FR signals

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The new Trident Signal on the Cob is the centrepiece of the new signalling at Harbour Station.

Over the years a great variety of signals and signalling practices have been employed on the Ffestiniog Railway. The earliest signalling installed in the 1860s and '70s was of a distinctly old fashioned appearance, yet much of it remained in use until the 1920s. Later on more modern semaphore schemes were introduced. Much of the signalling fell out of use in the 1920s following the granting of a light railway order.

With the revival of the railway the new management made efforts to install more modern signalling. The early efforts were influenced by the Military Railway at Longmoor using flagboards at stations and a central control office. As resources became available more elaborate signalling schemes were implemented at stations using both mechanically operated semaphore signals and automatic colour lights. The signalling of the FR continues to develop and the 2014 resignalling of Harbour Station using electrically operated replica semaphore arms set a new high standard of quality.

Old Company Signalling[edit]

Minffordd c. 1923. Drawn by MRFS for an FRHGJ article (Journal 120).

Early schemes: Double arms and discs[edit]

The old FR Co. introduced a system of signalling with the coming of passenger trains. South of Glanypwll this system of signalling remained in use until the mid-1920s, looking very idiosyncratic to observers. However, when the signalling was introduced it was to the main line standards of the early 1860s, but very quickly superseded elsewhere: the Minffordd installation of the early 1870s was very 'old hat' compared to contemporary main line practice.

Each intermediate staff stage station had a centrally located, double-armed, semaphore signal that served as a 'block' Signal. The semaphores acted as a combined Stop and Starter signal, although they did not denote the actual stopping position, they denoted 'Stop and Wait for Train Staff or Train Staff Ticket'; this also applied to the pair of double arm semaphores at Old Dinas Junction at Glanypwll. The two arms served up or down trains according to the side of the post.

Other signals were rotating disc signals on the top of tall fluted columns. These were operated by two wires linked to a capstan usually at the mid point of the station with a small repeater disc on the top. Hence the signals at passing loops were all operated from around the middle of the station, but not grouped together. No covered accommodation was provided for the signalmen. Disc signals could act both as auxiliary or distant signals and warning signals both inside and outside station limits, there was also a full size repeater disc on the up at Tanygrisiau for trains originating at Wrysgan.

The system was not quite so simple as semaphore point indicators were also provided. These were metal columns with a single semaphore at the top which was fitted into a slot in the top of the column. The two positions were vertical (hidden within the post) and 90 degrees. One was near to the water tower at Harbour Station to indicate which way the three way points were set and this worked 45 degrees - vertical - 45 degrees. It was restored to show if the road was set for the platform road, and it functioned into the 1960s. It was moved to Pen Cob between August 1962 and July 1963, perhaps to make way for the new access road to the housing development on South Snowdon wharf.

Later schemes: semaphore[edit]

During 1878 the line between Glan y Pwll and Duffws was resignalled by McKenzie & Holland. More conventional semaphore signals were installed on this stretch. The top end of the line from Glan y Pwll junction to Duffws had the greatest number of train movements and was double track. It was operated as a passenger line (bi-directional) and a mineral line (bi-directional). The many feeder lines and exchange sidings made for complicated signalling requirements. This section of line was controlled by three FR signal boxes, Glan y Pwll (Blaenau No 3), GWR (Blaenau No 2) and Duffws (No 1). The equipment was supplied by MacKenzie & Holland and was revised as requirements changed. It was the area with the most elaborate signalling before it gradually began to fall out of use with the Light Railway Order of 1923 and the closure of Duffws Station.

A semaphore signal that was thought to have controlled entry to Duffws was later erected on the cob to control entry to Harbour Station. This was commonly known as the Trident Signal.

Other signalling items[edit]

The first telegraph (Spagnoletti's) was installed in 1865 from Tunnel South to Tunnel North and was insisted on by the Inspecting Officer, Captain Tyler, before permission was given to carry passengers. [1] It was used to ensure the tunnel was clear before the FR's first two rectangular signals (otherwise very similar to Disc Signals) were worked to admit trains. Between 1869 and 1871 all other stations were connected by telegraph.[2] The first telephone of the old FR Co. was a direct line from Porthmadog to Minffordd weighbridge and was installed in 1890 and the system subsequently grew.[3]

Prior to 1912 the Ffestiniog Railway used the Staff and Ticket system for train protection. After that date it was replaced with the Electric Train Staff (ETS) system which gives improved flexibility.

A signal box was at Boston Lodge (Pen Cob Halt) but it only held the staff instruments and did not have a lever frame.

The old FR did not use trap points to prevent trains meeting head on at passing loops (though it did use them to protect the mainline for example at the end of the Dinas branch).

Stop blocks (termed "scotches") locked onto the rails were commonly used to protect trains at vulnerable points. For example the old layout at Tan y Bwlch had a central siding which crossed the up platform line with a diamond crossing before entering the goods shed. A stop block was placed on the central siding to protect up trains approaching the diamond crossing. Stop blocks were also widely used to protect the main line from runaways on the many quarry feeder lines from Tan y Grisiau upwards.

1872 Rule Book pages on signalling[edit]

Early revivalist efforts[edit]

The first signals of the revived FR were the two installed by 1957 to show if Lottie's Crossing gates were open for the train. The up one is seen here on the left as FRSL LAG volunteers dig out the track in Jan 1961. Photo: Ron Fisher.

By the time the railway closed in 1946 there were few signals that were still operational and no signal boxes were in use. The one engine in steam principle could have applied on many days after the revival in 1954, and the Light Railway Order meant that signalling was a low priority. The renovation of the electric train staff (ETS) system was much more important. The head of the Signals and Telegraph Dept. was a volunteer Norman Pearce who aided by some particularly able lieutenants made a huge contribution to post-revival developments. Early work to improve signalling included making use of the original Cob Trident Signal to indicate if the points were set for the platform road, and by 1957 the fitting of colour light signals to show loco drivers if Quarry Lane Crossing gates were open.

Soon after that, treadles to operate bells to warn the keeper of approaching trains at Quarry Lane Crossing were installed in Lottie Edwards' cottage. These were replaced by track circuits within a few years.

With these few exceptions the FR was, in the mid 1960s, a railway without signals. Practice was heavily influenced by Allan Garraway's experience of Royal Engineer's signalling methods which he was exposed to at Longmoor and elsewhere. The FR's graph-based train control system is more or less pure Longmoor, as was the flag based signalling system used to pass trains at intermediate stations in early restoration days.[4] Prior to the flag boards, hand flags were used. There was a late flowering of their use at Penrhyn in 1968 and 1969 when passing trains there instead of at Minffordd allowed the "half panic" and "full panic" timetables to be introduced as an urgent measure to accommodate the growing traffic with twelve and thirteen Porthmadog departures respectively.[5] The hand flags were replaced with target boards a few weeks into the 1969 peak season timetable. The up starter and home flags were stuck in crevices in the stone walls and the down starter hand flag had its handle implanted in a pot of sand. The pot of sand was placed beside the track at the bottom end of the loop.

The open wire telephone pole route - a prominent antique feature of the FR. Photo: Mark Temple

Restoring the ETS[edit]

Emphasis in the late 50s and early 60s was placed on getting the electric train staff system operating. These items are often given little attention by enthusiasts and the public because unlike semaphore signals etc. they are hardly visible to the casual observer. With the electric train staff system the issuing of train staffs to give permission for trains to enter a section of track is controlled by two machines at both ends of each section connected by telephone wires. They operate so that only one train staff for each section can be withdrawn at any moment. These are standard pieces of late nineteenth century railway equipment and had been used by the old FR. The Miniature Electric Staff Instruments at Portmadoc and Minffordd became serviceable again on Monday 18th May 1959. [6] The instruments brought back into use were the old Portmadoc - Minffordd terminal instruments (themselves formerly the Minffordd - Boston Lodge instruments from 1921) and the terminal instrument for the Tanybwlch onwards section. These three instruments were reconditioned at Fazakerley by the Railway Signal Company and in the case of the ex-TyB instrument converted from a terminal to an intermediate instrument. The ETS for Minffordd to Tan y Bwlch came into use in Aug 1965.

Usually there has to be an operator at each end to release a train staff. On the revived FR this is usually not the case as stations are usually unmanned. This problem was solved by Dan Wilson who invented and constructed the initial "remote operators" which make it possible for the fireman to release a train staff when the station at the other end of the section is unmanned. This rather unheralded piece of innovation has been a key part of FR train operations ever since.

Centralised Traffic Control: the control panel in Porthmadog in 1980. Picture Roger Schofield

Control and the telephone system[edit]

By the time the 2nd Edition of the Volunteer's Manual was published in 1966 it was stated that "Traffic is regulated from a Centralised Traffic Control located in the Booking Office at Portmadoc." It explains that blockmen must report to Control on commencing and finishing their duties and they must report the arrival and departure of all trains. Where no blockman was present a member of the train crew was required to report to Control. "Control will initiate any remedial or emergency measures in the event of delay or mishap." The Control was instituted by August 1961 in response to concerns of the Railway Inspectorate over the FR's block working methods.[7] From 1958 when the Flying Flea began operating there were two passenger trains operating. The FR's graph based Central Train Control system was heavily based on the Royal Engineer's Railway Operating Division's (and Longmoor) practice introduced by Allan Garraway.[4] Control was moved to a dedicated office upstairs when the new building linking the original station building and the Goods Shed was completed at Porthmadog in 1975. It now controls both the FR and WHR.

An example of a working timetable presented as a train graph, from the 'Bygones Weekend II' of 2021. The graphs drawn by control take a similar form.

Use of a centralised control made good communications necessary and led to telephone developments. The first telephones on the revived FR were on the crank-handle omnibus system which reached Tan y Bwlch in 1958 but in 1966 the introduction of automatic exchanges at Harbour and Boston Lodge was announced.[8] Automatic dial telephones soon got extended to the whole of the operating FR. In Autumn 1968 the FR Magazine reported that at Easter the FR's fourth automatic exchange went into service at Tan y Bwlch to serve there and Dduallt and there were in all on the FR 54 dial phones on 46 numbers.

Over the years the FR telephone system has grown significantly. It has now been moved over to a modern electronic exchange. The end of the FR's Strowger telephone system in January 2016 marked the end of a period when it was reckoned to be the largest Strowger-based telephone network in the UK.[9] The omnibus circuit for portable telephones is no longer used as it has been rendered redundant by mobile phones which are now carried on all trains.

Full signalling schemes[edit]

An article in the FR Heritage Group Journal reproduced much of an informal FR S&T newsletter "Signals No 1" from 1970 and is a handy statement of the state of FR signalling at that time and what was then seen as important improvements including jobs in hand. [10] The replacement of the manual 'Flag Boards' then used at crossing points to call trains into the stations was seen as first priority. Second priority were signals controlling section entry.

By 1968 trap points were newly installed at Tan y Bwlch before trains began to pass there and soon afterwards were installed at other passing loops (but Penrhyn never got trap points to protect the top end). At Minffordd the mineral line (to the yard) functions in this way for down trains and at various other places (including Boston Lodge, Dduallt bottom points and Porthmadog FR run round loop) small head shunts perform the same function as trap points. At Dduallt there was a trap point at the bottom of Moelwyn siding (to the old Tunnel Mess) until the rails of the old main line were lifted.

A typical FR colour light signal. This one is the Minffordd down starter.

Colour Lights[edit]

As traffic developed a signalling scheme with colour light Home signals was installed at Tan y Bwlch and began operating on 16th May 1970, quite soon after trains began running to Dduallt in 1968. This was at first intended to be temporary until full mechanical signalling was installed.[11] [12]The never-to-be-used signal box (see picture above) was erected in 1971. No sooner had the signal box been built than there was a change of mind about how the station should be signalled with the proposed (but never installed) mechanical scheme being avoided by the continued use of the cheaper colour light installation with the control panel in the old wooden station building. Nowadays the relays for the signalling are housed in the signal box.[13]

By the 1970s colour-light signals were the chosen method of signalling trains at places where trains crossed, and were also installed at Minffordd and Penrhyn in 1971 and at Rhiw Goch in 1975. Penrhyn lost its rather short loop soon after it was replaced by the new Rhiw Goch passing loop in 1975. For a detailed account of operating Penrhyn as a passing loop see Penrhyn Operations. The three aspect Home colour-light home signals at Tan y Bwlch, Minffordd and Penrhyn had meanings which were different from those on BR. Green meant "enter station on main line" and yellow meant "enter station on loop line". The panels for Tan y Bwlch, Minffordd and Penrhyn were based on control panels used by the Epsom and Ewell Model Railway Club and made by the same members - who were also SR Signal Engineers.[14] For more detail of these early colour light schemes see Temporary Colour Light Home Signals.

Automated signalling at Tan y Bwlch and Minffordd passing loops was completed in 1988 and 1989 respectively. These signals remain in use today. The automatic system waits for a train to arrive at the home signal and then sets the road into the platform accordingly. If another train is already arriving at the other end of the station the system waits until it is in the platform before setting the road and giving the signal for the second train. The starting signals are linked to to the ETS machines. When a token is taken from the machine the points are automatically set for the trains departure and the starting signal clears. The home signals carry semaphore repeater "Caution Signals" for the starting signals. The automatic elements of the system can be overridden for trains making non standard movements such as a wrong line departure or shunt.

There was briefly an automatic colour light system at Blaenau Ffestiniog using track circuits and relays (like at Tanybwlch and Minffordd). Commissioned in March 2000, it was supposed to let a train into platform 3 and, if a second arrived let it in to platform 2. It was decommissioned after an accident on the 5th of May 2001 when it switched the points under a long (16 carriage) train that straddled multiple track circuits causing a derailment.[15][16] Blaenau no longer has any signalling.

Top end signals at Dduallt in 1979 - long since consigned to the skip of history

Mechanical schemes[edit]

The initial phase of signalling circa 1970 included upgrading the arrangement at Portmadoc Harbour. When the trident Home signal fell down in the 1960s it was replaced by a single arm semaphore. This was replaced by an Up Advance signal and a new Home signal further out. This allowed a full length train to shunt onto the single line with a train in section between Harbour and Minffordd. This installation was commissioned in stages and was fully operational on 28th. July 1971. This arrangement lasted over forty years, facilitating the acceptance of Welsh Highland trains into Harbour station, until the layout was significantly upgraded in the 2010s. For more information see Signals controlling section entry.

Dduallt began operating as a terminus with no signals but was gradually provided with them. At first there was just a two lever frame controlling the points and facing point lock. This was replaced with a four lever frame which (since there was no power) mechanically controlled the upper quadrant Up Home signal to control trains approaching from Tan y Bwlch (operational in August 1972). There were 'splitting discs' at the facing points similar to those then at Portmadoc. Mechanical signalling at the top end of the station was commissioned in April 1973. Eventually a signal box similar to the first one at Rhiw Goch was built by the North Staffordshire Group. It worked semaphores to control the crossing of trains by the time these began running on to Llyn Ystradau in 1977. In the photograph above the station is unmanned and the signals are set clear for the main line in both directions. Subsequently the signal box and signalling were removed from Dduallt in 1988 as it was no longer used to pass passenger trains.

Perhaps a little like the Tan y Bwlch signalling false start, there was considerable work done at Tanygrisiau to install a full mechanical signalling scheme but it too was abandoned to be replaced by a scheme with colour light signals. The signal box now serves to house the electric train staff instruments.

The Up starter at Tanygrisau being activated.

Welsh Highland style signals[edit]

Following the abandonment of the Tanygrisiau mechanical scheme the station was signalled in a similar style to WHR passing loops with train operated trailable points and stop boards. Unlike the first generation signals on the WHR, the stop boards have a key switch operated by the token that turns on the proceed lights. Tanygrisiau style starting signals with key switch operated lights have been fitted to the WHR stations too in the 2010s, although the starting signals at Tanygrisau lack the red lights and shunting token white lights of the later signals for now. The signal heads are due to be replaced in the new style of WHR signals over winter 2019/20.[17]

The new Harbour Station[edit]

For more details of the 2014 resignalling of Harbour Station, please see Harbour Station remodelling and resignalling (2007-2014)

The signalling of the revised station layout at Harbour Station in 2014 set a new standard of FR installation with a signal box with a miniature mechanical lever frame, relay house, seven track circuits and Mackenzie and Holland inspired semaphore signals of which the Trident Signal is the largest. The semaphore signals are complemented by ground-level colour light shunting signals.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Josey D. (2018) "Signalling in the Moelwyn Tunnel - 1860s", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 134, page(s): 19-24
  2. ^ Gray, Adrian C.; Roy C Link (2003). The Spooner Album. Garndolbenmaen: RCL Publications. ISBN 0-953876349. OCLC 60837572. , page 70.
  3. ^ Boyd, James I.C. (1975) [1959]. The Festiniog Railway 1800 - 1974; Vol. 1 - History and Route. Blandford: The Oakwood Press. ISBN 0-8536-1167-X. OCLC 2074549., page 395
  4. ^ a b Dobson, J.L. (2015) "Publications Received, The Longmoor Military Railway, A New History Vol. 3", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 228, page(s): 865
  5. ^ Hammy Sparks (2020) "Penrhyn Station Operation in 1968", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 142, page(s): 36 - 40
  6. ^ "News from Portmadoc", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 5, page(s): 2
  7. ^ Johnson, Peter (2004). Immortal Rails (Vol 1) The Story of the Closure and Revival of the FR 1939-1983. Chester, England, CH4 9ZH: RailRomances. ISBN 1-900622-08-4. OCLC 56654167.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  8. ^ "NGRTD, or the All-Electric Telephone", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 32, page(s): 002
  9. ^ Oulton T (2016) "The end of the Strowger telephone system on the FR", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 127, Autumn 2016, page(s): 19
  10. ^ Josey D (2012) "Signals No. 1 Revisited", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 110, page(s): 16-19
  11. ^ John Wagstaff and David Josey (1971) "The Man From The Ministry", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 51, page(s): 20 - 25
  12. ^ David Josey (2021) "Tan y Bwlch Signal Box part 4.", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 145, page(s): 31-35
  13. ^ David Josey (2016) "Tan y Bwlch & Minffordd Temporary Colour Light Home Signals - c1970", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 127, page(s): 26 - 33
  14. ^ David Josey (2014) "The Norman Pearce Archive & Two Foot Colour Lights", Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal, Issue 117, page(s): 22 - 25
  15. ^ Johnson, Peter (2017). Festiniog Railway: From Slate Railway to Heritage Operation 1921 - 2014. Barnsley: Pen & Sword. ISBN 978-1-47389-625-3. OCLC 1000452534.
  16. ^ Comments on Signal Box forum
  17. ^ Tim Prent (2019) "Signals & Telegraphs", Ffestiniog Railway Magazine, Issue 247, page(s): 510