Railway Telephones: What do the signs mean?

The signs on most railway telephones are just geometric patterns which are meaningless to those not in the know! Since I prepared the artwork for the printers on the current series of telephone labels I thought it would be interesting to share this knowledge with you. In 1989 I produced a directive in an attempt to standardise signage across the various Regions of British Rail. Following privatisation this function devolved to the Rail Safety and Standards Board.

The current rules for signage are contained in Railway Group Standard GI/RT 7033 from page 192 on. This seems to undo some of the work I started way back then by ignoring the international symbols contained in ISO 7001.


Reference is made in the Standard to the typeface 'Rail Alphabet' designed by Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert for the British Railways Board in the 1960s. Kinnear and Calvert previously designed the 'Transport' typeface which is used for all road signs in the UK. 'Rail Alphabet' is almost identical. In my time we never succeeded in getting hold of a computer version of this typeface. The standard says it shall be made available. It never was in the time before I retired.

When my section at the British Railways Board issued a contract for printing the labels in about 1990, we could only specify Helvetica Bold as the typeface since no commercial printer had 'Rail Alphabet'. However, a revised version of Rail Alphabet was designed in 2009 by Henrik Kubel in association with Margaret Calvert. This is avaiable commercially. See http://www.newrailalphabet.co.uk/

Even better, a fairly good likeness can be downloaded for free at http://www.kirwindesign.co.uk/BRFONTS.zip. Two weights are provided, light and dark. Little g, and the digits 4 and 0 are not quite right, but they do include a heap of useful symbols suitable for station signage.


Signal Post Telephone

A signal post telephone. The phone calls direct to the signaller and is for use by drivers of trains held at a red signal in accordance with Module S4 of the Rule Book. However, in an emergency anyone can use such a telephone to call the signaller to report an incident requiring trains to be stopped. A new variation on this sign has a numeral in a circle showing the number of minutes a driver should wait before contacting the signal if this is different from the two minutes shown in the Rule Book.

Other Lineside Phone

Any other lineside telephone which calls direct to the signaller. They may be found on the trackside for uses such as points testing or on platforms for station staff to contact the signaller concerning the dispatch of trains. The 'Not for 999 Calls' appendage was to discourage members of the public from attempting to make emergency calls. This was a recommendation of the Hidden Report into the crash at Clapham, but now appears to have fallen into disuse.

Limited Clearance

The Limited Clearance sign on a signal post telephone signifies that it is not to be used by anyone other than a driver, even in an emergency, because there is nowhere to stand clear of danger. The reasoning behind this is that the driver of a train can be safe since he knows that the line is blocked because his train is standing on it. Anybody else would be in danger of being hit by a passing train. Eventually it will be replaced by the international standard danger symbol of an exclamation mark in a yellow triangle.

Electrification Telephone

An electrification telephone calls direct to the Electrical Control Room. It can be used by maintenance staff for routine disconnections or in an emergency to request immediate shut-off of power. There are few of these about now as the policy is to use standard dial phones designated as Emergency Phones - see label below. You can see that the outline is of the BPO Handset No3. It's based on a design I made for a T-shirt to celebrate the telephone's centenary in 1977. The latest version of the standard has turned the handset the other way up. I really don't know why.

Emergency Phone

This is an internationally agreed standard sign for an Emergency Telephone, ISO 7001-008. Typically they would be found on platforms or other places accessible to the public. They can be used to call the emergency services by dialling 999 or 112, or to contact the Electrical Control Room to have the railway power switched off. Unfortunately someone in Rail Standards seems to have forgotten that there is an ISO symbol and have reverted in the Standard to the old Handset No 3 symbol as used above.

ISO Telephone Label

ISO Standard Telephone Label. Applied to any type of dial telephone capable of calling emergency services using 999 or 112. This sign is not limited to the railway and may also be found indicating pay telephones in public places. However I see from the current Standard that again the international symbol has been ignored and the old Handset No 3 is shown.

Limited Clearnce Phone

Very Limited Clearance Telephone. Signifies that it should only be used when there is an absolute posession in force (ie no trains running at all). We warned when this design was requested that the Dayglo spots would vary soon fade in daylight and, sure enough, they did. This sign is now superseded by a diamond sign with a cross placed on the signal post itself. These signs might have been found South of London where the tracks are very close together. Trains in this area are now all fitted with radio allowing the driver to call the signaller without getting out of the cab. I also spotted this sign on a platform telephone at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway. Plenty of clearance there!

Level Crossing

Level Crossing Telephone. This sign is mandated by the Department of Transport for use on telephones at level crossings. It's designated as Sign 787 in the The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, SI 2002/3113, Schedule 3.

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