Signals are important! They are there to stop trains bumping into each other!

British signalling follows well established principles that were not echoed to any significant extent in other European countries. Perhaps this is because the Board of Trade created tight standards from an early date, an expensive option that most railways would have preferred to avoid. However, British-style signalling could (and often still can) be found in various parts of the former British Commonwealth and also South America.

Although the individual railways in Britain initially developed their own ideas, harmonisation of signalling principles soon took place, and semaphore signalling as we know it today was well established by the 1880s. Power operation of points and signals had arrived by the turn of the century, although initially only for small signalling schemes because track-circuiting, an electrical method of detecting the presence and position of trains, hadn’t really been developed. The earliest applications of power signalling simply saw motorisation of existing types of semaphore signal, but it wasn’t long before colour-light signals appeared.It wasn’t until the 1950s that really large-scale power signalling came along.

Although colour-light signalling covers most British main lines today, there are still many pockets of semaphore signalling to be found.

Animated demonstrations of how signals work and a range of photographic illustrations are divided into bite-sized sections below.

Some of this section is incomplete – there is a lot to do in terms of scanning and re-writing to bring this section up to date. Please be patient!

How signals work

Semaphore Signals

  1. The Basics
  2. Stop and Distant signals
  3. Subsidiary signals
  4. Shunting signals
  5. Combined Home and Distant signals
  6. Junction signals
  7. Shunting Signals for multiple routes
  8. Improving the view
  9. Regional variation

Colour Light Signals

  1. LMS 1932 Speed Signalling

In the flesh – photographs

Signal types

  1. Banner Signals
  2. Crossbar and board signals
  3. Points indicator signal
  4. Three-position Signals

Signals of individual railway companies

Pre-grouping era (up to 1923)

  1. Caledonian
  2. Cheshire Lines Committee
  3. Furness
  4. Great Central
  5. Great Eastern
  6. Great Northern
  7. Great Western
  8. Highland
  9. London, Brighton & South Coast
  10. London & South Western
  11. Midland
  12. North British
  13. North Eastern
  14. Southern

The Big Four era (1923-1948)

  1. London, Midland & Scottish
  2. London & North Eastern

British Railways era (1948 onward)

Initially, British Railways continued with, and developed, signals of the Big Four constituents.

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