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Signalling relays and their place in the development of modern signalling



Despite the introduction of Solid State and Computer based interlockings, in

the mid 1980s, over twenty years later vital signalling relays are still in
production and continue to be an important component of modern signalling
schemes. This article will hopefully explain this apparent paradox.

What is a relay?

According to the Oxford English dictionary, a relay is “an electrical device that
opens or closes a circuit in response to a current in another circuit.” It would
be more accurate to say that a relay opens or closes several circuits in response
to a current in another circuit. A relay is in essence an electro-mechanical
switch. By energising/de-energising one relay, several other relay circuits can
be controlled by contacts of that relay. When the relay coil is energised, this
creates an electromagnetic field that attracts the relay armature to the coil.
Attached to this armature is a mechanism for either opening or closing the relay
contacts that are electrically independent from the input voltage to the relay
coil. The relay can in turn control (or switch) other circuits. These other
circuits that are switched, may or may not be at the same voltage as the relay
coil whose contacts are doing the switching. In this way, complex functions
such as interlocking between points and signals can be performed by a relay
interlocking consisting of perhaps several thousand relays in the largest
installations. Relay circuitry can be configured to provide all logic functions
such as AND, OR, NAND, NOR and any combination of these.

Most relays have two types of contacts. One set of contacts are “made” or
closed when the relay is energised. These are known as “Front Contacts.”
Conversely these contacts are opened or broken when the relay is de-energised.

Back contacts of the relay on the other hand are “made” (closed) when the
relay is de-energised and broken (open) when the relay is energised.

Terms “Front” and “Back” contacts originate from the days of large “shelf”
type relays. In these, the terminals for connection to external circuits were
located on the top of the relay. On these relays the contacts that are closed
when the relay is energised are located at the front of the relay-Hence the term
“Front Contacts”. The contacts that are closed when the relay is de-energised
are located at the back of the relay-Hence the term “Back Contacts.”

Note however that physically, the front and back contacts are similar.

On a plug-in relay, such as BR930 series, the original derivation of the terms
“Front” and “Back” contacts is no longer relevant.
However, by convention, the terms remain to describe the contacts that are
closed when the relay is energised and de-energised respectively.

Different types of relays have different combinations of Front (F) and Back (B)
contacts, dependent on the main application of the relay. E.g. in the BR 930
series of relays, used on Singapore SMRT, the QN1 relay which is the basic
neutral relay in the series, is commonly available in either 12F 4B or 8F 8B
configuration, dependent on the contact requirements of the circuits in which
the relays are used. These relays are supplied by Westinghouse Rail Systems
in the UK.

Relay types

The basic signalling relay is known as a Neutral Relay. Variations on this

include “Slow to Pick”, “Slow to release”.
In these, the operational pick/release times are increased, by the addition of a
metallic “slug” at either end of the relay armature.
It should be noted that the addition of these “slugs” also make the relays “AC
immune”. That is they will not operate if AC voltage is applied across the coils.
This is important on railways that have AC traction supply voltage, to prevent
relays incorrectly energising due to voltage induced from AC traction supply.
(Not applicable to Singapore).

Note that techniques to change the relay operating times, such as addition of
diodes or capacitors across the relay coil, are not usually used in vital signalling
circuits, due to potential for wrong side failure. They can be used in non vital
circuits, where there are no safety implications if the relay timing reverts to that
of a neutral relay.

Another type of relay commonly used in interlocking circuitry is the

magnetically latched relay. This type of relay has two windings. These are
known as “Pick Up” and “Release” coils. Once the “Pick Up” coil of a latched
relay has been energised a permanent magnet will maintain the relay in the
“latched” state, until the “Release Coil” is energised. The “Release” coil is
wound in the opposite direction to “Pick Up” coil, such that when it is
energised, an electromagnetic field is created that is in opposition to the
permanent magnet. When the “Release Coil” is energised, the relay unlatches.
By use of latched relays, the state of the signal and point interlocking can be
maintained following a power failure. This is particularly important in the case
of points, to ensure that they remain in their last set position and don’t move
following restoration of power, unless legitimately called to, by the signalling

“Biased” relays are similar to neutral relays, except that they will operate only
if the voltage polarity is correct.

By use of a pair of biased relays, two positive controls or indications can be

transmitted over one pair of wires. In this way, the amount of cabling used for
lineside relay circuits can be reduced.
Because most of the lineside signalling equipment on Singapore NS-EW MRT
is fed a relatively short distance, directly from the nearest Signalling
Equipment room, there isn’t generally a need for “Biased” relays. The
exceptions are at entrance to Bishan Depot from Ang Mo Kio Direction and
entrance to Ulu Pandan Depot from Jurong direction. The point detection
circuits at these locations are fed back to relevant SER, using biased relay
circuits. In addition the signal aspect repeater circuits also use biased relays at
the respective relay room. At Bishan Depot, biased relays are used on point
control/detection and signal repeater circuits to/from Bishan Depot Tower
Relay Room and Bishan Depot East Relay Room

The above covers the main types of signalling relays. There are others for
special applications.

Photo 1-Westinghouse Q relay (BR 930 series) in use on Singapore MRT




The early railway signalling systems were purely mechanical, with no

safeguards, apart from the mechanical interlocking systems between points and
signals, to prevent conflicting signals being cleared simultaneously, or points
being moved once a signal to route a train over them had been cleared. Note
that once a signal had been replaced to danger after the passage of the train,
there was initially nothing to prevent the points ahead of the train being moved.
Eventually mechanical “depression bars” at the points were added to prevent
this happening.

The only electrical equipment in the signal boxes of the mid 19th century were
the battery operated block instruments used to allow operators to communicate
by bell codes, to signal trains between each other. These block instruments
were similar to early telegraph instruments.


The first relays to be introduced into signalling systems were probably track
relays associated with track circuits. The track circuit was invented in the
United States in 1871 and introduced into UK a few years later. The track
circuit enables the position of trains to be detected within a defined area. A
track circuit relay is normally energised when there is no train present on a
given piece of track.
The track circuit relay is de-energised when a train is present, or there is any
failure in the circuit, such as a blown fuse or detached wire. i.e. a track circuit
actually proves the absence of a train in a defined area. In this way, the fail
safe principle of railway signalling is maintained. i.e. the failure of the track
circuit will revert the signalling system to its most restrictive state.

The first track circuits were used simply as reminders to the signal men
(operators) at key installations. i.e. there was initially no interlinking between
the track circuits and signalling controls.


The widespread adoption of the use of track circuits, after their invention in
1871 was initially slow. However this changed after of two particularly bad
railway accidents in UK at Hawes Junction on the Midland Railway in 1910
and at Quintinshill, just north of the Scottish border at Gretna in 1915.1

To this day, the accident at Quintinshill remains the worst in UK railway

history, with over 200 fatalities. The wooden construction of coaches and gas
lighting was a dangerous combination that contributed to the number of

Photo 2-Quintinshill signal box in early 1970s

Both these accidents were due to simple error on the part of the signalmen, in
that a train was signalled into a stationary train whose presence had been
forgotten. In both cases, the accidents could have been avoided by the use of
track circuit controls. Following these accidents, more widespread use of track
circuits was introduced, including the interlinking between track circuits and
signal controls. Electric locks were introduced on the mechanical signal levers,
e.g. to prevent a signal clearing, or point moving, if a particular section of track
was occupied by a train. These locks would only be released if the relevant
track circuit was clear. Once track circuits were used to lock points, the
mechanical “depression bars” that had previously done this job, were no longer

In addition, the block instrument controls were interlinked with signals

controlling entry to block sections, to prevent a train entering an occupied
block. It was the introduction of these safeguards that brought about more
widespread use of signalling relays, in the first part of the twentieth century.

However, the Signal Engineers of the day were conservative in nature and the
vital interlocking between points and signals remained mechanical, with the
relays acting an interface between track circuit and block controls and the
electro-mechanical locks. The number of relays was minimal in such

The introduction of track circuiting was a gradual process and at first was
restricted to mainline major stations and junctions. The majority of the railway
between adjacent interlockings/stations remained non-track circuited, with the
“Block system” ensuring the safe separation of trains. This was of course
heavily dependent on human vigilance. At this stage, the majority of signals
and points remained mechanically operated.

It was only with the gradual introduction of electric colour light signals and
electrically operated points that more relays were introduced into signalling
systems. In the UK, the main areas where this first happened were the busy
commuter routes south of London and the London Underground system. The
introduction of colour light signals in conjunction with track circuits enabled
signals to be automatically replaced to red, after the passage of a train. In
addition, on plain line, signals could be operated automatically, with no
operator intervention. Such features reduced the operator’s work load.

In the 1920s a major development was the introduction of interlockings

controlled by miniature lever frames.
The interlocking between the levers was initially still mechanical, but interface
relays operated from contacts on contact bands that either made or broke
contact depending on the position of the lever. In this way, the mechanical
linkage between the interlocking and the signals and points at the trackside had
been removed.

The main disadvantage of maintaining the mechanical interlocking between the

miniature levers was that there was a limit to the size of interlocking that could
be controlled by one installation.
In some of the larger installations in London, this limit was being reached, due
to the complexity of the mechanical interlocking required and the difficulty in
carrying out modifications.2 The London Bridge interlocking installed by
Westinghouse Brake and Saxby Signal Company in 1927, contained 311
mechanically interlocked levers.9

The next development was to replace the mechanical interlocking between the
miniature levers with all electric locking. This was first done in UK in 1929, at
North Kent East Junction, just south of London.3 Electric locks on the levers
prevented the reversal of that lever e.g. to clear a signal, unless the relevant
conditions such as track circuits clear and points correctly detected and locked
were satisfied. The adoption of all electric locking on miniature lever frames
enabled larger areas to be controlled from one interlocking.

Another advantage of all electric locking on miniature lever frames was that at
large installations, the lever frame could be split into two sections.
The Crewe North Junction installation was an example of this with the lever
frame split into two back to back sections, with one used for control of up
direction trains and the other for down direction trains.

Of course the circuitry that was introduced to interface between the lever locks
used additional relays, compared with the previous mechanically interlocked

Photo 3-Crewe North Junction (Westinghouse Style L lever frame)


A fair number of all electric miniature lever frame signalling installations were
built in the 1930s in UK. These were designed and installed mainly by
Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company. (Style L frame), Siemens and
General Electric Company (SGE) and General Railway Signal Company (GRS).

Despite the advances described above, the majority of the world’s railways
remained mechanically signalled.

Limited adoption of safety improvements such as track circuiting and

interlinking with signal and point controls proceeded in the 1930s at the busiest
stations and junctions.

Another major safety improvement to mechanical signalling that took place in

the 1930s in the UK was the introduction a feature in the UK known as
“Welwyn Control”. This added additional relays to the signalling system.

This was an improvement to the control that prevented signals controlling

entrance to block sections clearing unless the adjacent signal box had given a
“Line Clear” on his block instrument. This was introduced after a serious train
collision at Welwyn Garden city, in 1935. In this accident a signalman
inadvertently allowed a train to enter a block section between adjacent signal
boxes that was still occupied by a previous train.4

The Welwyn control prevented a signalman giving a “Line Clear” release to the
signal box in rear, until the previous train had arrived and occupied and cleared
the “berth” track circuit, and the “Home” signal had been replaced to danger.
An earlier system to interlink signals with block controls was the “Sykes Lock
and Block” system, patented around 1875. This was used extensively on the
former Southern Region of British Railways. Before the widespread adoption
of track circuits, lineside electromechanical treadles were used in this system
to detect trains. However the Sykes Lock and Block system wasn’t fool-proof,
as was demonstrated at the serious crash between Purley Oaks/South Croydon,
south of London in 1947, when the system was incorrectly overridden by the

In the 1930s, with the additional safeguards described above, mechanical

interlocking probably reached its full potential. (Though it should be noted that
some new all mechanical signal boxes were still being installed in UK up until
the early 1970s, in isolated cases).

Other improvements introduced around the 1930s time were the introduction of
colour light “Distant” signals on high speed main lines. (These were signals
that gave advance warning to a train driver of the status of the stop signals at
the next signal box).

By converting these signals to colour light operation, even when operated from
a mechanical signal box, they could be located further away from the
controlling signal box. The introduction of colour light distant signals reduced
the manual effort required by the signalman. (The effort to operate a distant
lever controlling a mechanical signal up to 1000m away could be considerable).

The colour light distant signals were still operated from the same lever that had
originally operated a mechanical semaphore signal, but the lever was fitted
with a circuit controller that in turn energised a relay to operate the distant

The adoption of colour light distant signals was an important factor that
enabled line speeds to be raised on busy main lines such as West Coast Main
Line and East Coast main line in the 1930s.

Another adoption of colour light signals, in otherwise mechanical areas that

started in the 1930s, was the adoption of “Intermediate Block” (IB) signals. On
some lines intermediate signal boxes had originally been provided between
stations and junctions, solely to break block sections into manageable lengths,
and reduce headway between following trains. With the introduction of
“Intermediate Block” signals, these intermediate signal boxes were abolished
and replaced by two aspect colour light signals.
These were operated by direct wire relay circuits from the nearest adjacent
mechanical signal box, possibly several kilometers away. Such intermediate
block signals were introduced on lines with a fairly high level of traffic, but
where there was a long distance between adjacent stations and junctions. The
West Coast main line between Preston and Carlisle in England, is a good
example of where Intermediate Block signals were extensively used. Full track
circuiting was provided between the starting signal of the controlling signal box
up to the Intermediate block Stop signal. In addition, the provision of a
separate track circuit at the then standard overlap length of 440 yards beyond
the IB stop signal was provided. In this way, two trains could be safely
signalled between adjacent signal boxes. (In very long sections between
adjacent signal boxes, additional IB signals could further increase the number
of trains between adjacent signal boxes).

So yet more relays were being introduced into what was still predominantly a
mechanical signalling system. At the same time, the productivity was being
increased, by the abolition of the intermediate signal boxes. Note that in
exceptional cases, mechanical intermediate block signals were introduced, but
these were the exception.
An example of mechanical Intermediate Block signals, could be found at
Standish Junction, north of Wigan on the West Main Line in UK. These were
abolished in 1972, when the West Coast Main Line was re-signalled using
multiple aspect colour light signals and continuous track circuiting.

Beyond all electric miniature lever frames, the next major development was the
introduction of all relay interlockings.

In these the miniature levers operating the signals and points were replaced by
control panels fitted with buttons or switches to control the system.
Various methods of operation were developed, including “One Control
Switch,” “Individual Switch” and “Entrance-Exit” working. Due to it’s
simplicity of operation and compactness of control panels, the “Entrance-Exit”
system was widely adopted from the early 1960’s onwards. The local control
panels situated in Passenger Service Centres on NS-EW lines in Singapore use
the “Entrance-Exit” method of operation.

In addition the three depots on NS-EW lines use this system, first developed in
the United States and introduced into the UK in the 1930s.

The main advantage of the “Entrance-Exit” method of route setting, is that only
two operator actions are required to set any route, regardless of it’s complexity.
This compares favourably with some “state of the art” systems introduced more
recently in which up to six operator actions are required to set a route!

Whilst the “Entrance-Exit” system of route setting simplified the operation of

the system, yet more relays were introduced to interface the push button
circuitry to the route calling circuitry.

The adoption of all relay interlocking, operated from route setting panels
enabled larger areas to be controlled from one signal box. Such relay
interlockings introduced in the UK in the late 1930s form the basis of modern
interlocking practice. (Although of course the interlocking controls have been
refined over the years).

The move to all relay interlocking, introduced even more relays into the system.

It is interesting to note that there were a small number of “Hybrid” signalling

installations installed in the UK in the 1930s. Examples of these were Wigan
No1 and Wigan No 2 and Wigan Wallgate signalboxes in the North West of
England and Shoeburyness in South East England.

For these installations, the points were operated electrically, but via circuit
controllers on levers on a full sized mechanical frame. The signals however
were operated from minature switches located in the correct geographical
position on the signal box illuminated diagram. The interlocking between the
points and signals was relay based. Electric locks on the point levers driven
from relay interlocking circuits, ensured the points could not be moved unless
safe to do so.

The installations at Wigan were designed and installed by SGE (Siemens and
General Electric Company). These “hybrid” installations were not widely
adopted. This was probably because greater economies could be made by
adoption of a full relay based system rather than a hybrid mechanical/relay
system, that still had the expense of the mechanical lever frame to operate

Further signalling development in general in the UK was halted by the advent

of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

The installations at Wigan No 1 & Wigan No 2 were de-commissioned at the

time of the West Coast Mainline re-signalling in 1972.
The Wigan Wallgate installation reverted to a conventional mechanical
interlocking when the original frame was replaced in 1977.

This in turn has recently been replaced by a relay interlocking, operated from a
conventional Entrance-Exit panel.


In the 1950s, all three technologies described above existed side by side. The
majority of UK railways remained mechanically operated, with the safeguards
such as interlinking between signal/point levers and track circuit controls and
block controls added on the majority of mainline installations.

On lightly used branch lines or goods only lines, it was quite common for the
signal boxes to have none of these safeguards.

Principal stations in large cities were usually signalled from signal boxes
equipped with large route setting panels (e.g. York and Newcastle) or miniature
lever frames e.g. Crewe North Junction, Crewe South Junction and Waterloo
and Victoria stations in London.

The design of the relays used in all of these installations hadn’t changed to any
great extent in 40-50 years. The largest of these were very cumbersome
devices, with the nick-name “fish-tank” or shelf type relays, because they were
the size of a Fish Tank, that were usually installed on a shelf. It was realised
that with the more extensive use of relay interlockings in the future, the large
size of existing designs of relays would be a limiting factor, due to the amount
of room space that would be required to house the racks of relay interlocking
equipment for the larger interlockings.

Photo 4-Westinghouse Shelf type relay in Crewe North Junction relay room


In the early 1960s several large resignalling schemes were in the planning stage
in the UK. (e.g. London-Manchester & Liverpool).
In these schemes, large numbers of mechanical signal boxes sometimes dating
from 1880s were to be abolished.

They were replaced by a smaller number of new signal boxes controlling a

number of all electric relay interlockings, in conjunction with multiple aspect
signalling and continuous track circuiting. Some of the first installations to be
introduced e.g. at Manchester, Wilmslow, Sandbach used “free-wired”
interlockings. Wilmslow and Sandbach have only recently been de-
commissioned and replaced by a CBI installation. Later installations used the
first “Geographic” relay interlockings in the UK. These were based on systems
used in Continental Europe. In this system, relays for the main interlocking
functions such as signals, points, tracks were packaged into standard units
produced in the factory. These were then connected on site with standard
multicore cables and a relatively small amount of “free-wiring” to take care of
interfacing to trackside and local “peculiarities”, not covered by the standard
geographic system.

The main advantage of Geographic interlockings, was the speeding up of

application design and installation on site. The main disadvantages of
geographical interlocking was that there was “redundant” wiring and relays in
the geographical units, because they were generically designed to provide a
wide variety of facilities that weren’t always required. In practice it was also
found to be more difficult to implement large scheme changes on geographical
interlockings, compared to free wired ones. A number of the geographic
installations dating from mid 1960s are still in use at such places as
Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton, though these are now overdue for
renewal. The geographic interlockings on the northern part of the West Coast
Main Line at Warrington, Preston and Carlisle areas are also still in use. On
the Preston scheme at Carnforth, some of the Geographical units were
refurbished in 2006 by the original manufacturer and some units replaced by
newly built units. The last all new geographic relay interlockings in UK were
installed on the Three Bridges scheme in early 1980s.

The adoption of continuous track circuiting, in conjunction with multiple aspect

colour light signals, enabled an operating system know as “Track Circuit
Block” to be widely adopted on new signalling schemes introduced.
The main advantage of this was the abolition of manual block working on the
newly equipped lines and a further reduction in operator workload. This in turn
increased productivity by enabling one operator to control a larger area. With
the introduction of track circuit block and continuous track circuiting, the
signalling controls could be simplified, e.g. because such features as “Welwyn
Release” were no longer necessary.

A useful feature introduced in the 1960s was the “Auto Working” feature on
selected controlled signals.
The operation of this feature eliminated the need to cancel and reset the route,
when successive trains were taking the same route. This greatly reduced the
operators work load, and wear on the control panel buttons.

It was apparent that the proposed large schemes couldn’t be economically

implemented using the existing relay designs.

The major UK signalling manufacturers, in conjunction with the railway

authorities and the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers began preparation
of specifications for a new range of miniature vital signalling relays.

The result of this was the production of the BR 930 specification for miniature
“plug-in” relays. Westinghouse produced their Q style relays to meet the BR
930 specification.
The predecessor companies to the present Alstom Company also produced
relays meeting the BR 930 specification in UK. The relays typically operate at
50V DC, though 24V DC versions are available for specific applications.

The initial signalling schemes of the early 1960s utilized miniature plug in
relays that were the immediate predecessors to the BR 930 style relays. (eg
Westinghouse P and R Style relays).

Eventually by the mid 1960s, the BR930 style relay became the standard for
new schemes in UK and in other countries supplied by UK manufacturers.

These relays represented a considerable improvement on the previous shelf

type relays. These improvements can summarised as:

• Greatly reduced size of relay.

• Relay plugged into a separate base, enabling change of relay to be

quickly and safely done, without interfering with connecting wiring.

• Reduced cost of relays.

It is a tribute to the original design that the BR 930 series of relays haven’t
changed substantially after more than 40 years. It should also be noted that the
BR930 signalling relays are extremely reliable devices, with a Mean Time
Between Failures (MTBF) of approximately 550 years.6

The Mean Time Between Wrong Side Failures (MTBWSF) for BR 930 Q
relays is estimated by Westinghouse Rail Systems to be 6.89 x 109 hours.10

Several thousand of the Westinghouse Q style of relay to the BR 930 spec have
been installed on the existing SMRT NS-EW lines in Singapore.

They will also be installed on the future Boon Lay Extension line, currently
under construction. In total, well over two million Q relays have been made so
far and are in service in many countries world-wide.


Major resignalling schemes covering large geographical areas, using all relay
based “Geographic” interlockings, operated from large push button “Entrance-
Exit” panels were introduced.
These included the northern section of the West Coast mainline, (from Weaver
Junction to Glasgow, via Warrington, Preston, Carlisle), London Bridge, East
Coast Main line (Doncaster, Peterborough and Kings Cross). The London
Bridge scheme, designed and installed by Westinghouse Brake and Signal
Company was commissioned in 1975. It was at the time the world’s largest
largest geographical interlocking, containing some 13,000 relays.8 Relay
interlocking probably reached its full potential in terms of development in mid
to late 1970s.

The majority of the schemes described above are still in operation. The
adoption of high speed TDM links enabled the area controlled from one signal
box to be greatly increased compared to the earlier schemes of the 1960s.
Train Operated Route Release (TORR) was introduced for the first time in UK
on some schemes. This greatly reduced operator workload and wear and tear
on the panel push buttons.

Further a field, in Hong Kong, the MTR (Mass Rapid Transit Railway) was
signalled using full ATP fixed block system. This used BR930 style relays for
interlocking and switching of ATP speed codes. (Equivalent to aspect
sequence circuits on a conventionally signalled railway).


The last large all relay based schemes such as Three Bridges on Brighton Line
south of London were commissioned.

The main development in signalling in the 1980s was the development of Solid
State and Computer based interlockings, with the first installation in UK going
into service in 1985.
In these systems, the interlocking functions that had previously been done
using hard-wired relay circuitry were replaced by logic within the computer or

One of the main savings promised to be much reduced overall size of

equipment and wiring required for a given interlocking. In addition, the
amount of lineside cabling could be reduced.

Consequently the rooms required to house the equipment could be reduced in

size, with associated cost savings.

Metro railways generally have small sized interlockings compared to mainline

railways in Europe, for example. Consequently, there is little or no saving in
room size, except for depot interlockings.

The saving in lineside cabling with introduction of SSI/CBI, isn’t usually

applicable to Metros, where the majority of trackside equipment is directly fed
from the nearest Signalling Equipment Room. (SER).

Another advantage of SSI or computer based installations is the reduced on site

installation and the fact much of the interlocking testing can be done in a
factory environment.

However on some complex metro systems, the large amount of on-site

interfacing testing required from interlocking to ATC and ATS systems, to a
certain extent negates the saving that have been made by adoption of CBI.

Before SSI was fully adopted, there were a number of “hybrid” schemes in the
mid 1980s that used various techniques to reduced the number of relays used in
relay based installations.
These included ERSE (Electronic Route Setting equipment) adopted by the
former Southern Region of BR at Waterloo in London, Brockenhurst, Dover
Priory and Salisbury. (The electronics of these ERSE systems were in the
process of being replaced in 2006).

On the London Midland Region, the new installations at Crewe and

Manchester Piccadilly and Guide Bridge used “free –wired” relay interlockings,
in conjunction with “Panel Processor” systems. These “hybrid” schemes
enabled a reduction in number of non-vital relays used in route selection and
panel indications, whilst still retaining the relay interlocking.

However, as with previous “hybrid” systems, when the transition from

mechanical to all relay based systems occurred, such installations were not
widely adopted. The wholesale adoption of SSI/CBI systems for most new
schemes was just around the corner. These promised greater savings,
compared to “hybrid” systems.

In Singapore, the first stage of the MRT opened in 1987 from Yishun to Toa
Payoh. This included several upgrades in technology compared with the Hong
Kong MTR opened less than 10 years earlier. However, BR930 relays were
still used for interlocking and ATP code switching.
The SSI system that was adopted in UK around the same time, was initially
developed to be a very BR specific system and no modules were available at
that time for switching of ATP speed codes. In addition, significant
development would be required to adopt SSI to a metro application. SSI was
eventually introduced on the Eastern Harbour crossing extension of Hong Kong

This used SSI for interlocking between points and signals, but with the ATP
fixed block system, being driven from vital relay circuitry interfacing with the

The “Fixed Block” ATP system used on NS-EW lines in Singapore is a

development from earlier ATP systems introduced in UK on Victoria Line and
Hong Kong MTR line. These were in turn based on the “Track Circuit Block”
systems introduced in early 1960s on BR main lines.

Instead of multiple aspect signals along the lineside, the trains receive ATP
speed codes that are injected into the running rails. Each ATP speed code takes
the form of a specific signal frequency.
This is decoded by ATP equipment on the train, to instruct the train to drive at
a particular speed. This can be without operator intervention, pathing the way
for driverless operation.


Major advances in computer technology enabled systems such as “Integrated

Electronic Control Centres” (IECC) to be widely adopted in UK. (The first
ones had been introduced in the late 1980s). Equivalent systems were
developed in the rest of Europe and United States.
IECC eliminated the need for the large push button control panels that had been
a feature of most new signalling schemes since the mid 1960s. In addition,
relays previously required for panel interface of both indications and control
switches/buttons could be eliminated.
Due to local operating constraints, it was realised that IECC wasn’t suitable for
all areas and in particular cases, e.g. at Wembley control centre on West Coast
Main Line, just north of London, a conventional “Entrance Exit” control panel
was used to control SSI interlockings. In areas where there are a large number
of non-timetabled train movements, a conventional “Entrance-Exit” route
setting control panel is probably the most “user-friendly” and efficient method
of route setting. IECC and similar highly automated systems, based on
timetabled operation are most suited for mainline/metro operation, where little
out of course and shunting operations take place.

With the introduction of IECC operator workload was further reduced with
such features as Automatic Route Setting (ARS) and Train Operated Route
Release. (TORR). (However it should be noted that TORR had previously
been incorporated into the previous generation of relay interlocked systems,
operated from conventional push button control panels. ARS previously had
been adopted on a limited trial on the Three Bridges resignalling scheme,
commissioned in 1983).

21st century

Computer Based Interlockings (CBI) are produced by a variety of

manufacturers and have proven to be reliable and safe. CBI/SSI systems are
now used worldwide for most new signalling installations. There are now a
number of well proven and reliable CBI systems on the market. However, in
terms of evolution, CBI systems have yet to meet their full potential.

Whilst there is no doubt as to the reliability and safety of SSI and CBI systems,
it is interesting to note that all such systems presently on the market are slower
than an all relay based interlocking. This isn’t usually a problem.
However certain timing problems can occur where a signalled route crosses the
boundary of two interlocking areas. These problems that were identified
during the early days of SSI and CBI systems have now been resolved.

Notable exceptions to introduction of CBI are when an existing line operated

by relay based interlockings is being extended by a relatively small distance.
In this case it can make sense to equip the new line with relay interlockings.

This reduces risk by eliminating application development for a CBI system to

adapt it to a relatively small installation. In addition, potential interface
problems are avoided.

Examples of recent new lines in Singapore that have/will be equipped with

relay based interlockings are Changi Airport line (opened in 2001) and Boon
Lay Extension (Due to open in 2008). These both interface to existing relay
based systems.

All other new lines in future will utilise Computer Based Interlockings. In
addition, with the latest technology, solid state switching of ATP codes is
possible, eliminating the need for relay based switching of ATP codes.

In the UK, examples of schemes recently carried out using relay interlockings
instead of CBI were at Longsight, South of Manchester. In this case relays that
had been in operation since early 1960s were replaced with new relays, rather
than convert to SSI. In this particular case, relay interlockings were maintained
to reduce work associated with interfacing to existing control centre and
trackside equipment that are relatively new.

Further South at Stockport, several mechanical signal boxes some dating from
1880s have been refurbished, and interfacing circuitry rewired to new BR930
style relays. The decision to refurbish the existing signal boxes using a mixture
of mechanical and relay technology at Stockport was taken after delays in the
development/delivery of a European CBI system.

Such cases are the exception, but it shows that in particular cases, there is still a
demand for traditional technology.

It should be noted that whilst the interlocking function is no longer carried out
by relays in Computer based interlockings, there remains a requirement for
relays to perform an interfacing role.

This can be for example between the CBI and trackside equipment such as
point machines and track circuits.
(Note that in the CBI system used on NEL and CCL in Singapore, the track
circuit receivers interface directly with the interlocking, without the use of
interface Track relays)

Relay interfaces also provide a very good electrical isolation between the
delicate electronics of a Computer Based System and the harsh external

However, it should be noted that systems such as Solid State Interlocking

developed in UK, were designed for a minimum requirement for interfacing

In SSI, specific modules drive signals and points directly without interface
relays. However this system was primarily designed for the UK market.
(Though it was later adapted for use elsewhere). Most other CBI systems
developed for world wide application, tend to use more interface relays.
This enables one design of module to be used to drive a wide range of different
types of trackside equipment.

Examples of extensive use of relays for interface purposes in conjunction with

Computer Based Interlockings can be seen on North East Line and Circle Line
in Singapore.

On these systems, cabinets housing a range of FS90 style relays are provided to
interface to the CBI system. These relays typically operate at 24V DC. They
are made in Bologna, Italy by Alstom at the former SASIB factory.
Relays of similar design are used extensively in Italy in large relay
interlockings (Milan Central being a good example). These relays continue to
be produced and are used in the latest CBI installations in Italy and other
countries in Europe, notable the Netherlands.

In Singapore on NEL and CCL, the ASCV interlocking does interface to

trackside signals and track circuits, without the use of interface relays.
However circuits such as ESP (Emergency Stop Plunger), SPKS (Staff
Protection Keyswitch circuits, do use a relay interface on NEL and CCL.

BPLRT in Singapore uses a CBI in conjunction with interface relays

manufactured by the Union Switch and Signal Company in the United States.
These are typically used for point interface purposes and are housed in cabinets
adjacent to the guideway. These are plug in type relays, slightly larger than the
UK 930 series relays.

Similar relays of the PN150 series are used extensively in the United States and
Canada. In the US and Canada, signalling relays typically operate at 10 or 12
Volts DC. Interestingly, some railroads in the United States were relatively
slow to make the transition from “Fish Tank” to plug in relays.

In Malaysia, north of Kuala Lumpur, the line from Rwang to Ipoh is currently
being re-signalled, in conjunction with track doubling and electrification.
Microlok Interlocking, supplied by Union Switch and Signal in Australia is
being supplied.

However extensive use of interface relays enables isolation of the interlocking

from trackside equipment. In this case 24V relays to BR930 specification are
supplied by Crompton Greaves of India. It should be noted however, that
these relays don’t conform to the latest UK Network Rail Specifications.

In the UK on the projects to resignal London Underground Victoria Line and

Sub Surface Lines (SSL), the latest generation of Westrace CBI are used for
interlocking. These are interfaced to trackside and station equipment by 50V Q
relays to BR 930 spec, manufactured by Westinghouse Rail systems. In
addition on the Victoria Line project, a temporary relay interface is used to
provide the “Overlay phase” in which the original signalling system supplied in
the mid 1960s is interfaced to the latest technology signalling systems being
supplied as part of the PPP upgrade project. In this case the relay interface
provides a vital and flexible interface to enable two very different signalling
systems operating at different system voltages and frequencies to “talk” to each
other. The relay interface ensures complete electrical isolation between the two


Signalling interlocking has evolved in the following main phases:

• Mechanical interlockings first introduced around the mid 19th century,

probably reached the peak development in the mid 1930s, after the
introduction of such features as interlinking of signal and point controls
with track circuits and block controls. (However they continued to be
widely used on mainlines in UK well into the 1970/1980s. There are
still examples of mechanical signalling boxes on UK mainlines, but
these are generally isolated examples, operating colour light signals via
electric circuit controllers. Mechanical signal boxes operating
mechanical signals can still be found on secondary lines and goods only

• Interlockings operated from miniature lever frames replicated directly

mechanical interlockings with full size levers. Interlocking between the
miniature levers was initially mechanical as well, but this first changed
to electrical interlocking in 1929. Production of these continued well
into the 1950s.

• Relay interlockings first introduced in the 1930s were a logical

development from the interlockings operated from miniature lever
frames that had been introduced in the 1920s. Relay interlockings are
still widely used in installations dating from 1960/-/1980s. Relay
interlockings combined with “Entrance-Exit” push button control and
train describers, significantly reduced operator workload.

• Solid State Interlockings (SSI) and Computer Based Interlockings (CBI)

were first introduced in 1980s. From the operators point of view, these
are similar to relay based systems. They are now widely used for most
new signalling schemes worldwide.

At the transition from one main type of signalling to the next generation, a
number of “hybrid” schemes of relatively limited application were introduced.

Even in Singapore, examples of all main types of signalling system described

above can be found.

• On the Malaysian Railway (KTMB) mechanical interlockings dating

from 1920/1930s can be found e.g. at Bukit Timah.

• Relay interlockings are universally used on NS-EW SMRT lines. These

were first introduced in 1980s, based on the UK BR interlockings of the
time, but adopted to a metro application.

• CBI is used exclusively on NEL, BPLRT and Sengkang/Punggol LRT.

In the UK in 2003, it was estimated that there were a total of 1,700

interlockings in existence.5 The breakdown was as follows

Interlocking type Quantity (Approx) Estimated average age

Mechanical 600 75
Relay based 850 25
Computer based 250 7

It will be seen that in UK, the most common type of interlocking is still relay
based. These probably overtook mechanical interlockings, as being the most
common type around late 1970s. However, it is interesting to note that despite
introduction of major re-signalling schemes in UK over the last 40 years, there
are still a large number of mechanical interlockings in existence. At the start of
the 21st century, the number of Computer based interlockings still remain the
lowest of all types. A great many relay based interlockings (particularly those
commissioned in the 1960s to 1980s) are now reaching the end of their lives.
However due to the large number of relay based schemes in operation, it will
probably be many years until the majority of interlockings in UK are computer
This is despite the fact that most new signalling schemes in UK now use
computer based interlockings. This is largely as a result of an investment
backlog that has built up in recent years.

In another example, on the Pro Rail Network in Netherlands, it is estimated that

in March 2007, there were 300 interlockings in existence. Of these, 230 were
relay based and 70 were “electronic”. (Presumably Computer Based
Interlockings).7 i.e as at 2007, CBI interlockings in Netherlands are estimated
to be only 23% of the total and relay based interlockings still make up 76% of
the total.

The introduction of each new phase has brought about reductions in the initial
cost of the signalling systems, and benefits for the operators mainly in terms of
reduced workload and increased productivity.

Balanced against this, the life span of the new signalling systems are less than
the previous relay systems. The relay based systems in turn have a shorter
lifespan than the previous generation of mechanical systems. The real long
term costs of adopting the latest technology remain to be seen.

The greatest step forward from an operating viewpoint, was probably the
transition from mechanical to relay based systems, particularly when combined
with the introduction of track circuit block and train describers that removed
the need for the operation of manual block system.

The change from relay based to SSI/CBI systems, whilst a great technological
leap, was almost invisible to the operator, as the new systems basically emulate
a relay based system. Indeed many of the operational features of the latest
SSI/CBI interlockings, can be traced back to the early relay interlockings
introduced in the 1930s.

Production of signalling relays peaked in the UK in the late 1970s/early 1980s,

coinciding with the last large relay based signalling schemes.

Since then the widespread adoption of Solid State and Computer based
interlockings has steadily reduced the demand for signalling relays, however it
is interesting to note that a new BR930 relay was developed as an interface
relay to SSI. This operates at 110V AC.

Relay production has now stabilised, but thousands of relays continue to be

manufactured each year. There are now only two major suppliers of signalling
relays in UK. These are Westinghouse Rail Systems of Chippenham, Wiltshire
(www.westsig.co.uk) and STS-Signals Limited of Cradley Heath, West
Midlands. (www.sts-signals.com)

STS –Signals manufacture relays to the same designs that were originally
manufactured by Tyers, Field and Grant and GEC General Signal Limited.
(Later Alstom UK).

In the UK, relays can also be purchased from Unipart Rail.

(www.unipartrail.com). This company supplies new and reconditioned relays,
manufactured by Westinghouse Rail Systems and STS-Signals and it’s
predecessor companies.

Relays will be required for the foreseeable future, mainly for interfacing
purposes on SSI/CBI systems and where short extensions of existing relay
based systems are being carried out.

In addition, there is a steady demand for supply of relays for replacement of life
expired relays in existing relay based systems.
From time to time, owing to particular circumstances, relay interlockings are
retained and upgraded with relay based systems, rather than SSI/CBI.

In Singapore, the existing NS-EW line continues to use relays for interlocking
and ATP code switching.

This will continue for the foreseeable future, though it should be noted that
trials are currently underway at Bishan Depot to confirm feasibility of
switching ATP codes by Computer Based Interlocking. All future schemes in
Singapore will use CBI with interface relays where appropriate.

Note :

1) If you have any comments, queries or corrections regarding this article,

please contact the author, Mr M.P.White by e-mail at:


2) Full details (in the form of formal accident reports) for most of the
railway accidents referred to in this article can be accessed at

3) This latest version of this article can be accessed at the Institution of

Railway Signal Engineers (Singaporean Section) web-site. www.irse.org.sg

1 Red for Danger. L.T.C. Rolt, 1966 reprint

2 The Style L Power Frame. J.D. Francis 1989

3 IRSE Presidential Address. T.S. Howard 1988

4 Signalling in the Age of Steam. Michael A. Vanns 1995

5 IRSE Paper “Sustainable Interlocking for the 21st Century”. Kenneth Vine and Philip Hingley 2003

6 IRSE Paper “Design for Signalling System Performance.” P.W. Stanley 1980

7 IRSE Paper “Dutch Signalling Developments” Maarten van der Werff 2007

8 Article in IET Computing and Control Magazine titled “Signalling Technology for today’s railway.”
Mark Glover 2007.

9 A Hundred Years of Speed with Safety. O.S.Nock 1981. Published 2006, edited by Stuart Angill,
John Francis, Mark Glover, Michael Stone. Published by The Hobnob Press.

10 General Information on Style Q relays. Westinghouse Rail Systems data sheet.

IRSE ARTICLE Signalling relays.doc

MPW 12 September 2007