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Section 3: Shunting Signals

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Low speed shunting movements such as those to or from sidings or through crossover roads are governed by shunting signals. A shunting signal, when cleared, gives the driver authority to proceed cautiously as far as the line is clear, or to the next signal. The driver must understand that the line ahead may be occupied. A shunting signal may be associated with a main signal, in which case clearance of the shunting signal authorises the driver to pass the main signal at 'danger'. Most shunting signals are ground mounted, although some are elevated.


The first shunting signals evolved from points indicators (see Section 11). The points discs, which had been directly linked to the points and merely indicated their position, became signals in their own right. These 'independent discs' could show either a 'stop' or 'proceed' indication. The most basic form of disc signal displayed a circular red target in the 'on' position [3.1], it being rotated out of view when in the 'off' position [3.2]. At night, a red or green light was shown for the 'on' and 'off' indications, respectively. The Great Eastern Railway, the Highland Railway and the South Eastern Railway used this type of signal.

[3.1] Shunting Signal ('on').
Area: GER / High.R / SER / LB&SCR   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.2] Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: GER / High.R / SER   Usage: High   Status: Historical

The London Brighton & South Coast Railway also used a shunting signal that displayed a red disc in the 'on' position (see [3.1]) but with the addition of a directing hand to show which line it applied to (see [27.1]). A second target was fitted for the 'proceed' indication, bearing a distinctive white cross on a green face [3.3].

[3.3] Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: LB&SCR   Usage: High   Status: Historical

From 1874, the London & North Western Railway replaced the red lights in its shunting signals with purple lights, to reduce the number of red lights being presented to drivers.

A new standard form of rotating shunting signal was introduced on the LNWR in 1881 [3.4 & 3.5].

[3.4] Shunting Signal ('on').
Area: LNWR   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.5] Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: LNWR   Usage: High   Status: Historical

The London & South Western Railway and the North British Railway both used a form of shunting signal that, in the 'on' position [3.6], presented a red face similar in shape to the LNWR signal (see [3.4]). These signals did not rotate however; for the 'off' indication, the face dropped forward like a flap [3.7].

[3.6] Shunting Signal ('on').
Area: L&SWR / NBR   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.7] Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: Various   Usage: High   Status: Historical

The Caledonian Railway, the Great North of Scotland Railway and (from 1882) the Glasgow & South Western Railway used a similar 'flap' style of shunting signal to the L&SWR and the NBR but, when in the 'on' position, a rectangular face was displayed [3.8].

[3.8] Shunting Signal ('on').
Area: Cal.R / GNoSR / G&SWR   Usage: High   Status: Historical

Shunting signals may take the form of semaphore signals but with smaller arms than those provided for main signals [3.9 - 3.11].

[3.9] Semaphore Shunting Signal ('on').
Area: All Areas   Usage: High   Status: Current
[3.10] Semaphore Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: All Areas   Usage: High   Status: Obsolescent
[3.11] 'Somersault' Semaphore Shunting Signal ('off').
Area: Various   Usage: High   Status: Historical

Some companies had their own special arms for specific applications. The Great North of Scotland Railway used a distinctive signal for 'shunt right road' movements [3.12 & 3.13].

[3.12] 'Shunt Right Road' Signal ('on').
Area: GNoSR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical
[3.13] 'Shunt Right Road' Signal ('off').
Area: GNoSR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical

A special type of signal arm, sometimes known as a 'bow-tie', 'scissors' or 'skeleton' arm on account of its shape, was used by several companies to authorise shunting moves along a running line in the 'wrong direction' (i.e. against the normal direction of travel) [3.14 - 3.18].

[3.14] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('on').
Area: Cal.R / GNoSR / NBR / NER   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.15] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('off').
Area: Cal.R / GNoSR / NBR / NER   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.16] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('on').
Area: L&SWR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical
[3.17] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('off').
Area: L&SWR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical
[3.18] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('off').
Area: L&SWR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical

On the Maryport & Carlisle Railway, 'shunt wrong road' signals had a horizontal slot in the arm [3.19 & 3.20].

[3.19] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('on').
Area: M&CR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical
[3.20] 'Shunt Wrong Road' Signal ('off').
Area: M&CR   Usage: Medium   Status: Historical

The Great Western Railway had distinctive 'backing signals' with two holes in the arm [3.21 & 3.22]. When cleared, a backing signal indicated that the points were correctly set for a move over a line in the wrong direction. Once cleared, the signal could not be passed without verbal authority or a handsignal being given. The movement could then proceed as far as the line was clear. No more of these signals were installed after 1949.

[3.21] Backing Signal ('on').
Area: GWR   Usage: High   Status: Historical
[3.22] Backing Signal ('off').
Area: GWR   Usage: High   Status: Historical