Real train operations are often controlled by signals, using either color lights or semaphores (which have colored lenses combined with a blade arm). These signals are a colorful feature of real railroad operations. So, too, signals can also control train movements and offer additional detail to the model railroad.
Many European modelers control their model trains with signals. This is a reflection of the operating philosophy of model railroad operation in Europe, where the model railroader usually views themselves as a signal tower operator. In the North American market, the model railroader views themselves as a locomotive engineer, a different approach to train control. In either case, railroad signals can improve the realism of your model railroad. This can be automated if the modeler desires, and the process of such automation is made much easier by computer programs such as Railroad & Co.
The topic of model railroad signaling is a complicated one, but if you break things down into their component parts, the process becomes easier. Operation of an individual signal combines a control device connected to the signal. This control device can be a simple pushbutton. In turn, train control is achieved by creating a segment of track that is defined by isolating one rail at two locations.
As mentioned earlier, there are two general types of signals:
Color light signals are the more modern of railroad control signals, while semaphores date back to the late 1800’s. In parts of southern Germany, semaphores are still in use, although they are now slated for removal. Semaphores give both a color indication and have an arm which gives additional indication. Color lights, however, are generally immune to the effects of ice and snow, which can jam a semaphore arm.
For many years, the only signals in Z-Scale were manufactured by Märklin. Starting in 2010, American prototype signals became available from Custom Signal Systems. More about them in a moment.
When Z-Scale was introduced, Märklin included a color light signal, the 8939 in the product line. In 1973, the 8993 grade crossing signal was added to the line. Later, in 1979, Märklin added the 8940 semaphore signal.
These earlier signals have been replaced with a series of German prototype color light signals and semaphores which are more realistic. The earlier signals are still in the marketplace and may be more than sufficient for your purposes.
1st Generation Märklin Signals
The 8939 color light signal shows a red and a green indication.