Signalling A Virtual Railway – a brief guide

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Estimated time to read this article: 4 minutes

(Cover image – the frontage of King’s Cross station in London, the start/end point for a lot of possibly delayed passengers on our virtual challenge!)

On Saturday (30th January), I’ll be part of a team running a full railway day in SimSig, to raise money for Samaritans.

When I mentioned to friends that I’d be a ‘virtual signaller for a day’ for charity, reactions ranged from technical suggestions (particularly from those who have a railway connection) to ‘I’ve got no idea what that is’! So I thought I’d write a quick article looking at the basics of railway signalling, and how this translates to the virtual world of SimSig, the simulator we’ll be using for the charity stream (it’s modelled on a version used to train real-world signallers, so has a high degree of realism!).

Signalling – the basics

Signals on the majority of the UK rail network have have 4 main states:

Red – train occupying the block in front of this one (trains are always kept at least one block apart from each other) – stop and wait

Yellow – Slow down and prepare to stop – next signal may be red

Double yellow – Use caution, next two sections clear but possibility of yellow or red signal ahead.

Green – OK to proceed at normal line speed

Signals protecting junctions also have a set of lights on top to indicate when points are set on a diverging route:

Hampshire, UK: A single green light on a railway signal showing that the track ahead is clear for the driver to proceed. Note the junction in the background – if points are set for the train to cross the tracks, the lights above the signal would be lit white to indicate this.

The simulator

As I mentioned in the introduction, SimSig is a tool developed from an industry tool used to train real-world railway signallers, so it’s as close to the real thing as we can get without being allowed in a real signal box!

Take this picture of King’s Cross station approach:

King’s Cross Station Approach, London

This approach is represented on a signalling diagram as something like this (picture taken from above the Gasworks Tunnels looking into the station):

Signalling diagram for King’s Cross in SimSig

Each headcode (in the format 1X23) you can see represents a train and the sections you can see on the track each represent one signal block, with red sections having trains currently occupying them. The job of a signaller is to route trains safely and efficiently in and out of the station – with a view to, as much as possible, avoiding a long queue of trains like this:

Absolute chaos on the main line! (The Hertford Loop is running surprisingly well considering…)

Each signaller is usually responsible for one panel, which covers a section of railway. For example, in the virtual signalbox we’ll be controlling, modelled on the real Kings Cross PSB, the area covered is between Kings Cross and Hitchin on the East Coast Main Line.

There are normally 5 signallers on duty, broadly operating:

  • Kings Cross approach
  • Finsbury Park area
  • North London/southern section of the Hertford Loop
  • Northern section of the Hertford Loop
  • Hertford to Hitchin

For our charity signalling day, we’ll be covering the 5 panels between 4 people, with the two panels that have less junctions to worry about covered by one person. We’ll be live-streaming the simulator on Twitch so you’ll be able to drop in and see the simulator ‘live’! (The Twitch stream will be showing my view, primarily covering the King’s Cross approach and platforms).

Signal/points failures are also simulated within the game – so we’ll have a few of these to deal with along the way!

How to watch/support us!

We’d love to see people pop in and watch the stream during the day, and we’ll happily say hello and talk you through what we’re doing! You can watch us try to keep trains moving at on Saturday 30th January from 8am.

If you’d like to sponsor us and raise money for Samaritans, who do fantastic work with the rail industry, or find out a bit more about the logistics for the day, you can do so via our JustGiving page. If you’ve already done so, or indeed do so after reading this article, a huge THANK YOU for your support!

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