For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

Train Headcodes Part 2

By the 1890s the train headcodes in use on the GER system fell into three main categories: Route Indicating, Single Lines, and Train Description. Generally, the headcodes were shown with discs by day, replaced by lamps of the corresponding colour by night, or during fog or falling snow.

A point that is often commented upon is that photographs of GE trains often show a mixture of discs and lamps on the front of the locomotive. In such cases - with one minor exception - the lamps should be disregarded. It will be noted that the locomotives concerned are almost without exception tender engines. Each locomotive generally carried four lamps. During daylight, on a tank engine the lamps could be stored safely out of harm's way on top of the tanks. On a tender engine, there was only the top of the tender, so the lamps were often placed on the front lamp-irons that were not being used for a disc. Lamps were not allowed to be carried on the rear of the bunker or tender when hauling a train. In the event that the train should break away from the engine, there was the (admittedly unlikely) possibility that such spare lamps could be mistaken by the signalman as tail lamps.

The exception was in the case of GER trains passing through the East London Line tunnel which, in addition to displaying the correct discs by day, also had to display a white lamp.

The GER's headcode system rapidly became very complex. The codes were detailed in the Appendix to the Working Timetables, and by 1900 there were over 200 headcodes in use, including those shown by 'foreign' locomotives when travelling over the GER. Some of the headcodes remained in use for many years, whilst others changed with each edition of the Appendix. Even as late as 1942 there were still 125 headcodes in use on the ex-GER section of the LNER, and the system remained in use until the end of steam power on the NE London suburban lines in November 1960. However, some diehard loco crews continued to use the disc codes on the surviving North Woolwich line services until they succumbed to diesel power in September 1962.

Route Indicating Headcodes

The route indicating headcodes were the most numerous and complex. They were shown by up to four discs/lamps, at least one of which was usually - but not exclusively - a green one.


Most headcodes referred to trains of all types travelling between two or more points. For example, all trains between Liverpool Street, Stratford Market and Woolwich, or between Stratford Market and Albert Dock carried a single green lamp or disc at the smokebox top.

Other headcodes referred implicitly or explicitly to certain classes of train. Thus trains "between Goodmayes Up Marshalling Yard and Tufnell Park", referred to goods trains by implication. Other headcodes were specific, "Carriage Trains and Light Engines between Liverpool Street and Devonshire Street Sidings", for example.

In other cases, the headcode might apply in one direction only, or only if passing over specific running lines. An example of this was that there were separate headcodes for up empty carriage trains from any of the London area carriage sidings to each of the platforms four to nine at Liverpool Street, provided that they ran over the 'Local' line from Bethnal Green. In the most extreme cases, there were specific headcodes for particular individual goods trains.

Some instructions carried footnotes detailing a variation in the headcode, such as if the train were to travel over the 'Through' line between Bethnal Green and Liverpool Street, for example.

A number of headcodes had more than one meaning. For instance, a green lamp/disc at the top of the smokebox, and another one over the coupling denoted trains between Liverpool Street or Whitechapel Sidings and New Cross (LBSCR); between Liverpool Street, Loughton and Epping; from the Cambridge line to Tufnell Park; and between Victoria Park and Canning Town. None of these routes passed the same signalboxes, except the New Cross and Epping trains, between Liverpool Street and East London Junction. However, the former travelled over the 'Local' line, and the latter by the 'Through', so confusion was avoided.

During the LNER period the number of headcodes in use declined somewhat. By the Second World War the four main line railways had agreed a series of standard headcodes for cross-London freight trains. indicated by between one and three white lamps/discs. The GE area route-indicating codes continued much as before, most of them utilising one or more 'violet' discs or lamps, although a few continued to use white only.

Some headcodes became 'reversible' to denote which running lines the train was travelling over. For example, the London and Chingford headcode had remained unchanged for many years, consisting of a white disc/lamp at the smokebox top, and a green (later violet) over the coupling. This later came to apply only if the train passed over the `Fast' line between Bethnal Green and Hackney Downs. If it was to travel over the 'Slow' line the code was reversed, i.e. with the violet lamp/disc at the top and the white over the coupling.

Single Line Headcodes

There were generally four headcodes in use for single lines; for day and night use, and for 'ordinary' and 'special' trains. The standard headcode for an ordinary train by day was a red disc at the smokebox top, and by night a red lamp was carried in the same position, supplemented by a white over the right-hand buffer. Special trains by day carried an additional white disc over the coupling, and by night an additional white lamp over the left-hand buffer.

Many single lines had their own headcodes however. The day time code was shown by a single disc which was red or green. By night, an additional white or green lamp was shown if the daytime code was a single red, or an additional red lamp if the daytime code was a single green. Special trains carried an additional white disc or lamp.

It will be noted that night time indications were never given by a single red lamp, and this was always supplemented by one or two white or green lights.

The red disc or lamp was only carried whilst passing over the single line sections, and a stop had to be made to add or remove it when leaving or entering double track sections. As indicated above, the use of the red disc or lamp was abolished under the LNER.

Train Description Headcodes

Where neither the Route Indicating or Single Line headcodes applied, trains carried a headcode indicating the train's description - passenger, through goods, light engine and so on. Although a white lamp or disc displayed over each buffer came to universally signify an express passenger train at an early date, the headcodes for other classes of train varied between the railway companies. However, in the early 1900s the Railway Clearing House agreed a standard set of train description headcodes, and these were in use on the GER by 1910.

Prior to this, Great Eastern Train description headcodes were shown by two or three discs or lamps, either all white or green, or a mixture of both. Special trains in some categories carried an additional white disc or lamp at the smokebox top. Following the adoption of the RCH headcodes, an additional green disc or lamp was displayed to indicate a special train, this practice ceasing after the formation of the LNER.

‘Foreign’ Companies trains on the GER

For completeness, mention should be made of the various railway companies that had running powers over the GER lines, especially in the London area. These included trains from the Midland, North London, London & North Western, and the Great Northern Railways, and especially the London, Tilbury and Southend.

These companies all had their own patterns of headcode display, using various coloured lamps or discs. The Midland Railway locomotives stationed in the London area were equipped with lamp irons in the four standard positions, plus an additional one on the smokebox door, over the centre, and adjacent to that over the right-hand buffer. Daytime headcodes were displayed by unlit lamps in some cases, or by various patterns of disc. These 'discs' were in fact square boards. One was plain white, whilst another was white with a blue circular disc in the centre. Another was white with a black St. Andrew's cross, and a fourth variety was black with a white diamond. By night, combinations of white, purple and red lamps were used.

The London & North Western used white and green lamps by night, and the corresponding daytime discs were white with a green rim, and green with a white rim. The GNR used green and white lamps, by day and night. The NLR similarly used green and white lamps by day or night, but they also employed a double lamp-iron like the Midland, but over the left-hand buffer.

The London Tilbury and Southend Railway had to utilise running powers over the GER from Gas Factory Junction to reach the terminus at Fenchurch Street. It also had running powers over the GER main line from Forest Gate Junction to Liverpool Street for boat trains to and from Tilbury Docks. Its locomotives employed the standard RCH headlamp positions, and white and green lamps were used by night, but a wide variety of discs and boards were used by day. These comprised a plain white disc and a green one with a white rim, like the GER. However, there was also a white disc with a red St. George's cross, and two rectangular boards; one green with a white St. George's cross, and its reverse, with a green cross on white.

Like the GER, the LT&S employed destination boards on its locomotives, but these were much larger, and were carried over the buffer beam between the lamp-irons over the buffers.

However, unlike the GER, the night-time headcodes bore no relation to the day-time codes. For example,the code for a train between Fenchurch Street and Southend or Shoeburyness running via Upminster was by means of the white disc with red cross over the coupling. By night, two green lights were displayed; one over each buffer. Incidentally, the daytime disc over the coupling effectively obliterated the middle of the destination board!

The GER headcode instructions called for all LT&S trains to carry a rectangular board lettered 'LT&SR' when travelling over the GE lines by day. This is understood to date from the time between 1854 and 1880 when the GER provided the locomotives and carriages for the LT&S. It was apparently an aid to the signalmen at Forest Gate Junction, and latterly Gas Factory Junction to distinguish between trains for the GE and LT&S lines. However, the board would have been no use at night.

The truth of this is difficult to verify at this point in time, but the fact remains that the board was only carried by LT&S trains when passing over the GER. It was not used on internal services, such as Romford and Upminster, or the Ockendon branch, nor was it used when passing over the Tottenham & Hampstead line to and from St. Pancras, which was latterly jointly-owned by the GER and the Midland Railways. Following the absorption of the LT&SR by the Midland in 1912, the board was changed to read 'LT&S Section'. Shortly after the amalgamation of the MR into the London Midland & Scottish Railway in 1923, the board and the route-indicating headcodes were abolished on the LT&S line, and replaced by normal train description codes.