British Railway Signalling

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last updated 27 December 2012

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Newton Abbot North's down inner home gantry prior to resignalling

I have been interested in railway signals for almost as long as I can remember. As a small boy I was often taken out on the Malvern commons, adjacent to the former GWR line from Worcester to Hereford, and I would watch the trains as they went by - steam, of course, in those days - and the signals being cleared for each train and put back afterwards. My grandfather had been a stationmaster in Malvern and our whole family understood trains and signals. When I got a bit older, he explained how the signalling system works, and what actually happens inside those mysterious signal boxes - and I was hooked!

In my early teens I started travelling around on the railways, and in the summer I would get a week-long rover ticket covering the whole of the Midlands. I already had a camera by then, so I started to photograph as many interesting signals as I could find. Most of the other rail fans I knew were mainly interested in locomotives, so it struck me that somebody ought to be pointing a camera at these signals, as the traditional semaphore variety were rapidly disappearing by then. Apart from being very colourful, there was a wonderful variety of unique configurations and many different styles of former railway companies.

My original aim was not to provide detailed explanations of signalling here. Though its basic principles are simple, the details get complex and technical, so are not most people's cup of tea. John Hinson's superb Home Signal page contains far more comprehensive a knowledge base than I could ever muster, and brilliantly presented. Further down I have also provided links to a few other key signalling sites. If you do want to know more, these are the best places to start looking. But as this site developed, from time to time I found I needed to include basic descriptions of some items appearing in photos and/or vidvideos for which there was no readily available external site to link to. After a number of these explanations had accumulated amongst my pages in wholly ad-hoc fashion, I eventually added a small dictionary of links to photos with captions that explain how particular items of equipment work. But apart from those I'll leave the technical details to the experts, and concentrate here on sharing some highlights from my photo collection, as well as my reasons for finding a passion for signals!

As an aperitif, therefore, the signal above used to control the northern entrance to Newton Abbot station in Devon, on the ex-GWR West of England main line. Sadly, it was replaced by colour-light signals when the Exeter area was resignalled. It has four 'dolls' because there were four possible lines a passing train could be routed onto. The higher the doll, the more important the route - the second line from the left was the through running line here. This is a lower-quadrant signal, as was standard on the GWR and the former Western Region of BR as it became - this means the arms move to point roughly 45 downwards to give a clear indication to the trains. In doing so, this also brings the green spectacle lens in front of the corresponding oil lamp to give a visible indication at nighttime. But if you look more closely you will start to see the unique variations that can sometimes be found even on one signal gantry. The home (top, red) arms on the two middle dolls are a standard Great Western design made from wood, while the one on the right is a later BR pattern in metal. Each has its own style of spectacle glass casing too, and see how the rightmost doll is missing its finial! The distant (lower, yellow) arms on the second and fourth dolls are of an unusual pattern that was only found at Newton Abbot - these are operated by motors (the black boxes) mounted immediately behind the arms themselves, a very rare arrangment, and again have a distinctive spectacle glass holder design. There is a lot of history on this gantry! The shorter home arm on the very left leads to a lower-grade goods line, and the distant arm on the 3rd doll is fixed to indicate that trains must always proceed with caution when travelling by that route.


My photo galleries

Over the years I accumulated a collection of about 2000 railway photos, almost all on 35mm transparencies, though I had more or less stopped taking signal photos in the late 1990s. I am steadily digitising these and include some of these classic shots on this site (see the Shrewsbury, Worcester, Exeter, Newton Abbot, Taunton, South Wales and West Midlands pages).

But getting the EOS 20D camera made it a lot easier to display new photos here, and as a result has rekindled my interest in taking signal photos. Indeed almost the first subjects I pointed the EOS 20D at were signals at Worcester and Ledbury.

Exeter West up innerhomes and signalbox

This site now includes photo pages of signals at:

When photographing railway locations I try to record as much of the track layout and signals as possible without trespassing.


Signalling equipment and procedures

As mentioned above, I've included technical explanations of equipment alongside various photos for which I couldn't find relevant information on external sites to link to. Eventually I compiled the following index so anyone interested in a particular items or topic can easily locate the pages with the relevant photos/videos and descriptions. I try to keep my explanations as simple as possible, so for further information I'd suggest you look on expert sites such as the Home Signal Page or in specialist railway signalling books.

Where items are new to you I recommend following the links about them in the order listed below as in some cases I have arranged these to present the information in the most logical order.

Acceptance levers/switches Greenford.
Axle counters Crewe JctAbercynon.
Block instruments Boultham JunctionLincoln High St.
Block shelves Boultham Junction.
Calling-on signals Boultham JunctionMachynllethSevern Bridge JctWorcester SHCrewe JctCoventryNuneatonBognor Regis.
Checking trains at signals
[TS1 4.6.1, fka Rule 39(a)]
Droitwich Spa (1), (2)Worcester SHvidGreenford.
Exemptions: vidWorcester SH.
Co-acting signals New CumnockHelsbyCoventry.
Electric lever locks Greenford.
Facing Point Locks (FPLs) Crewe JctLincoln St Marks (Economical); Severn Bridge Jct (1), (2).
FPL bars Crewe Jct.
Ground Frames Banbury SBognor RegisWorcester SH (1)(2).
Interlocking (mechanical) Greenford.
Lamp indicators Greenford (1)(2).
Levers in signalboxes Boultham Junction;  Greenford.
Lever leads Boultham JunctionPelham St JctToddingtonGreenford (1)(2).
Permissive (vs Absolute) Block Boultham Junction (1), (2)Lincoln High StPelham St Jct.
Point detectors Severn Bridge JctWorcester SHPark Jct.
Route indicators (illuminated) Pelham St JctEast Holmes (1), (2)Birmingham NSNuneatonCoventry.
Route indicators (mechanical) Yeovil PMWorcester SH (1), (2)Stourbridge Jct.
Signalbox diagrams Boultham JunctionLincoln High StreetPelham St JctGreenford.
Signal repeaters Pelham St JctToddingtonGreenford.
Slotting Crewe Bank (1), (2)Harlech (backslotting);  Boultham JunctionDudding Hill JctCrosfields (4-way example).
Somersault signals West Holmes.
Tail-Lamp Cameras Droitwich Spa (1), (2)Sutton Bridge Jct.
Track circuits Lincoln High StreetGreenford.
Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) RhylLlandudno JctSevern Bridge Jct; Bognor Regis (mini);
Welwyn Control Pelham St Jct.

Centrally-balanced signal at Shrewsbury
These unusual centrally pivoted signals are just one of the treasures still at Shrewsbury

As mentioned above, The Home Signal Page is a comprehensive site and by far the best starting point for anyone wishing to gain a better understanding of signalling principles and its history among the British railway companies. The associated Blower email list has now been transformed into the Signal Box Forum, a lively web forum for signalling fans, and there is also a comprehensive directory of links to other signalling sites. I don't attempt, therefore, to list everything else here, but the following is a brief digest of some other key signalling and related railway sites.

The principal signalling enthusiasts' group is the Signalling Record Society, which exists to study signalling and accumulate an archive of historical records. In addition,


Finally, I heartily recommend both Blockpost Software's mechanical box simulations and SimSig for anyone with a PC who wants to get a feel for what operating a signalbox was or is really like. You signal the trains; the simulators keeps up their positions and speeds based on the signal aspects, line speeds and timetable. Though I'm normally someone who gives computer games a wide berth, these really have got me hooked! If you're new to this, I'd probably suggest starting with SimSig, as many of their simulations are free and you'll need a reasonably good understanding of traditional signalling procedures and bell codes to work the mechanical box simulations.

SimSig offers real-time emulations of a number of modern Signalling Control Centres, ranging from the areas controlled by major power boxes such as Swindon, Westbury and Exeter, to fictional signalling centres such as for the North London Lines. Its screen display is in the same format as actual IECC workstations, actual NR track layouts are used, and actual working timetables are provided (there is generally more than one timetable available for each location). You even get phone calls from drivers held at red signals and can give back special instructions. SimSig also simulates random train delays and can emulate signal, point or track circuit failures. The public version is free to download, though its bigger brother is now used in Network Rail training centres.

The Blockpost Software mechanical box simulations, which include Exeter West, incorporate great graphical displays of the box diagrams, block shelves and signal levers. You click on the block bells to ring messages through to the adjacent boxes, and on the levers to pull or restore them. As well as running the trains, the simulators work the block instruments according to the codes you ring on the bells, and make the other boxes ring you as if in real life. The levers are fully interlocked and won't move if the interlocking state prevents this. Steam Engines toot their whistles to let you know when they're ready for the next move. Great fun running a railway in your own home!


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