red signal The "Forest City" Signalling System in Ballarat green signal
By Alan Bradley Click on image's to see the collection record.


This article looks at the “safe working” systems that applied in Ballarat, the first being the hand staff system.  As a result of four serious collisions, the “Forest City” colour light system was adopted and this system is examined in detail.


What is a “safe working” system?  Put simply, it is a means of ensuring that collisions do not occur between two tramway or railway vehicles on a length of track.  The type of safe working considered for this article is that intended to prevent collisions on a length of single track. 

There is no evidence that the Ballarat horse tram system had a safe working system.  It probably wasn't’t needed.  The speeds were low, hardly above walking pace.  If two horse trams met between loops there was no real danger apart from bad language and inconvenience. 

The Electric Supply Company (ESCo) electrified both the Bendigo steam tram system (in 1903) and the Ballarat horse tram system (in 1905).  With electrification came higher speeds, with a resultant risk of damage to vehicles and injuries to passengers in the event of a collision.

On 29 May 1903, little over a month after the commencement of the Bendigo to Eaglehawk electric service, two trams collided head-on at 11 pm at California Gully on a stretch of single track.  The ex-Bendigo tram was carrying about 20 passengers returning to Eaglehawk from an evening at the theatre.  The ex-Bendigo and ex-Eaglehawk trams were clearly visible to each other, but did not stop in time to avert a collision.  The impact was great, but fortunately only one passenger was injured, although several suffered from shock.  The motorman of the ex-Bendigo tram was dismissed for not waiting at the Needle loop.

Two collisions took place on the Ballarat system in 1906.  Both took place in Wendouree Parade, west of the old Showgrounds (near Haddon Street), on an S-bend curve with visibility restricted by trees and a large hedge.  The first collision on 9 February 1906 took place just before midnight, when two trams were returning to the depot.  The leading tram was hauling a trailer, and stopped after a signal from a passenger.  The following tram ran into the back of the trailer and telescoped it, and two passengers on the trailer were injured.  Motorman Jackson, in charge of the leading car, was suspended as he had neglected to sound the gong five times before stopping.  Motorman Clemens, in charge of the following tram, followed only 50 yards behind, whereas regulations stated he had to follow at least 200 yards behind.  However Clemens had been instructed to follow close behind in case of a crossing at a loop with another car. 1

ESCo lake map
Map of tram tracks and the loops in the Electric Supply Co. of Victoria era. Haddon St is in the top centre of the track around the Lake. From "The Golden City and its Tramways" - Ballarat Tramway Museum.

In the afternoon of 4 March 1906 a head-on collision occurred, close to the scene of the first collision, between an east-bound “summer car” and a west-bound “standard car” (similar to our No. 12).  Both cars were travelling quickly, and the force of the impact jammed both cars together.  Motorman Hofsteed, in charge of the standard car was thrown onto the road, and four passengers were injured. 

ESCo Summer Car ESCo Standard car 13
ESCo Summer tramcar leaving Grenville St c1906 ESCo Standard tramcar No. 13 at Depot Junction Wendouree Parade, c1906.

Tramway officials and two police officers investigated the collision.  Both motormen claimed that they stopped their cars at the loops at either end of the single track section, believed the line ahead was clear, and then proceeded.  Motorman Hofsteed was initially accused of not having rung the bells on the curves when the collision took place, but a witness claimed both motormen had rung the bells there. 2

Hand staffs

The circumstances of those three serious collisions showed a lack of a reliable safe working system.  With the higher speeds of electric trams, it was essential for public safety to prevent more than one tram being on a length of single track at any one time.  The solution was one dating from the earliest days of 19th century railway operation - the staff system.  A tram could not enter a section of single track without receiving the hand staff, which was either held by the motorman of the oncoming tram or left on a pole near the loop.  Each brass staff was inscribed with the names of the loops at each end of the section.

btm1851i btm1853i

Other Hand or Section Staffs held by the BTM
Seymour St Loop to Gregory St Loop
Sturt St to South St.
Carlton St Loop to Haddon St. Loop
Darling St Loop to Rubicon St Loop
Urquhart St Loop to Grey St Loop
Pleasant St Loop to Carlton St Loop
Victoria Park Loop to Carlton St Loop            
Car Shed Loop to Macarthur St Loop

Some of the hand staffs held by the Museum.

On the section of track from the corner of Sturt and Pleasant Street, around the lake to “Hospital corner” the following staff would be used, depending on the service:

Series 1 (30 minute service, 3 trams): Pleasant Street to Hamilton Avenue; Hamilton Avenue to Showgrounds; Showgrounds to Hospital.

Series 2 (5 trams, 20 minutes): Pleasant Street to Gardens; Gardens to Carsheds; Carsheds to Hospital.

Former employee Les Edwards recalled:

Each loop had a staff and you couldn't’t go through that loop unless you had the staff.  Your loop staffs were numbered.  There was a dangerous position where we were supposed to stop and hand them over, but you got that way where you could twirl your leg around the dash, hang out and change over one hand.  Of course if you got caught look out, we never got caught.  It was a dangerous thing to do but we got away with it”. 3

The 1936 Collision

During the 1930s the State Electricity Commission (SEC) commenced an extensive rehabilitation of the Ballarat and Bendigo tramway systems.  This included replacement of rolling stock, and renewal of track and overhead wire.  By 1936 nearly all of the old rolling stock had been scrapped – but the hand staffs remained in use.

On 5 February 1936 a head-on collision between tram No. 26 and the scrubber car occurred in Wendouree Parade, near where the 1906 collisions occurred.  Passenger Elizabeth Clarke was trapped in No. 26.  Her left leg was nearly severed in the collision, and it was amputated that day.  Two days later she died of “gas gangrene”, a deadly condition in the days before invention of penicillin.

btm3688c1 btm3688c6
btm3688c2 btm3688c7
The scrubber and No. 26 back at the depot after the collision. The scrubber tram bumper bar over rode the bumper bar of No. 26. The man standing in the photograph shows the point of the collision in Wendouree Parade, looking to the east and then west respectively.

Evidence at the Coronial inquest showed that motorman of No, 26 received a hand staff allowing him to proceed on that length of single track.  However the scrubber did not run to a timetable, and if meeting another tram between loops the scrubber would reverse and run to the last loop it had passed.  On this day the regular scrubber driver was on holidays, and his stand-in had only been driving for three days.  The rheostatic brake was incorrectly applied, and the scrubber wheels locked and skidded.

The hand staff system had been compromised by the practice of the scrubber meeting passenger trams in between loops.  In a location with limited visibility neither driver could pull up in time to avoid a collision – especially with an inexperienced driver in charge of the scrubber.  Clearly a much safer system was needed.  At the inquest Tramway Inspector Vic Mawby said that “the installation of automatic signals operated by trams approaching such curves was under consideration”. 4

Colour light signalling

Colour light signals had been used for many years on some other Australian tramway systems with single track.  On the Perth tramways the Nedlands line, opened in 1915, was protected by Nachod signals.  Various other Perth lines with single track were also protected by Nachod signals, and Forrest City signals were installed on the Wembley line.

In 1916 the Brisbane Tramway Company introduced colour light signalling on the single line at the outer end of the then Paddington terminus. "Forest City" and "Nachod" signalling was introduced by the Brisbane City Council in 1928, and eventually all sections of regularly used single line were protected with these appliances. By 1943 no less than 26 sections of single line in Brisbane were operated with this method of safe working.  5

For a photo of a USA Nachod signal - see

Colour light signalling was used in several locations in Melbourne.  In 1920 colour light signalling was installed on the single track bridge over the railway line at East Preston (known as “The Hump”, or “Mount Buggery”).  In 1935 Ruddick signals were installed on the single line at the outer end of the Wattle Park line, and around the same time on the end of the East Coburg line. For an article by Norm Cross on this section of Melbourne track see the November 1988 (No. 235) issue of Trolley Wire.

The SEC decided to install “Forest City” colour light signals on its three tramway systems at Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong.  It intended to relay the single track in Bridge Street in double track, but after opposition by the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria the Ballarat Council refused permission.  The Bridge Street single track was relaid early in 1937, and that appears to have been the first section fitted with Forest City signals.  Other lines followed over the next year.

In August 1937 the “Ballarat Courier” reported that the “Forest City” system had operated in Geelong for the past 6 or 7 years.  The system was now operating on several sections of Wendouree Parade, and inspection revealed a marked improvement compared to the old staff system.  “It will be some time before all lines are completed, but when completed the efficiency of through services will be assured”.  6

Who was the Forest City Electric Company?

The Nachod signalling system was the first used in tramway operation in Australia.  The signals were built by the Nachod Signal Co. Inc, of Louisville, Kentucky, USA (better known in later years for its most famous son, “Louisville Lip” Muhammad Ali.).  Compared to the Forest City signals, the Nachod signals were very complicated and had a counting system to indicate the number of cars in a section.  Three different signals were displayed, and up to 15 cars were allowed in a section. 7

The Forest City signals were simpler, in that only two signals were displayed. Up to 10 cars were allowed in a section.  The official Perth instructions commented:

“These signals therefore vary from the Nachod signals inasmuch as shunting back under the contact, without going through the section, will not restore them to neutral.  Where cars are tabled to a certain loop to turn, such as No. 2 loop Wembley, the trolley must be pulled down, and car allowed to coast under contact between 2 and 3 loops, both ways, when running around the loop”.   8

Correspondence from the Forest City company quoted its official name: “The Forest City Electric Co. Limited, 4 Longford Court, Stretford, Manchester”.  The SEC received catalogues from the Company listing various products for use on trams, trolleybuses and motor buses, such as stop signs, automatic point controllers and traffic control signals.    

Forest City Signal diagram Forest City sheets btm4488 btm4794i US Signals - btm3318
btm4911i1-letter btm4913  btm4913 btm4636i
In the Collection of the BTM, exists various letters and catalogues from Forest City, Nachods and the United States Electric Signals, which were sent to either the SEC or ESCo. Click on each image to see the full catalogue details and pdf or jpg images of the documents.

Forest City signalling in Ballarat

The Forest City signalling system was operated by the contact of trolley wheels with insulated contactors on the overhead wire.  Red and green coloured signals were shown in a box mounted on a pole just past the loop.  When a tram entered a loop, and a RED signal was showing, it indicated there was a tram in the section ahead moving towards the loop.  When a GREEN light showed it indicated there was a tram in the section ahead moving away from the loop.  Where no signal was showing, it meant the section ahead was free of trams.  A tram about to leave the loop operated a “setting contactor” which set a GREEN signal, while a RED signal showed at the far end of the section.  When arriving at the next loop the tram operated a “resetting contactor” that extinguished the signals. 

forest city box sec built box inside sec box
Photo of original Forest City box Photo of SEC built box

Photo of inside of SEC Box


Signal Contactor btm5373i1 btm4637
Signal Contactor fitted to the overhead. Instructions issued to SEC Crews. 1938 drawing showing the arrangments between loop and how the system functioned.

Where trams ran in duplicate, such as to and from the Depot, the first tram operated and cleared the signal.  No trams could follow another tram through a single track section unless it was ‘’within 100 yards of the preceding tram”.  If a greater distance separated trams, the second tram would wait until the first tram had cleared the section, and obtain its own GREEN signal.  [It is worth noting that in Bendigo trams ran in convoy on the Eaglehawk line for the Easter parade.  All trams in the convoy, except the last tram, carried white discs on the front.] 


Click here to play a short movie of trams entering loops and switching the red light off or switching the green light only.(windows version only).


Collection Details.

No. 25 on the Quarry Hill line running in a convoy of three trams - note the white disc on the front of the tram. Filmed in the early 1960's by Arthur Hill; trams pass by the signals.

If the power went off, all signals went out.  The motorman was expected to continuously use the gong around corners and blind spots, and proceed through the section with extremely cautious driving. Tips for the motorman for

ensuring safety included “continuous use of gong around any curves and blind spots”, or ”make use of a motorist to act as a pilot through the section”.

The circuit between the Car Sheds Loop and Gardens North Loop was arranged so that trams running into the depot cleared the signals.  Trams running from the depot via Drummond Street North did not operate the signals until leaving the Car Sheds Loop. 

btm3409i2 btm2054i
Ballarat 21 and 18 run together in Wendouree Parade, with 21 entering the Car Sheds Loop. The Collection Record photo enlargements show a red signal between the tramcars. Ballarat Tram No. 27 in Wendouree Parade, east bound, near the SEC Depot Junction.

At the corner of Sturt and Grenville Streets the double track narrowed to the Bridge Street single track.  At the other end of Bridge Street, at Main Road, was a junction for the Victoria Street and Mt Pleasant lines.  At Grenville Street was a small pole on which was placed a selector switch, which the motorman could operate without leaving the tram.  There were three positions: Victoria Street; Off; Mt Pleasant.  Trams shunting at Grenville Street set the switch to the “off” position so that no signal was operated.  On the north side of Bridge Street were two signals, one for Victoria Street, the other for Bridge Street only.  On the south side were the Mt Pleasant and Bridge Street only box.  No tram could proceed if there was a RED signal in the Bridge Street box.  The Bridge Street signals were cleared at the Main Road junction. 9

btm4485i-diagram btm4188i
Plan showing the original layout of the signalling in the Bridge St area. The motorman operates the selector switch at the corner of Sturt and Grenville Streets.
btm3803i btm2017i btm2394i
No. 17 at the corner of Victoria St. and Main Road, c 1959. A signal can be seen on the pole alongside the tram. Tram 26 enters Bridge St. with signals on either side of the street. The motorman of No. 34 operates the selector switch prior to entering Bridge St.

The View Point line

The anti-clockwise service around Lake Wendouree was for 50 years routed via Ripon Street, but in 1937 it was re-routed via Drummond Street North.  The section of track along Ripon Street and Wendouree Parade, as far as Macarthur Street, was not intended for regular services, but was kept for special services.  Forest City signals were not installed on that section.  Regular weekday services were later introduced along that section, on what became known as the View Point line.

The View Point service operated mostly with a single car service on weekday afternoons.  There was one crossing loop, in between the Powerhouse and the Lake View Hotel (known as the Mill Street loop).  There was occasional heavy traffic on the View Point line, such as for rowing Regattas, during which the hand staff was used for safe working. From photographs, it is apparent that trams entering or leaving the View Point line could actuate or cancel the signals in the Macarthur St Loop to Haddon St Loop section. A signal box was provided at the junction itself.

btm5252i btm2864i btm1166i1
No. 11 about to enter the Mill Street Loop on the View Point line, 1951. The SEC Welding truck working at the junction between the View Point line and Macarthur St. Note the setting contactor in the overhead. No. 31 at the View Point terminus - note the signal on the pole alongside the tram and the cancelling contactor.

The Mill Street loop was disconnected in 1954, and the View Point line operated afterwards as only a single car service.

Was it successful

The best opinion on whether the Forest City signalling system worked well came from the “trammies” who worked with it each day.  Herb Knight recalled:

“It was very effective, except when power went off the lights went off and it wouldn't’t come on with the power.  That was the only drawback.  The only way you’d get trapped between loops was if the power went off, and that lights would go off!  But we had no trouble.  It used to be operated on the overhead wire by the pole of the tram.  It would hit it and knock it on, and knock it off when it was going out.  Knock the light on going in, and knock it off going out.  It was very well done wasn't it?”

His son Ron Knight was also a “Trammie”, and recalled:

“It was fairly foolproof.  There was no argument over who got the light, or anything like that.  You’d wait for the green and that was it.  You had to go to the end of the loop to get the light.  You’d come in one end of the loop and come into the other section at the other end of the loop.  When you come into the loop you’d cut off in one section, you’d get to the other side of the loop and continue into the other section.  First car in the morning, you’d have to be careful how you got the lights.  You didn’t know what was down there, could be the cleaning car down there.  It would leave the depot and you wouldn’t see it go out.  It’d probably go out about half past 5.  Six minutes past 6, you’d go away with a tram, you’d get down Sebas and there’s the cleaning car down there.  You wouldn't’t even know it was down there.  If you had the red light, you’d proceed with extreme caution.  You’d give a couple of minutes and see what was coming”.

In over 30 years of operation in Ballarat with the Forest City system, there were no known or reported collisions between oncoming trams. 

btm4614i btm5061i
Tram 31, outward bound on Mount Pleasant enters the Grant St Loop.   Trams 30 and 33 cross at the Bell St loop in Skipton St - a signal can be seen on the pole between the trams.


The Forest City signal equipment was dismantled after the closure of the Ballarat system in 1971, except for the section of track retained for the Ballarat Tramway Museum.  These have since been taken down, with the intention of repair and re-installation.  However this task is a low priority, and it is unlikely to be completed in the foreseeable future.  This is unfortunate, given the importance of the Forest City system in proving a reliable safe working method over the many sections of single track.

The Forest City Electric Co. Ltd - an update

A web search during March 2013, re-checked Nov. 2015, shows that the name "Forest City" still exists in the UK. Forest City Generators - makes Generating Equipment and mobile tower lights. The company profile provides details on the foundation of the company by Samuel Quillam in 1902. The name Forest City Electric Co. went to another offshoot of the original company; Forerst City Signs. A webpage not maintained since 1998, says that it was one of the UK's largest independent Road Sign manufacturers. It appears it was taken over Signature Limited in 2001.

It appears that the company name "Forest City Electric Co. Ltd" still exists as such, but only as a holding company or an entity held by Signature Limited. There is also a Forest City Electric Supply Company in Rockford Illinois USA, but most likely named after one of the five towns named Forest City in the USA.

This article first appeared in the April 2013issue of the Museum's house magazine Fares Please! Additional photographs, images and documents have been added to the website version. Photographs are drawn from the Museum's collection.

Photographs and images from the Museum's collection are individually credited. Items donated by: Alan Bradley, Peter Bruce, Marc Dahlstrom via Bill Kingsley, Carolyn Dean, B. Hicks, Arthur Hill, Eldon Hogan Estate, Wal Jack Album loaned by Jill Blackburn, Vicky Jeffrey via Earl Ewers, Peter Moses, Megan Parle, John Phillips, State Electricity Commission of Victoria, William F Scott, N.J. Simons Collection, Robert Thomson from the Jack Richardson Collection, B.Wiley & B. Whykes,

Click on each image to see the Collection Record.


1. Ballarat Courier 12 February 1906
2. Ballarat Star 5 March, 6 March, 7 March 1906
3. Interview by Alan Bradley with Les Edwards
4. This accident is examined in greater detail in my article “Beyond the control of management”in “Trolleywire” February 2008
5. For an article on the Brisbane system, see the Brisbane Tramway Museum's website:
6. Ballarat Courier 13 August 1937
7. David Brown, Tony Culpeffer-Cooke, Adrian Gunzburg and Ian Pleydell, “Tracks by the Swan: the electric tram and trolleybus era of Perth, Western Australia", Perth Electric Tramway Society, 2010, p 287.
8. Ibid., p. 288.
9. From internal instruction “Ballarat tramways: “Forest City” signals

Text Alan Bradley, Layout and Collection documentation - Warren Doubleday

Web article updated; external links correct as of 26-11-2015


© 2015 Ballarat Tramway Museum Inc