Introduction to Signals

Operating trains on the NEW YORK CENTRAL Valley Division is not particularly easy. The track geometry is complicated with many mountains and tunnels where trains disappear and reemerge while en route to their destination. Observing track conditions ahead of your train is not always possible and reliance on trackside signals is necessary. Some signals face toward corners of the room and are not directly visible from operating aisles. Other signals are on the far side of the layout room and not viewable due to distance. Thus, looking at display panels located along the edges of the aisles is needed. Knowing when and where to look at signal displays is the key to safe operation. Thoughtful caution is strongly requested.

Signals are not always well understood by model railroaders. The various color combinations and terminology can be confusing at first. As with real railroads, each model railroad uses signals a bit differently and there is no industry standard which applies uniformly to all layouts. Information regarding the NEW YORK CENTRAL Valley Division’s signal system is provided here for your education. This material is duplicated in the POCKET GUIDE which is provided to road crews when they operate a train. Perfect memory is not required, but is very helpful. Collision avoidance is the goal and understanding the signaling system is the only way to operate safely.


MAIN TRACK is the track which your train is on.

DIVERGING TRACK is a track which branches off the main track.

BRANCH TRACK is a track which branches off the diverging track.

SIDING TRACK is a track which branches off the branch track.
HEAD is the round disc with colored lights. Some signals have one head, some have two, some three and one signal has four heads. Each head is responsible for protecting one track or route.

ASPECT is what you see when looking at a signal.
Example: Red over Red over Red over Yellow.

INDICATION is what you should do.
Example: Proceed on the siding route prepared to stop at the next signal.
All indications are explained in the Signal Examples area below.

Combining a track diagram with the signal aspect is shown here:
In this example, the topmost red head indicates you should not proceed on the MAIN track. The second red head indicates you should not proceed on the DIVERGE track. The third red head indicates you should not proceed on the BRANCH track. The bottom yellow head indicates you may proceed on the SIDING track prepared to stop at the next signal.

Signal Examples


To some, signaling is complex and overwhelming. To others, it is easy and intuitive. To most, it is like riding a bicycle – hard at first, but becoming easy with practice. If you lack confidence, do not despair. If you can read and drive a car, you can master railroad signals. Here are two options to consider:

1. Stop your train if a signal is not understood. Take enough time to comprehend the signal and then continue.

2. Do not accept the position of ENGINEER when it is offered.