Signal Crowd

Signalling Snippets

The page for my - none too serious - review of signals.

Fifty Shades of Red

When I won the 5/6th Form Speech Prize my book token bought me Fifty Years of Railway Signalling. It was a review of the amazing developments in the art and science of railway signalling since the incorporation of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers back in 1912. Maybe a surprising choice for a 16 year-old, but it set a course in my life that has given me challenges and delight aplenty. In 2004 I was awarded a Fellowship of the IRSE: perhaps the book was serendipitous.

The three-minute speech (I cannot for the life of me remember the subject) was humorous; so, in my third age I thought it would be fun to repay the humour which led to a life in signal engineering and teaching.

The Battle of the Gauges

Trains run on tracks. Tracks are made of lots of bits (if you want more info you will need to visit a serious site). Railway people don't call them tracks, they name them LINES. Hence railway line not railway track - unless of course it's a single line then it's called a single track (or visa versa).
The tracks are fitted with fixed rails a uniform distance apart - although, weirdly, they do meet at the horizon. The distance between the inside edges is called the gauge. For all sorts of reasons, but chiefly because engineers can never agree with one another, the gauge differs from railway to railway.
Railway folks use slang terms to describe the gauge the picture explains this. So, hopefully that's cleared that up.
Of course, a four-foot track is wider than four foot; and, by the same token, a two-foot track is less than two feet. But then you probably guessed that. We haven't even mentioned Mr Brunel's seven foot and one-quarter inch Broad Gauge! That would involve some serious fawning so better move on hey?
The wheels on the train go round and round; round and round; round and - oh, we've stopped at a red signal.

Here's a helpful guide.

Odd Feet

Here we simplify the logic of railway signals

All proper signals are of the semaphore type but the really proper ones are those designed and used by the Great Western Railway. This wonderful institution named their signals Distant and Stop but Stop was further divided into Home and Starter, thus:

Distant and Stop

The Early Origins

Of course, all origins are early but then you knew that. The rare manuscript below shows designs for potentially possible signals (possibly).

  • Mr William Head's offering was normally in the safety position, making it unusual amongst Victorian erections.
  • No traces of the Whos/Goah signal now exist but it clearly did get the thumbs-up from some sad railway proprietor.
  • The S.P.A.D. signal detected when a train had passed a signal at danger (bad). Paint was applied to the faces of third class passengers who could then be removed from the train and charged with distracting the driver.
  • The flowerpot signals rotated with the sun - not necessarily a good thing.


Rare defunct signals

Even after the invention of semaphore signals there were wonderfully joyous deviations from the obvious. Here are a few:

Weird but possible

Quadrant Theory

Clearly if there is to be a mechanical signal it should operate in the Lower Left Quadrant. The importing of the American right-hand Upper Quadrant was hardly ameliorated by the use of the upper left-hand quadrant in this country. If God had intended signals to operate in the Upper Quadrant He would have given them wings.

Of course, it is a thing plainly stated that the most sublime form of lower quadrant is the GWR style, particularly those of wooden post construction.

In the season following Nationalisation the Western Operating District (what a sad demotion) were obliged to trial the use of the upper quadrant signal. An attempt to convert GWR castings to work in the upper quadrant was displayed on the approach to Oxford Station where the proud Western Lines ran alongside the Other railway. Needless to say, the proposal failed to gain any traction and the scheme was dropped (hooray).


Dress The Doll

Dress The Doll

Signals Galore

GWR Signals

Toilet Humour

Railway signage displays an almost obsessional interest with the use of the toilet. Not that you HAD a toilet to begin with. At first you just needed to wait until the next stop to go, until eventually toilets made their way onto the trains, for your convenience. But even so, the system was disciplined, class-driven and the punishments for infringing the rules were harsh. Take a look at some old (and new) toilet humour to enlighten your day.   RAILWAY TOILET SIGNS



Signs of the Lines

As if toilet signs were not enough, the GWR kept the travelling public on their toes with a range of informative but sometimes downright obvious as well as scary notices. If not closing the gate was a no-no, then whistling at the station was even worse, and as for snoring and spitting in public areas, you were lucky to get away without a long term of imprisonment. See here:   RAILWAY NOTICES

Signal Box

Darley Dale

This Signal Box is a good example of the old-style Midland Railway and BR years in which having good arm muscles (and a hefty leather belt kept tight around the waist) was the required qualification for the job. The large 'Box has been relocated; the signalling is worked from the smaller one at the left. I know it's Midland but I like the view!

Carre and Advertisment

SNCF Mechanical Signal

A nice example of something different; this one in Picardy. A Carre 'absolute stop' (station interlocking) signal mounted below an Advertisment (sort of Distant).

View West from Taunton Station

Colour Light

A colour-light signal at Newton Abbot. The signal is controlled from Exeter, hence the 'E' on the number-plate. Oddly enough this type of signal is on the way out: the filament-style lamp and lens system is fast being superseded by light-emitting diode (LED) technology.

GWR Signals

RIP Semaphores

The felling of Taunton West gantry during the West of England Re-signalling. The transfer from Semaphore Signals to colour lights took place during 1986. At the same time signal boxes were gradually decommissioned ready for the switch over to Exeter power box.Taunton Trains Web Link