Signals and Train Symbols on a Shortline


As some of you may have read in the past, I am developing a fictional shortline that runs between Plainville, CT (central) and New London, CT (southeastern).  I have the route planned out (in my head) and most of the industries have been visualized and their locations along the line determined.  The next step for me is to figure out how trains will operate along the mainline.  I am modeling "current era" in HO scale.  I don't have a track plan, which I know would be helpful for all of you to visualize, but I am in the process of finalizing an official version as we speak. I am loosely (and I mean loosely) basing my railroad off of the Georgia Central. 

Some basic information to aid in visualizing the route:

The plan calls for a double-deck layout joined with a helix.  The upper or "main" level will model central CT including a main terminal in Plainville.  This level is designed primarily for switching operations and contains numerous small industries, the majority of which have one or two spots each that are worked on a weekly or bi-monthly basis (every other/every 4th op session).  The two main industries on the upper level are an auto unloading terminal built on a peninsula at the "western" extreme of the layout and a polyiso insulation manufacturer on the other extreme end, located on top of the helix.  There will also be minimal staging beyond the Auto Facility to the "west" which will produce a single train from a foreign road every other operating session. No home road trains will utilize this staging yard.

The helix represents mainline between New Britain and Norwich, the latter is the railroad's midway point and a major hub of activity, modeled immediately beyond the helix portal.  The largest customer here is an electrical wire manufacturer.  At least two additional customers will exist here, including a Home Depot distribution center (the prototype of which is in Bloomfield, CT about 50miles away) and an appliance manufacturer.  Beyond Norwich, the line will "follow" the Thames River south to New London where the second terminal is located and is shared with the Providence & Worcester.  There will be several customers along this line but the details of which have yet to be determined. Beyond New London is the main staging yard which represents 90% of traffic entering/exiting my railroad. Some home road trains will utilize this staging yard between sessions.  This will depict haulage rights over a foreign road's mainline for interchange service). Also, a branchline to DOW Chemical in Gales Ferry to the "north" will be positioned on the peninsula under the auto unloading facility - this will follow the prototype.

Now that I've set up the layout, I need to determine what is the best routing of trains.  I also need to determine train symbols and would like to use abbreviated town/terminal names.  Each terminal and its town, from "east" to "west" is as follows: Gregoryville Siding (Gregoryville, fictional), Hannah Yard (Plainville), Talman Street Yard (Norwich), Winthrop Park Yard (New London), Long Hill Yard (Groton, staging, fictional main yard of another freelanced railroad I am working on - see: Boston Road & Eastern). 

I'd like to have daily trains between New London and Plainville.  I'd also like to run a twice-weekly unit auto train which runs from staging via PW to Winthrop Park Yard where it will run to Gregoryville Siding via the home road.  I have a pretty good idea of what will be in each train but I'm not so sure as to how to route/name my trains as they traverse my layout.  I'm finding it difficult to translate train symbols of the big Class I and Class II railroads into a shortline operation.

A secondary question is how I'll go about governing traffic along the mainline.  I do not want a CTC system as I wish to avoid a dispatcher's desk since it will mostly be me operating.  I'm looking for a bare-bones ABS system but, again, am confused as to how to simplify a traffic control system when modeling a shortline.

I hope to have a trackplan up and added to this blog soon.  Thanks in advance for any comments and suggestions.




wp8thsub's picture


I'm finding it difficult to translate train symbols of the big Class I and Class II railroads into a shortline operation.

I wouldn't be too concerned.  Symbols vary greatly between roads and eras.  If there's one particular road you like and want to emulate, there are fan forums and other sites where you can find the necessary info on what symbol means what.  If you're freelancing, decide what names make sense to you.

I'm modeling the WP in the late 70s-early 80s, when their train symbols really didn't signify much, and basically stood for train names that had no connection to start or end points, or what work was done (like WPX [Western Pacific eXpedited] or CMS [California Merchandise Special]).  Other roads had or have more rigid systems that could tell you exactly what the train was and where it ran, its priority, and even the day of the year when it originated.

A secondary question is how I'll go about governing traffic along the mainline.  I do not want a CTC system as I wish to avoid a dispatcher's desk since it will mostly be me operating.  I'm looking for a bare-bones ABS system but, again, am confused as to how to simplify a traffic control system when modeling a shortline.

An ABS system will be as much cost and effort to install as CTC,and note that under ABS signals do not confer authority to occupy a track, so an additional form of authority would be used for train movements.  If you're modeling from the early 80s until now, you could use track warrants for authority with or without signals.

Rob Spangler  MRH Blog

cv_acr's picture

Symbols and Signals

Some railroads used alphabetic symbols based on origin/destination, and many others simply used numeric symbols based off their old schedule numbers (under TimeTable operation, all regularly scheduled trains had a number. They may also have an identifying symbol that may or may not be the same).

So you could go with the letter symbols, or numbers.

Letter symbols that are based on origin/destination usually use a 2-character code for each station. For example New London might be NL, Plainville might be PL or PV. The important thing is that every place's code is unique.

The train from NL to PL would be NLPL and it's counterpart would be PLNL.

The numeric alternative means you assign numbers to each train. Train numbers/symbols are odd or even based on direction (odd numbers north or west, even numbers south or east.) You can number mainline and local trains into different ranges to easily identify them. (For example, on CN, 100s are priority intermodal, 200s are priority automotive, 300s are long-distance inter-division through freights, 400s are through freights that operate within a division, and 500s are locals, transfers and turn jobs. 700s, 800s, and 900s are unit trains of various descriptions.)

One thing I've noticed on a few shortlines here in Ontario is that they often continue using train numbers/symbols of the trains that used to operate over the line when it was still owned by the Class I. If your railroad represents a line spun off from a Class I in the area, you might want to figure out what that railroad's general practice was, as copying that will lend a touch of historical authenticity. If your railroad represents an old shortline/regional that has always been independent, then you can determine your own system, but it'll likely just use old schedule numbers (that will probably be low-numbered, counting up from 1 but allowing for some changes and renumbering over the years. Huron Central's primary freights are numbered 911/912, continuing a nearly 100-year old CP symbol.)


Unless it's a shortline with a LOT of traffic, it's probably unlikely that CTC has ever been considered here. 

Modern shortlines basically have one of two possible histories: an independent line that has somehow managed to survive without being swallowed up, or a minor secondary route of a Class I that the large railroad didn't want anymore and a shortline operator picked it up. In either of these scenarios, expensive signal installations are unlikely, unless the line was once a major route of a major class I, but do to mergers, consolidations or falling traffic levels is no longer really a going concern. In this case, there might be an existing signal system, but expensive signal components are sometimes salvaged and reused elsewhere.

Note that CTC provides full control and movement authority and the dispatcher has direct control of important switches and signals (control points). ABS provides NO movement authority, and no remote control of any switches or signals, everything is fully automatic. ABS must have another system overlaid (like timetable/train orders, track warrants, etc.) to provide the actual movement authority. ABS is simply a safety overlay that show block occupancy and relieves trains from having to provide rear-end protection.

cv_acr's picture

An ABS system will be as much

An ABS system will be as much cost and effort to install as CTC,and note that under ABS signals do not confer authority to occupy a track, so an additional form of authority would be used for train movements.  If you're modeling from the early 80s until now, you could use track warrants for authority with or without signals.

Well, just about. You have the same amount of physical blocks and signals, but [some of] the logic is a bit simpler since you don't have to worry about setting and clearing routes (and protecting against setting conflicting routes.) If you're computer controlling it, there'll be no difference in cost, but some difference in effort to set up. ABS also doesn't have the cost or effort of requiring a control panel (physical (extra $$ and effort) or on the computer screen (no extra $$, just effort)). ABS will probably be easier to accomplish with a non computer interfaced solution than CTC.

cv_acr's picture

Train Numbers/Symbols

Just as another real-life "for example", are the train numbers for the road I'm modelling, the Algoma Central, circa 1980.

(The main line consists of two subdivisions, and a branchline is a third subdivision. All three meet in the middle at a place called Hawk Junction.)

1 and 2 are the passenger trains providing end to end service on the mainline.

3 and 4 are a tourist passenger train, the Agawa Canyon Tour train which operates on a portion of the south part of the line.

9, 10, 11 and 12 are south end freights.

5 and 6 are north end freights.

Ore trains on the branchline ran as unnumbered and unsymboled extras.

Plus an unnumbered turn job for the CP interchange at Franz and as-required extra freights on the south end.

My eventual plans are to hopefully model the branchline and north end of the line, so I should end up running everything except 3 and 4.


Signals and Train Symbols on a Shortline

Around me I have the Rochester Southern; Livonia, Avon & Lakeville; and Western NY & PA.  All operate as black territory and use warrants for train movements (usually just a single train running at any time).  Can catch the R&S on the scanner and they just use the lead engine #.  You can find further info on these RR's on the internet.  Might also want to check Don Irace's Providence & Worcester RR ( for some ideas.


another numbering scheme

Ontario Northland has (had) terminals at North Bay, Englehart, Timmins, Cochrane, and Rouyn.  And Moosonee.  The first digit of a train number indicated its originating terminal:

107, 187 - freight and psgr northbound out of North Bay (psgrs were all x8x)

208, 288 - corresponding southbounds from Englehart

207, 308 - freight north out of Englehart, returning south out of Timmins

424, 488 - freight and psgr south from Cochrane

512, 584 - from Rouyn

421, 622 - mixed train between Cochrane and Moosonee

ONR fans take note: trains and train numbers changed now and then, so 424 became 414, etc.  The above corresponds to summer 1974 when I started as an opr.


Many Thanks

Looks like I'm pretty much right on with my naming conventions, based on what you've all said so far. Funny you mentioned Don Irace's layout - it was part of my initial inspiration to model a "home grown" New England road (aside from being a born-and-raised New Englander, myself).  Right now (and subject to change, I'm sure)  I'm following an abbreviated town naming convention for many of my trains.  I've seen the odd/even numbering used before to designate north-west/south-east and really like the idea.  All trains follow this convention, for example:

Local HCA-2 runs out of Hannah Yard and switches Clark Ave Siding for the Firestone Building Products plant (eastbound) 

All turns and transfers utilize origination/destination abbreviations like:

HYWP is the Hannah Yard (Plainville) - Winthrop Park (New London) turn with corresponding WPHY for the return route

HS1 is the Hannah Yard Switcher which works in two shifts (morning/afternoon) classifying the yard and switching all local industries (probably the busiest job on the entire railroad)

All extras use the first initial of the origination/destination yard plus "X" plus the number 1 or 2 depicting north-west/south-east direction.

So HTX2 is an eastbound extra out of Plainville to Norwich (Talman Street Yard)

There are many more which I left out for now.  As I finalize my train list (and can look at it without feeling like I let a child make up the names for me) I'll post an exhaustive list.


The more I think about signaling, the more I realize it'll be a pain to do anything "fancy".  The entire upper level will be black territory but I still may put a few signals on the lower level to protect the many sidings , especially near the helix entrance.

Thanks for the input guys!  Looking forward to more!



Freelancing the Plainville, Pequabuck and New London Railroad


Train symbols

I'll share my train symbol system, feel free to adopt or adapt it as you see fit.  It's loosely based on Wisconsin & Southern's former symbol system, along with Union Pacific's, with inspiration from other railroads'.

The first letter of my train symbols denotes the type of train, from letters P through Y:
P = Passenger Train (could also be used for an uber-high-priority train)
Q = "Quality" freight (high-priority freight, or could be used as a secondary passenger train)
R = Road freight, runs continuously from one terminal to another
S = Set-out freight, makes pick-ups and set-outs en route from its end points (this would also be used for a local that starts at one yard and terminates at another yard)
T = Turn, goes from its originating terminal to an end point, then returns to its original terminal (generally, a local that returns to its origin after serving its "destination")
U = Unit train
V = Empty unit train
W = Light power move (Without the train)
X = Extra
Y = Yard job

The second and third letters of the train symbol denote the originating and destination terminals, respectively.  In the case of the yard job, the third character would be a number denoting the shift (e.g. YB2 for a second shift yard job at whatever "B" stands for).  These terminals are assigned to letters A-O, and Z is used to denote any origin or destination that is off-line, unknown, or not otherwise assigned to A-O.

If you haven't set up any terminals yet, but are still running trains, you'd run them all as extras from unknown location to unknown location: XZZ... ;-)

There are a couple of ways to use the terminal designation system: 1. If your railroad runs generally in a straight line, with minimal branches, you could designate your terminals from A to O in the order in which they geographically appear; in your example, Plainville would be A and New London, O, or vice-versa.  (Some might carry this even further and name their stations/terminals/yards according to the "initial".)  2. Assign the terminal designations according to the place name.  In your example, New London would likely be "N", but could also be "L" if you prefer Talman Street Yard to be "N" for "Norwich".  Plainville would be a bit of a challenge, since "P" is a train type designation; "E" might be a possibility, as would "A" or even "I".  Alternately, you could deviate somewhat from my system and use "P" for both Plainville and "P"assenger type trains.

Finally, if any of your trains spend more than one day on the road, or if you just want to differentiate trains from different days, you'll want to use the day's date for the last two digits of your train symbol.  As an example from my "DM Rail Group", today's Road Freight from Greendale (which is actually in Franklin, following railroad tradition of naming facilities in spite of their actual geographic location) to Chicago (not actually in Chicago, see above), would be RGC01.

Just for another example, the local from Greendale to Union Grove operates as a turn.  Since I don't use U for a terminal code, and Greendale already takes the G, I've designated it as K since it's on the branch to Kansasville.  Yesterday's train would have been the TGK30.


Since you asked about signals as well, I might as well agree with what has already been said: Short lines and small regionals generally won't have, or at most, won't continue to use, a signal system.  While it certainly might be "neat", you may well find that any efforts put towards such a system may well be directed elsewhere.  A simpler track warrant system would be sufficient.

\ Fuzzy /

DM Rail Group: Milwaukee Franklin & Norway • Paris Coal Railway • St. Louis Northern • South Fork

Great Stuff!!!

Thanks, Fuzzy, for the insight on your naming system - I can easily adapt this to fit my shortline!

Since my initial posting I have rearranged the lower level, or "southeastern" leg, of my railroad to fit a newly-defined track agreement with the Providence & Worcester over their Willimantic Line which forced a few key locations to be renamed. 

I am, at present, attempting to follow two distinct prototype train operations.  The first being the PW where a weekly/daily transfer runs between the major terminals and a handful of locals to carry out all switching duties. Seasonal trains run stone to and from various destinations (I will have a quarry on the final layout) and the occasional coal drag complete the train list.

The second is the Georgia Central which is slightly better suited for my purposes. Two trains operate in opposite directions from their respective terminals which lie at the extreme end of the southern shortline.  These trains work the trailing point industries along the way and, upon meeting somewhere near the middle of the line, the crews swap trains and return to their home yard, working the skipped facing point - which are now trailing point - industries on the way. 

There are several benefits to the latter prototype operation: for one, there are only a few trains to maintain (a yard job is included as well), perfect for 1 - 3 operators, which is what I'm aiming for. Second, this will add an interesting challenge as trains would have to be assembled to account for industries following the crew swap.  The pitfalls: my layout isn't large enough to accurately replicate this and the train originating in New London would be waiting in the hole for quite some time until the Plainville train found its way down the helix for the meet.  Also, this will call for yet another complete redesign as Hannah Yard is not currently the terminus of the line so this train would have to work backwards first then run its power around to head "east" and make the meet in Norwich at the Holly Hock Yard (previously Talman St Yard).

Presently, I am going to follow the PW prototype as this will allow the most flexibility in train movements. There are three Plainville Locals (PV-1, PV-2 & PV-3) with PV-3 operating in two shifts to handle 24-7 traffic in and out of the auto unloading terminal it serves and all three trains taking turns as the "yard job" when needed.  New London has two locals (NL-1 & NL-2 which will interchange with my other freelanced regional in staging when needed.  A twice-weekly transfer, PVNL, originates in Plainville with switched out freight from the locals as well as freight from PanAm Southern's PLED out of Eas Deerfield, MA.  PVNL makes a stop in Holly Hock Yard (Norwich) to drop cars for the NW-1 local based there.  NLPV is the return symbol that moves autoracks as well as switched out freight from the local jobs .  When there are no autoracks to move, NLPV will work the quarry on the return trip to Plainville (when stone is in season).

On top of these regular trains, there is a "when needed" transfer between Plainville and CSX's Cedar Hill Yard in North Haven, CT (represented in staging), a Sunday merchandise extra between the terminals and a "special" which is an as-needed extra that runs only to move oversized, hazardous or just odd loads.

I figure this will change as I delve deeper into my trackplan ( design, but I feel this is a good starting point.  At the very least, I feel I have a much better understanding (and appreciation) of how trains operate.

Thanks again for everyone who contributed your comments - I could not have gotten this far without them!


Freelancing the Plainville, Pequabuck and New London Railroad


SurvivorSean's picture

Signals and Symbols

As I believe was mentioned as I skimmed through the comments as far as symbols you can use whatever works best for you as alpha or numeric would be entirely prototypical.  You can also avoid using symbols all together and designate trains as simply Extra whatever the train is. 

By doing so you can be prototypical in dispatching and avoid pickling yourself into a train symbol.  You can simply have say a weekly requirements list or qualify the job types by something like job #1 to say job #5.  One other thing is if it's normally run at a certain time you can even call it say the 0900 job that would start at 9am and it can even have different work or destinations.

Now as for signals as noted CTC would not be used unless of course you were crossing a larger railroad at grade.  One exception to this would be a drawbridge if for example you like signals (like me) and want to include them some way some how.  The drawbridge would be the only interlocking controlled by the brdige master.  Interlockings would be in place to prevent the bridge opening with a train in advanced approach (depending on speed minimum 1 block, but could be 2).  For a short line probably the former.

Also noted was ABS signals were just as expensive.  The thing to keep in mind is if the signals are in place they should have a purpose.  In other words if your not having many or any meets they are probably not necessary.  ABS signals would be used primarily for following movements.  Opposing movements would fall in the lines of a clearance by a dispatcher.

Some short lines have no dispatchers at all.  If 2 trains are expected on the territory they can have exclusive rights to the track, sign a train register or log book.  Assuming it's just you running most of the time then I take it your not expecting very many meets so it's probably not necessary to have a dispatcher.




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