The Job and What's Involved

Railway signallers manage the movement and safety of the 30,000 trains that move across the 21,000 miles of railway track in the UK each day. They instruct train drivers whether they may proceed or not by changing the colour of the lights on the signals, or in the case of old semaphore signals, the position of the signal arm. They also control the direction of the trains by moving the points.

They work in three main types of signal box:

  • Older signal boxes operating semaphore or colour light signals, where the signaller uses levers to control train movements over a few miles of track - these are generally in rural areas with less traffic or controlling level crossings.
  • Modern power-operated, LED-based panel signal boxes, where the signaller presses buttons to control the movements of trains on around 50 miles of track.
  • Integrated electronic control centres where signallers use modern technology operating systems to control movements over longer stretches of track.

Signallers operate to a 'working timetable' showing every train movement on the network. It shows when trains will arrive at and leave each destination, intermediate point and appropriate passing point. It also details all the relevant time allowances and is updated regularly. Using this timetable, signallers must do the following tasks:

  1. Check their daily train plan - this shows them what trains are running in their area, any timetable changes or speed restrictions and any line or electrical faults.
  2. Set a route for each train based on this information. They then give authority to the previous signal box or control point for trains to enter their section and wait for clearance from the signal box or control point in front before allowing the safe passage of a train along the next stretch of track.
  3. Send out signals to the equipment on the ground, which sets all the points on the route that they want the train to take. Once the points are set and locked in place then the signals (the lights seen by the train driver) can be changed for a train to move. In larger boxes the signals may change automatically.
  4. Alert the signal box ahead that the train is on its way, either automatically via a computer or manually, using an instrument which rings a bell in the next box or control point.
  5. Communicate, usually by telephone or radio, with train drivers and maintenance workers, and let their area control room know if there are any problems.
  6. Enter full details of train movements in a book or by computer.

Signallers may be responsible for a level crossing, and if so need to check the lowering of barriers via television monitors or, if it is one of the few remaining manual crossings, give instructions to a crossing keeper.

Railway signallers generally work 36 hours a week. Overtime may be available. They work a shift pattern that can include early starts, nights and late finishes as well as weekend and bank holiday work.

The work takes place in a signal box that could be small and located at the side of the track or a level crossing, or could be a larger control room located alongside a busy junction or away from the track. Signallers may work on their own or as part of a small team.

Signallers working in manual and LED panel boxes move around. Signallers working in integrated control centres spend long periods of time sitting in front of a computer screen.

High visibility safety clothing is provided for use in emergencies.

Starting salaries are around £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are more than 1,000 signal boxes and control centres throughout the country. Signalling is the responsibility of Network Rail, which employs 5,500 signallers. About 400 signallers are also employed by London Underground. Signalling is a stable area of work, and vacancies may occur at any time of the year.

Network Rail recruits between 400 and 500 signallers a year. Vacancies are advertised internally, in local newspapers, and also on their website

Education and Training

No formal academic qualifications are required to work as a railway signaller, but entrants need to be at least 18 years old and have good reading, writing and number skills.

Signallers also need to have good or corrected eyesight, normal colour vision and good hearing. The recruitment process is stringent and consists of an entry assessment, interview and a medical examination, including an alcohol and drugs test.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

All Network Rail signallers undertake an initial full-time training course at signalling training centres in Watford and Leeds, which lasts nine weeks. Trainees use the most up-to-date training equipment, including computer-based materials and signal panel simulators. They also learn the rules and regulations that govern signalling and how to use the signal control panels that they will use in their job.

Further training takes place mainly in the signal box, although a signaller may train using a simulator to prepare for a move to a more complex signal. Signallers generally start work in less complicated boxes and, with training and assessment, work their way into more complex signalling work.

Signallers must train for every type of signalling panel that they use - mechanical, electro-mechanical, push button and visual display unit (VDU). In addition, each signaller also learns how to use each individual signalling panel before they operate it so they are completely familiar with the particular geography, routes and train services controlled by that panel.

Quarterly briefings are provided for signallers to inform them about changes in rules and regulations so that they stay up to date throughout their career. It is possible to work towards the NVQ/SVQ in Rail Transport Operations (Signal Operations) at Level 2.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Signallers need:

  • A good eye for detail.
  • Normal colour vision.
  • Excellent concentration skills and be able to keep their mind on the task at all times.
  • To be willing to handle responsibility.
  • To be mature and conscientious.
  • The ability to follow both written and spoken instructions carefully and accurately.
  • A good awareness of safety issues.
  • To work well under pressure - some routes have a lot of traffic, even at night.
  • A good level of physical fitness.
  • Good computer skills.
  • To work well in a team.

Your Long Term Prospects

Signallers can progress through different grades, moving to busier and different types of signal boxes. Promotion to the supervisory role of signal manager or mobile operations manager is possible.

Railway signallers can also move into a more specialised skilled role to work as a control room operator. Railway traffic on the whole network is monitored from high-tech control rooms, where screens show the position of every train on the network. Control room operations staff often start their careers as signallers.

Get Further Information

GoSkills, Concorde House,
Trinity Park, Solihull,
West Midlands B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520

Network Rail,
40 Melton Street, London NW1 2EE
Tel: 020 7557 8000

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