Plumpton Green villagers man the barricades to save railway gates

National Rail wants to replace manned crossing gates with modern barrier monitored remotely from 20 miles away

Compared with the planning battles ahead for HS2, the gates of Plumpton Green are a minor skirmish. But in this East Sussex village on the edge of the South Downs national park, anger has been stoked by Network Rail threatening to remove two pairs of six-metre (20ft) long, white wooden gates, which have adorned the level crossing next to Plumpton station for more than 100 years.

On a tranquil branch line off the main London to Brighton route that survived the Beeching cuts, a crossing keeper mans the junction day and night, operating the gates by turning a wheel in the grade II-listed signal box.

Slightly patched up and covered in wire mesh, the gates are perhaps not unequivocally beautiful, and Network Rail says it will replace them with a modern, safer barrier, monitored remotely from a control room 20 miles up the track.

But Robin Kaye, who is helping organise a campaign to save them, describes them as part of the “vernacular” of the village, one of the “last breeding pairs” of such gates in the country. Locals say their design makes it harder for children or animals to stray on to the line.

Barbara Spencer lives in the station’s adjoining gatehouse, from where her husband Martin and son Paul make the short commute across the road to work shifts in the signal box, looking across Plumpton racecourse to the face of the South Downs.

She said that a manned signal box is safer, and queries Network Rail concerns about maintaining the gates’ iron cogs mechanism. “I’m pretty sure the local blacksmith could make the parts.”

Three of the four crossing keepers face redundancy, while the automated barriers – complete with klaxons and floodlights, neighbours fear – will cost about £1m.

Emma Elford, who lives opposite the gate, said: “They talk of safety and regulations. But it’s vandalism at the end of the day.”

Kaye fears a Frinton-style raid on the village by Network Rail, which removed similar crossing gates from the Essex seaside resort in the middle of the night despite local protests. Little consolation, he added, that once work is completed: “Network Rail said we can have the actual gates.”

Britain’s 6,500 level crossings are regarded as the most dangerous part of the railways. While no passenger has died in a train accident for six years, deaths have continued to occur at crossings. Network Rail was fined £450,000 this year for not installing an automated locking system at a crossing in Herfordshire where a car driver was killed in 2010.

A spokesman for Network Rail said it had had lengthy discussions with the parish council about its plans: “We have taken many factors into consideration in making this decision including the volume of traffic in the area on race days. The current technology dates back to the 19th century and we will be replacing it with 21st-century technology which is safer, more reliable and more cost-effective.”

Norman Baker, the transport minister and local MP, said: “I’d like to save them. I think they’re rather lovely – I fully understand why Network Rail must make economies but these gates are a piece of our heritage we mustn’t lose.”

Around 300 people have signed a petition in the local Londis store. Shopper Dorothy Brook, who has lived all her 77 years in Plumpton Green, was more phlegmatic about the fate of the gates: “As long as the trains run I don’t mind.” © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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