but if it were to proceed then the proposed singling of the track to Ulceby would present yet another hinderance. Double track would also be highly beneficial should freight traffic return to New Holland or, indeed, be required for the Falkland Way industrial estate at Barton (a condition of planning consent for two of the established industries which was never enforced).
The Barton-Cleethorpes service is now being run fairly reliably by Abellio's East Midlands Trains franchise. However, for logistical reasons we have now lost our important commuter service which used to run from Cleethorpes (dep. 7am) to Barton (arr. 8am) and back (arr. 9am). In winning its award, Abellio promised to return the Sunday service from summer only to throughout the year as early as 2021. Since then there has been a tightening in railway finance throughout the network and we can only hope that the situation will improve in the not too distant future.
Network Rail's recent resignalling project in northern Lincolnshire
In December 2015 control of the trains in northern Lincolnshire was transfered from 13 local signal boxes to a new Regional Operations Centre in York. The area is bounded by signal boxes at Scunthorpe, Brigg, Holton-le-moor and Goxhill, with the exception of some track within the Killingholme and Immingham freight yards. It is the first of a number of projects to be allocated to York. Another 10 ROCs are planned for the rest of the country.
A 5 day blockade took place for the whole area from 23:00 on 24th December to 05:00 on 30th December 2015 and a 12 day blockade between Habrough Junction and Cleethorpes from 05:00 on 24th December 2015 to 05:00 on 11th January 2016. All passenger train services in the affected areas were replaced by buses during these periods.
The work was completed on time and included the following:
Sixteen level crossings were upgraded.
Line speed at Wrawby Junction was increased from 30mph to 50mph.
Additional signal block fringes were inserted between Foreign Ore and Wrawby Junctions to enable 75mph operation.
A new under-line bridge was built over a new link road into Immingham dock.
The line between Ulceby and Oxmarsh remains double track but is treated for signalling purposes as single track from Ulceby.
Goxhill is a track circuit block fringe meaning that control from Goxhill northwards remains as at present.
Of the manned crossings on the Barton branch, Bystaple Lane has been fitted with keylocks, Barton Lane (Thornton Abbey) has been converted to ABCL (automatic barriers), and Oxmarsh and Barrow Road (New Holland) remained unchanged for the time being.
Most of the insulated block joints have been replaced by axle counters.
Track circuit block fringes remain at Brocklesby, Stallingborough and Immingham East.
Sensors replaced cameras in determining when it is safe to lower barriers, but cameras remain for exceptional use.
The Killingholme to Barton Lane relaying is a private proposal not involving Network Rail at present.
Some time after 2017 work would begin on upgrading the Brigg line to make it a 24-hour railway.