German Railroad Signals

German Railroad Signals

By Ulrich Albrecht



1.         Introduction

Signaling on German railroads is a complicated chapter which could easily fill several books.  Therefore, I will just give an outline describing the basic signals used, instead of addressing era or region specific details.  I will also stay away from the most modern signals introduced during the last 10 years or so, since the majority of signals available as models are those used in the second half of the last century.  These new signals combine the older signals in one signal screen.  However, anyone who has worked through the older signaling system will easy find their way through the newer signals. Viessmann offers the newer signals. While a few prototype light signals were used before the war, the available models represent the type of signals built after the war. On the other hand, the semaphore signals can also be used in Era 2, if one is willing to accept a few minor compromises. In general, the discussion will focus on the Deutsche Bundesbahn, the former West German State Railroad.  However, the State Railroad in East Germany operated using the same rules with only minor differences in signs; and the same applies to the DRG before the war.

German signals can roughly be divided into three groups: Home signals, distance signals and station signals for switching within a station.  For all types of signals, there are both, semaphore and light versions. I will refer to modeling aspects whenever needed, and will use Viessmann’s H0 scale signals as examples. Maerklin and Busch also produce excellent light signals, but Viessmann offers the most complete collection in all popular scales.


2.         Home Signals (Hauptsignale): 

This type of signal governs the movement of all trains inside and outside of stations.  They are also used for block control and for the protection of  junctions and crossings. Switching moves inside a station are not controlled by these signals, but by the signals discussed in Section 4.   The same type of semaphore signal is used for block signals and signals controlling the entrances or exists of stations. If a station has light signals, signals from all three groups may be combined into one signal. Moreover, there are variations in the arrangements of the lights, depending on the particular use of a signal.  Viessman offers almost all such light signal combinations, but these can easily be understood based on our discussion of the three individual groups.

Before beginning our discussion, I want to remind the reader that German railroad operations distinguish between trains, i.e. locomotives with and without cars, which depart or enter a station, and switching units which operate within the limits of a single station.

There are three indications for a home signal, namely Hp0, Hp1, and Hp2.  If the signal can only show Hp0 and Hp1, then only one blade is used.  If it can indicate Hp0 and Hp2, two connected blades are used.  Finally, if the signal can show all three indications, it will have two independent blades.  Blades pointing below the horizontal are not used except in some old signals left in Bavaria from before WW1.

Bavarian Signals

Bavarian Signal prior to WW I

Home signals display either Hp0/Hp1, Hp0/Hp2, or Hp0/Hp1/Hp3.  In contrast to American signal systems, all of these are absolute.  Home signals apply to trains and switching units unless indicated otherwise.  There is no signal indication for “Proceed with Caution”.  Moreover, secondary lines with permitted speeds under 50km/h (31mi/h) do not need home signals.

HpO:  Come to a stop.

For semaphores, there are two versions of  HpO depending on the number of blades of the signal.

Hp 0 for semaphores

HpO Indication for semaphores

The light signal versions of HpO differ depending on the use.  The left most picture shows HpO for a block or protection signal used on the line, the next for an entrance signal, and the last two for an exit signal.  The first exit light signal indicates Hp00 which means absolutely no train movement may pass the signal, while the second shows  Hp0 + Sh1 which means not trains may pass the signal, but switching units may.  Semaphores cannot show HpOO so they are often combined with a switching signal.

Hp0 and Hp00 on Light Signals

HpO  and HpOO on Light Signals

Hp1:  Proceed at the permitted speed.

The signal indication Hp1 is only used if the permitted speed exceeds 60km/h (37.5 mi/h), otherwise Hp2  (see below) is used.

Hp1 for semaphores

Hp1 indication for semaphores

As before, there are three versions of the matching light signals depending on where they are used.  The picture shows a block signal, an exit signal and an entrance signal from the left to the right.

Hp1 for Lightsignals

HP 1 indication for Light Signals

Hp2:  Proceed at a reduced speed (usually 40km/h or 25mi/h).

This signal is used if the following track does not permits higher speed, e.g. the diverging route through a turnout or as entrance signal of a stub end station.  Block signals usually do not show Hp2 since there are no diverging routes.  However, if they protect a junction or a crossing, then Hp2 may be used.  Again, the light signals are a block, an exit and an entrance signal from the left to the right.


Hp2 indication

The speed permitted under Hp2 can be raised up to 60km/h (37.5mi/h) if the track following the signal supports this speed.  The higher speed is indicated by a Zs3 signal.  The Zs3 signal can also be used to indicate a lower speed, for instance 30km/h which is the highest permissible speed for a train enters a stub end track.  It may be a metal sign or a light signal. The speed is always ten times the number shown.  The metal sign may be movable if the restriction is only to be displayed for some routes.


Zs3 indication

The light signal may be able to show a variety of numbers.  The lower triangle is used if the signal is mounted low to the ground.  It is pointing downwards if the sign is mounted high.

Hp3: A Signal with 3 Blades


Since the late forties, individual home signals are allowed to indicate the combinations  Hp0/Hp1, Hp0/Hp2, Hp0/Hp1/Hp2 only.  Before 1945, there was also Hp3, which means the same as Hp2, but for a train traveling in another direction.


3. Distance Signals (Vorsignale):

These are the companions of the home signal.  They are standing in breaking distance (400m, 700m, 1000m, or 1200m depending on the permitted speed of the line) from the home signal, and tell the engineer what indication to expect at the next home signal.  In H0 scasle, this converts to a distance between 3.6m (12ft) and 11m (36ft).  Obviously, these distances have to be shortened significantly based on the fact that our trains can break much faster.  The German magazine MIBA suggested to use 75cm (2.5ft) to reflect the shortest, 2.1m (7ft) for the longest distance.

A distance signal is indicated by the distance signal sign (Ne2) (left picture):


Distant Signal Sign Ne2

Shorter distances between home and distance signal are permitted, but they must be indicated by adding a triangle to the sign indicating a distance signal.  East Germany used a slight variation  of this.

East German Sign for Reduced Distance

East German Sign for Reduced Distance between Distance and Home Signals

On secondary lines with speeds below 60km/h (37.5mi/h), the Ne2 sign can replace the distance signal.

However, no rule is without exceptions.

Lightsignal with distance signal

A light distance signal which is directly attached to the mast of a home signal does not carry the Ne2 sign as in case of this Viessmann signal. 

repeater signal

Repeater Signal


No semaphore signals are used as repeaters even if the original home and distance signals are Moreover, in some cases a light distance signal may be used between the distance signal and the corresponding home signal as a repeater signal.  Then, the sign is missing too.  However, the light signal has a small while light to indicate its repeater status.


Vr0: Expect Hp0 at the Next Home Signal: 

The right picture shows the semaphore version, the left the matching light signal. The arrow is removed if the home signal can only show Hp0 and Hp1 (picture on the left for Vr0 and Vr1)



Vr1: Expect Hp1 at the Next Home Signal:



Vr2: Expect Hp2 at the Next Home Signal: 



However, there is one notable exception.  When distance signals showing Vr2 were introduced in the 1930’s, they were installed on main lines with high traffic first.  Therefore, it was necessary to match quite a few home signals showing Hp0/Hp1/Hp2 with the older distance signals showing only Vr0/Vr1.  When such a distance signal was matched with a two-bladed home signal, the Vr1 aspect was renamed Vr101/Vr102 (expect Hp1 or Hp2 at next home signal).  Starting in 1959, the standard distance signal sign Ne2 was replaced for Vr101/102 signals by the sign Ne104, which remained valid until 1972.



4.  Station Signals:

Station signals govern the movement of trains and switching units inside stations.  I want to remind the reader once more that train means everything that is leaving the station: Passenger trains, Freight trains and single locomotives proceeding to another station.  A switching unit is everything that moves only within the confines of a station: Engines shunting cars, engines moving to and from the engine yard, engines changing tracks.

Protection Signals (Gleisperrsignale):

Sh0:  Stop for all trains and switching units: 



A non-changeable version of Sh0 appears at the end of stub tracks in which are used by switching units only.  If the stub track is used by trains, the signal  Sh2 is used instead (see below).



If this signal appears in combination with a home signal, then the following rules apply:

Sh1 + Hp0: Proceed for switching units, but stop for trains.

Sh1 + Hp1/2: Proceed for trains and switching units.  If the home signal is a light signal, then the switching signal will turn itself off if Hp1 or Hp2 is indicated.

Semaphore station signals appear only with semaphore home signals.  Station signals combined with home signals are usually mounted high, but there are exceptions.  In contrast, light station signals are used with both semaphore and light home signals. In the latter case, both signals will be combined in one screen.

Sh2: Stop or Do not enter. 


This signal is also used at the end of  tracks which are entered not only by switching units, but also by trains.  It can be used to temporarily close a track.  A movable version may serve a protection signal for a moving bridge.  On secondary lines, it was used in lieu of a home signal.


5. Fixed Switching Signals (Rangiersignale)

Ra11:  Stop for switching units unless permitted to proceed by direct command.  This signal does not apply to trains. 



The command may be two lights attached to the signal which allow to indicate the light signal version of Sh1 or an oral command.  There is some ambiguity in the use of this sign and the Sh0/Sh1 Signal.  If switching units enter track with train movement and/or if lots of switching occurs at a location, use Sh0/Sh1.

Ra10 is the equivalent of the American yard limit sign.

It should stand close to the entrance signal, but in breaking distance from it. Switching units can pass this sign only with authorization of the yardmaster/station master.


5.         Location of Signals:

All signals are to be located to the right of or above the track for which they are valid.  If local conditions prevent this, the signal may be placed either on the left side of the track.  For home signals this indicating by placing a high a low checkerboard sign where the signal should be.




5.         Location of Signals:

All signals are to be located to the right of or above the track for which they are valid.  If local conditions prevent this, the signal may be placed either on the left side of the track.  For home signals this indicating by placing a high a low checkerboard sign where the signal should be.


If the home signal is very far to the right of the track, the checkerboard sign (Ne4) needs to be placed too.  The latter occurs often if a double tracked line is reduced to single track.  In this case the signals are not relocated to keep costs to a minimum.

A misplaced distance signal is indicated in the same way by using the distance signal sign.

The entrance signal of a station should be 200m (660ft) from the first switch, the exit signals 200m from the points where two exit tracks merge.  The reason for these distances is the following.  If a train runs through a signal showing Hp0, the emergency break should be triggered.  The 200m are the slide through protection for this.  This means that, in H0, the entrance signal and the exit signal should be 4.5m (15ft) apart.  Many of us are glad if the distance between the two entrance signals of our station is slightly more!

However, there is the golden exception rule for the location of signals:

“Shorter distances and deviation from these rules are permitted if approved by the railway supervisory authority.”

Since we are this authority, we can get away with shorter distances.  To begin with, the switches of our station can be used as the slight through protection for the entrance and exit signals at the same time since it can safely assume that an entering and a leaving train will not run a signal at the same time.  Moreover, often our tracks disappear in a tunnel soon after leaving the station, so we may assume that the entrance signal is in the tunnel, and just leave it off the layout.  People like me, who like entrance signals, can use the golden exception rule again by putting the entrance signal a short distance from the first switch of the station.  However, one should try to have at least 1m or 3ft distance between the exit signals and the entrance signals facing them.

The distance signals for the exit signals are supposed to be standing with the entrance signals for a station.  There should be only one exit distance signal for all tracks from which trains entering a particular way can exit.  The exit signal has to be able to match all the indications of the exit signals.  There are some exceptions to this rule, e.g. if yard tracks branch off after the entrance signal or the station is too long (as if this ever happens on a model railroad).

The next part of our discussion addresses the question which home signals to use where.  While this could fill a whole other blog, here is a rule of thumb:  If the train has to run through the curved part of any switch or a single/double slip switch, the signal governing the movement of this train should indicate Hp2.  Hp1 should only be used if all switches are either straight or have a large enough radius to permit speeds higher than 60km/h (37.5mi/h). The latter will never happen on a model railroad since such a switch needed a radius of about 8m (27ft).  If both route choices are possible, then the signal has to be able to indicate both Hp1 and Hp2.  For those who just start putting in signals, it is easy to buy the correct one.  But what are those of us to do that already have a good supply of signals with an Hp0/Hp1 indication.  Getting rid of them and buying new ones is one choice, but this is usually hard to do and even harder to sell to the domestic secretary of finance.  The simple solution is to be pragmatic: After all, almost all switches have a substantially larger radius than our track, so one just declares them to be high speed switches.  If one uses a curved switch with a narrow radius, then one has to bite the bullet and place an Hp0/Hp2 signal.  This is the way how I handled it on my layout.

Moreover, the operation of all these different signals has to be brought into a logical connection with the position of the switches and the movement of the trains, e.g. an entrance signal may have to change from Hp1 to Hp2 and back as switches change their alignment.  One can operate all signals manually, but most of us will forget to do this correctly when concentrating on running a train.  Thus, some automation is needed to ensure that the signal indications are as close to realistic as is feasible.  Either in the analogue or digital world, this can be done using relays or some form of train detection.   I have implemented this on my layout, and it works quite well; I would say its level of realism is about 80%.  To get a higher level, either a computer with software as sold by Roco and Fleischmann or  special signal decoders are necessary.  Teamdigital sells such a decoder, the SIG24AD which together with their route controller SRC16 allows to establish the logical connection between signals, switches and occupied tracks.  Digitrax has a similar product.

Let us now look on the way the signals are located in a station.   The first picture describes how to put semaphore signals in a small station:

Station 1

On a single track line things are handled in a similar way.  Below, no distance signals are used since the sketch represents a line with a speed limit between 50km/h and 60km/h.  For higher speeds, distance signals need to be added.

station 2

Finally, here is the signaling for a stub end station with light signals.  The black triangles with a  3  are Zs3 signals indicating a speed limit of 30km/h (18.75mi/h) which is the maximal speed which a train can have when entering a stub-end track.


6.  Some Models:

Viessmann 4500:         Semaphore with Hp0/Hp1

Viessmann 4501:         Semaphore with Hp0/Hp2

Viessmann 4502:         Semaphore with Hp0/Hp1/Hp2

Viessmann 4509:         Semaphore with Vr0/Vr1

Viessmann 4510:         Semaphore with Vr0/Vr2

Viessmann 4511:         Semaphore with Vr0/Vr1/Vr2

Viessmann 4515/16:    Semaphore Sh0/Sh1 Signal

Viessmann 4010;         Light Distance Signal

Viessmann 4011:         Light Blocksignal

Viessmann 4012:         Light Entrance Signal

Viessmann 4013:         Light Exit Signal

Viessmann 4014 – 4016: The above combined with a distance signal on the same mast.

Viessmann 4017/4018: Sh0/Sh1 Light Signals

Viessmann offers also multiplex versions of some of the light signals which use a special controller to display all the possible indications.


2 Responses to German Railroad Signals

  1. Herman CM Burgers says:

    Nice explanation!
    But please read
    braking where breaking,
    Distant when Distance is written.

    Kind regards,

    Herman CM Burgers

  2. Kevin Flynn says:

    I should like to re-iterate what Herman CM Burgers has posted above: namely that, in reference to the application of brakes, “break” and “breaking” should be written “brake” and “braking”; also “distance signal” (Vorsignal) should be “distant signal”. May I also repeat, however, that this is an excellent introduction to the subject of German railway signalling, which is something that those used to other systems can sometimes find quite difficult to “get their heads round” at first! Thank you.

    Just a couple more observations which I hope you won’t find too picky:

    The category of Hauptsignale (main signals) covers both “home signals” (Einfahrsignale) and “starter signals” (Ausfahrsignale): yes, they are the same in appearance, but strictly speaking, Hauptsignal does not directly correspond to “home signal”.

    This may be an American English v. British English difference, but what you call signal “blades” are normally called signal arms in “British & Commonwealth” usage.

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