Originally, signals displayed simple stop/proceed indications. As traffic density increased, this proved to be too limiting and refinements were added. One such refinement was the addition of distant signals on the approach to stop signals. The distant signal gave the driver warning that he was approaching a signal which might require a stop. This allowed for an overall increase in speed, since train drivers no longer had to drive at a speed within sighting distance of the stop signal.
'Running lines' are usually continuously signalled. Each line of a double track railway is normally signalled in one direction only, with all signals facing the same direction on either line. Where 'bi-directional' signalling is installed, signals face in both directions on both tracks (sometimes known as 'reversible working' where lines are not normally used for bi-directional working). Signals are generally not provided for controlling movements within sidings or yard areas.
In the days of the first British railways, "policemen" were employed by every railway company. Their jobs were many and varied, but one of their key roles was the giving of hand signals to inform engine drivers as to the state of the line ahead. They had no means of communication with their colleagues along the line, and trains were only protected by a time interval; after a train had passed him, a policeman would stop any following train if it arrived within (say) 5 minutes; for any between 5 and 10 minutes after, he would show a caution signal, and after 10 minutes, the line was assumed to be clear. Therefore, if a train failed midsection (as was very common in the early days), the policeman controlling entry to the section would not know, and could easily give a 'clear' signal to a following train when the section was not in fact clear. The number of collisions which resulted from this led to the gradual introduction of the absolute block principle; all systems of working other than this (including time-interval and permissive block) were outlawed on passenger lines in 1889, and all passenger lines were suitably equipped by 1895.
As train speeds increased, it became increasingly difficult for enginemen to see hand signals give by the policemen, so the railways provided various types of fixed signals to do the job, operated by the policemen, or signalmen as they soon became known (it is due to this that British railway slang still names signalmen as "Bobbies"). Many types were devised, but the most successful was the semaphore, introduced in 1841 and soon becoming widespread, although some other types did linger on until the 1890s.