French railway signalling

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The current French railway signalling system is in force on the Réseau Ferré de France (now SNCF Réseau) since 1930, when the code Verlant was applied.


Historically, each private railway company designed and used its own signals. However, during the First World War the interpenetration of trains between networks had increased, so that it became necessary to create a new unified signals specification. A commission was set up in May 1926, directed by Eugène Verlant of the PLM.

The Verlant commission submitted its report at the end of 1927. The new code of signals received the approval of the Ministry of Public Labour on 1 August 1930. Conversion to the Verlant code was completed only at the end of 1936, except on the network of Alsace-Lorraine where it was completed later, because of the unusual pre-existing signalling.

The Verlant code was very innovative, based on simple principles:

  • Mainly based on color light signalling, which thereafter simplified the installation of the automatic block.
  • Light signals used three basic colors: red (stop), yellow (to announce stop or limited speed), green (clear). This color code was already applied by many foreign companies. It was also used for traffic lights.
  • Simplification: it presented only the most imperative indications (except in special cases).

Placement of signals[edit]

Signals are normally placed on the side of the line: on the left if the trains run on the left. However, in the Départements of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle, trains normally run on the right and so signals are placed on the right. This area was part of Germany from 1870 to 1918; trains run on the right in Germany and the railways were built during that period. When the area became French again in 1918, the railway network was almost complete, and trains ran on the right. Reversing the direction would be too expensive, in particular for interlocking, so circulation and signals remained on the right.

In several stations and on several line sections, when the local layout requires it, signals can be set on the right. They are then equipped with a white arrow indicating the way to which they are addressed.

On some double-track line sections equipped with "permanent counter-track installations" (IPCS), signals are placed normally on the right for counter-track circulations. No white arrows are used. In fact, entering the wrong way is confirmed by a luminous counter-track entrance board (TECS), which, when lit, indicates that the following signals are placed on the right (on the left for Alsace and Moselle). Similarly, a counter-track exit board (TSCS) indicates the return to normal running, with signals placed on the normal side.

Where trains run on the left, the hand-held stop signals (red flag, stop marker or lantern with red light) are presented on the left or at the center of the relevant track. If there is a platform by the track, they can be presented on the side of the platform.


In general, the signalling device comprises:

  • a 'go' signal (green), meaning that the next block is free, allowing normal operation
  • Warning signals or speed limits (yellow) requiring the driver to slow the train and especially to be able to stop before the next stop signal;
  • Stop signals (red) requires the train to stop.
block free: proceed
Carré: stop

These signals are supplemented by "indicator signals" (French: tableaux indicateurs) showing speed limits, slow-down orders and reminders to go slow on a diverging route, various indications about the track layout (number, dead ends or garage) the signs of electrical section, numbers of radio channels.

If the distance between the stop signal and a distant signal is too short (it can sometimes get down to 400 m), then the previous distant signal has a yellow flashing to inform the driver of the short distance between the two following signals.

Mobile and temporary signals (e.g. construction), are used to complement permanent fixed signals.

Some signals are specific to manoeuvres.

These include various types of signals:

  • Hand signals,
  • Mechanical signals,
  • Lights,
  • Acoustic signals
  • Signal board.

Respect of signals is an imperative condition sine qua non of safety. The first section of the safety regulations of the SNCF indicates that "any official, whatever his rank must obey passively and immediately any signals that are presented."

Block systems[edit]

The block system is based on breaking a line into block sections. The block sections on a line between two stations are part of the block system.

Non interlocked manual blocks: For safety reasons, non-interlocked manual blocks are used only on double track.

Interlocked manual blocks: In the case of a single track, interlocking is used in manual blocks to avoid an error resulting in a head-on collision.

Automatic blocks: Two types of automatic block are in common use in France. BAL (Bloc Automatique Lumineux) is used on high traffic lines with block lengths of about 1500 m) and BAPR (Bloc automatique à permissivité restreinte) is used in low traffic areas with block lengths up to 15 km.

Normally a train can only enter a block if it is free. The block is a track section delimited by signals, whose length depends on the distance needed for a train to stop or slow down, in the worst conditions on the portion of line under consideration. When traffic density is low, the blocks may be longer.

In future, the blocks may be mobile and follow the progress of the train (virtual blocks, not materialized on the ground and calculated continuously by an integrated onboard system). This will optimize the use of the line and reduce the distance needed between successive trains. This moving block system is already in use on the central section of the RER line A between Nanterre-Préfecture and Vincennes. The trackside signals are still in place but are turned off at the approach of a train whose mobile system signalling (SACEM) is confirmed in operation. They are turned on if problems arise.

The current signalling system has already reduced the spacing between trains from 3 to 2 min. But this is still too long on the busiest lines (suburban, and high-speed lines). In comparison, the moving blocks of the RER A allow a separation of only 90 seconds between trains at full speed.

Wayside signals[edit]

Here are some examples of signals used on the French network.

Signals and signs give information and special instructions to train drivers. For simplicity, only the most common elements are presented here.

Stop signals and warning signals[edit]

Light signals Description Mechanical signals
Carré (two red lights, aligned either horizontally or vertically): stop.

The carré orders the driver to stop and cannot be passed. It is a protection signal used to protect points, crossovers, stopping places etc.. A carré can be recognized by its "Nf" plate meaning "non franchissable", i.e. not passable; it has a small white light (œilleton) which is off when the signal is a carré, and on when the signal displays a semaphore.

Semaphore (one red light): stop.

The semaphore orders a temporary halt, usually because the block it protects is engaged by another train. Once the train is immobilized, the driver needs to read the plate in order to determine what to do. For example:

  • if the signal has the "PR" (permissivité restreinte, i.e. limited permissiveness) plate, the driver may proceed if instructed to do so, without any contact with the dispatcher after waiting a certain amount of time (usually 15 minutes).
  • if the signal has the "F" (franchissable, i.e. passable) plate, or if it has the "Nf" plate and has a small white light (œilleton) lit, the driver may proceed at a speed which allows the train to stop at any obstruction.

In either case, a driver passing a red light must advance carefully at a maximum speed of 30 km/h until they reach the next signal that doesn't have an "A" or "D" plate.

Flashing red (one flashing red light): proceed no faster than 15 km/h.

The flashing red aspect is a variant of the semaphore: a driver may pass the signal with caution at a speed which allows the train to stop at any obstruction, at a maximum speed of 15 km/h after the signal.

not used
Distant (one yellow light): expect stop.

The distant signal warns the driver to be able to stop before the next signal. Distant signals are used with the carré, the flashing red, the semaphore, and with a signal which is accidentally not working or a buffer stop.

Flashing yellow (one flashing yellow light): proceed, expect stop at short distance from next Distant signal.

Flashing yellow warns of an obstruction at a reduced distance from the signal, i.e. less than the usual braking distance.

not used
Block free (one green light): proceed.

The green aspect indicates that the driver may proceed normally, if there is no reason not to do so.

not used
Slow 30 (two horizontal yellow lights): proceed, expect points to pass at reduced speed.

Slow 30 is a distant signal that indicates points in diverging position to be passed at a maximum speed of 30 km/h. It is always followed by a Slow 30/60 reminder.

Slow 30 can be combined with the Flashing yellow signal.

Slow 60 (two horizontal flashing yellow lights): proceed, expect points to pass at reduced speed.

Slow 60 is a distant signal that indicates points in diverging position to be passed at a maximum speed of 60 km/h. It is always followed by a Slow 60 reminder.

Slow 60 can be combined with the Flashing yellow signal.

not used
Slow 30 reminder (two vertical yellow lights): proceed at reduced speed until the train has cleared the points.

Slow 30 reminder signals are used just before one or more points in diverging position to be passed at a maximum speed of 30 km/h.

Slow 30 reminder can be combined with the Distant or Flashing yellow signals.

Slow 60 reminder (two vertical, flashing yellow lights): proceed at reduced speed until the train has cleared the points.

Slow 60 reminder signals are used just before one or more points in diverging position to be passed at a maximum speed of 60 km/h.

Slow 60 reminder can be combined with the Distant or Flashing yellow signals.

not used
Disk (one yellow light and one red light, both aligned horizontally): slow down and advance carefully to the next signal.

The disk is a delayed halt instruction, i.e. the driver may pass the signal with caution at a speed which allows the train to stop at any obstruction, but must stop at the next platform or points (even if the signal aspect would allow him to proceed). The driver can continue after receiving a verbal instruction.

Signals mainly used on sidings
Violet carré (one violet light): stop.

Equivalent to the carré, it is used on sidings, to control access to the main line.

White (one white light): proceed at reduced speed for shunting.

The white aspect indicates that the driver is allowed to proceed for shunting, keeping to 30 km/h over points.

not used
Flashing white (one flashing white light): proceed at reduced speed for shunting over a short distance.

The flashing white aspect indicates that the driver is allowed to proceed for shunting over a short distance. It does not allow the train to depart on the main line.

not used
Guidon d'arrêt (stop bar)

The guidon d'arrêt is used to protect certain manoeuvres, instead of hand signals. This signal is an order to halt.

Special signals
Signal permanently cancelled (saltire in front of the signal): disregard the signal.

The white cross indicates that the signal is permanently cancelled and must not be taken into account.

not used
Signal temporarily cancelled (saltire): disregard the signal.

On Paris' RER A, wayside signals may be disabled at some places when trains are equipped with in-cab signalling.

not used

Speed limits[edit]

Sign Meaning
or Warning for an upcoming zone with a speed limit. The speed on the sign (in km/h) has to be reached at the next "Z" sign.

The lozenge indicates that the upcoming speed limit is inferior by at least 40 km/h than the previous one and is equipped with a crocodile and in-cab repeater to enforce the warning. The crocodile system can also be used to warn about a succession of reduced speed limits.

Start of a Zone with a speed limit.
End of a zone with a speed limit. (Reprise de vitesse).


Sign Meaning
The train is being directed to a siding (voie de Garage).
The train is being directed to a Dépôt.
The train is being directed to a dead end Impasse.
Point not to be passed during shunting (Limite de Manœuvre).

Stopping points in stations[edit]

Sign Meaning
Stopping point for the front of the train (Tête de Train), however many carriages are in the train.
Stopping point for trains made up of the number of carriages indicated on the sign (here 12 cars).
Stopping point for TGVs.

The number indicates the number of rakes.
single rake = 1 ; double rake = 2

Indications for electric locomotives[edit]

Sign Meaning
Change of electrical section (change of voltage).
Beginning of a neutral zone (without electric power); electric locomotives must pass with the main circuit breaker open.
End of a neutral zone; electric locomotives can close the main circuit breaker and raise the pantograph.
End of the catenary: beyond this sign, the line is no longer electrified and only non-electric locos can continue.

Other signs[edit]

Sign Meaning
Drivers must use the whistle or horn (Sifflet ou klaxon). Used before level crossings without automatic signals or zones with limited visibility.
Stop ahead.
Zone with reduced loading gauge (bridge, tunnel).

Cab signalling[edit]

With the arrival of the TGV, and its operating speeds well over 200 km/h, trackside signalling had to be abandoned in favour of cab-signalling, using track to cab communication technology known as Transmission Voie-Machine (TVM).


This system is intended to replace the different national signalling systems.


  • Gernigon, Alain (1998). Histoire de la signalisation ferroviaire français. Paris: Editions La Vie du Rail. ISBN 2-902808-69-0.
  • Lemon, R. (1995). "An Introduction to French Signalling". Signalling Record Society Signalling Paper. 13.
  • "Les différents types de blocks automatiques à la S.N.C.F.". La Vie du Rail. 1534 (14 March 1976): 10–12.
  • Wurmser, D (2007). Signaux Mécaniques. Grenoble: EPresses and Editions Ferroviairesl.

External links[edit]