Rail terminology

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Rail terminology is a form of technical terminology. The difference between the mainly American term "railroad" and the mainly British term "railway" is the most obvious trans-Atlantic difference in rail terminology. (see usage of the terms railroad and railway for more information). There are also several others, caused by the parallel development of rail transport systems on both sides of the Atlantic. Various terms here are presented alphabetically, where a term has multiple names this is indicated. The note "US" indicates a term originating on the American continent, while "UK" refers to terms originating in the British Isles/Europe.

For terminology specific to the types of passenger rail lines, see passenger rail terminology.

Contents: top - 0-9 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Note: for 4-4-0, 2-6-4T, 0-4-4-0, etc. see Whyte notation or UIC classification



  • B unit (US): a cabless booster locomotive, controlled via MU from a cab-equipped A unit.
  • Ballast (UK): aggregate stone, gravel or cinders forming the track-bed on which sleepers (ties) and track is laid, for proper drainage
  • Bank : a particularly steep section of line that requires bank engines (US: booster engines) to help the trains climb.
  • Baobab (PRR only): an oversize load. From the telegraph code-word used. A baobab tree is a very large tropical tree.
  • Bay platform: a type of platform/track arrangement where the train pulls into a siding, or dead-end, when serving the platform.
  • Bobber (archaic, US): a slang word for a small caboose with just four wheels, all rigidly mounted to the frame. This design was common in the 1800s. Bobber refers to the bouncing or bobbing motion made by such a caboose when in motion.
  • Bogie (UK): truck (US)
  • Boiler: in steam railroading, a boiler was a cylindrical container adjacent to the firebox in which steam is produced to drive a locomotive.
  • Booster: (steam locomotive) - an extra set of cylinders that can be engaged to drive a trailing truck or tender truck to give additional tractive effort at starting and low speeds; (US) (diesel locomotive) - a cabless B unit
  • Boxcar (US): a type of rolling stock with a flat-bottomed rail car enclosed on all sides and above, which is loaded and unloaded from sliding doors on each side. Same as van (UK).
  • Brake van (UK): caboose (US), cabin car (PRR only), Guards van (AU).
  • Brakeman: a train crewmember who performs railcar and track management; often a single job description along with switchman ("brakeman/switchman"). Originally a brakeman performed manual activation of brakes on railroad cars before the advent of the air brake.
  • Branch line: a secondary railway line that branches off a main line.
  • Broad Gauge: track where the rails are spaced more widely apart than Template:Standard gauge (which is called Standard Gauge). Many early railroads were broad gauge, for example the Great Western Railway in the UK which adopted 7 ft 1/4 in (2141 mm) gauge until it was converted to standard gauge in the 1860s and 1870s. Russia still has over 80,000 km of broad gauge (1520 mm or 5 ft) railroads.
  • Buggy (slang, US): a caboose on the Boston and Maine Railroad.


  • Cabin car (PRR), caboose (US), crummy (slang, US), hack (slang, US), way car (CBQ); brake van (UK)
  • Caboose (US), crummy (slang, US), hack (slang, US), way car (CBQ); brake van (UK): a railroad car usually at the end of a train, in which railroad workers could ride and monitor track and rolling stock conditions. Largely obsolete, having been replaced by the electronic EOT/FRED device.
  • Cab unit (US): a locomotive which derives its structural strength from a bridge-truss design framework in the sides and roof, which cover the full-width of the locomotive. It refers to A units only.
  • Cant: angle. Can be used in the context of the cant of the rail track (the relative level one rail with another); and the cant of a rail, being the angle of that single rail relative to the perpendicular.
  • Carbody unit (US): a locomotive which derives its structural strength from a bridge-truss design framework in the sides and roof, which cover the full-width of the locomotive. It refers to both A units and B units.
  • Cess (UK): a narrow strip of land (usually with cables and often with a walkway) between the edge of the outermost track and the start of non-railway land. Shortened from access, or from the drainage term cess.
  • Centralized traffic control (CTC): a system in which signals and switches for a given area of track are controlled from a centralized location. May or may not be computerized.
  • Chimney (UK): smokestack or stack (US), or funnel.
  • Compound engine: an articulated steam locomotive passing the output steam through two sets of cylinders. One set uses high-pressure steam and passed the "low-pressure" steam on to the second. Attributed to Anatole Mallet.
  • Control Point (CP) (US): an interlocking, or the location of a track signal or other marker with which dispatchers can specify in the control of trains.
  • COFC: an acronym for "Container On Flat Car".
  • Conductor (US): guard (UK). in Australia and the US, a conductor is someone who travels on the train to assist passengers, sell tickets, etc.
  • Consist: a noun to describe the group of rail vehicles which make up a train.
  • Continuous welded rail (CWR)
  • Coupler (US): coupling (UK). Railroad cars in a train are connected by couplers located at both ends of each car.
  • Cowl unit (US): a locomotive whose sides and roof are non-structural, and cover the full width of the locomotive. Structural strength comes from the underframe.
  • Crummy (slang, US): a word used for a caboose in deplorable condition.
  • Cylinder


  • Diesel multiple unit or DMU: a set of diesel-powered self-propelling passenger rail vehicles able to operate in multiple with other such sets. Such units, especially those consisting of a single vehicle, are sometimes termed railcars.
  • Down (UK, etc.): a direction (usually away from London or the capital city) or side (left side when facing in down direction). The opposite of up.
  • Driver (UK): Engineer (US)
  • Driving van trailer or DVT: a special end carriage from which the train can be driven in reverse for push-pull operation.


  • Electric multiple unit or EMU: a set of electrically powered self-propelling passenger rail vehicles able to operate in multiple with other such sets
  • Elevated railway - one typically built on supports over city streets, also just "the el"
  • Engineer (US): driver, engine driver, train driver (UK)
  • EOT (US): end of train device; same as FRED (see below).
  • Express train: a train that runs through selected stations without stopping.


  • Facing: a turnout is facing if it can select which way a turnout can diverge a train. Opposite of Trailing.
  • Fairlie: type of articulated locomotive
  • Fallen flag (US): a railroad which is no longer in business, having either merged or discontinued operations.
  • Feedwater heater: a device to preheat the water for a steam locomotive; improves efficiency.
  • Fettle, fettling: making repairs to rail track, especially concerned with maintaining the drainage of the ballast, and the proper cant of the rail track and rails.
  • Firebox: in steam railroading, a firebox was a chamber in which a fire would produce sufficient heat to create steam once the hot gases from the firebox were carried into the adjacent boiler via tubes or flues.
  • Fireman: in steam railroading, a railroad worker whose primary job was to shovel coal into the firebox and ensure that the boiler maintained sufficient steam pressure.
  • Flatcar: a type of rolling stock, which can be a flat-bottomed car with no sides on which freight (including intramodal shipping containers) can be stacked. A bulkhead is a flatcar with walls on the front and back. A center-beam bulkhead is a bulkhead flatcar with an additional wall dividing one side of the flatcar from the other, but still without any sides.
  • Foamer (US): colloquial term for a railfan, specifically one whose enthusiasm is excessive, "foaming at the mouth".
  • Four foot: the part of the line between a pair of running rails. An abbreviation for four foot, eight-and-a-half-inches. See also six foot and ten foot.
  • FRED: (US) Flashing Rear End Device
  • Freight (US): goods (UK)
  • Frog: (US) casting with "X" shaped grooves used in switches and crossovers.
  • Free-mo: type of modular layout in model railroading
  • Funnel: a Thomas the Tank Engine misnomer for a chimney (UK) or smokestack (US), although it is also used in Australia (Victoria at least).


  • Garratt: type of articulated locomotive
  • Gauge: the width between the rails.
  • Gondola: a type of rolling stock with a flat bottom and relatively low sides, used to haul material such as ore or scrap, and loaded and unloaded from the top. May be covered or uncovered. Open wagon (UK).
  • Goods (UK): freight (US)
  • Grab bar: handle on the side of a car to allow switching personnel to hold on safely
  • Green: a colour associated with go or proceed, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on each individual railway system's definition.
  • Guard (UK): conductor (US)


  • Hack (slang, US): a caboose, since it carried the crew around like a taxicab.
  • Head-end power or HEP: a scheme whereby the locomotive engine (rather than a separate generator) provides power to carriages.
  • Hood unit (US): a locomotive whose sides and roof are non-structural, and do not extend the full width of the locomotive. Structural strength comes from the underframe.
  • Hoodlebug (slang, US): a small commuter passenger train or trolley.
  • Hotel power (slang, US): that power used to provide for the comfort of passengers aboard a train en-route. See "HEP" above.


  • Injector: device to force water into a steam locomotive's boiler by steam pressure.
  • Interlocking (US): any location that includes a switch or crossing of two tracks, derived from the early practice of installation of a system of mechanical equipment called an interlocking plant to prevent collisions. See also Signal box. Interlocking is also the term for the actual mechanical or electrical apparatus that prevents points and signals being operated in ways that would allow for conflicting train movements.
  • Intermodal: moving goods or people by more than one type of vehicle. Intermodal freight can be transported using shipping containers which can easily be transferred among railroad flatcars, ships, airplanes, and tractor-trailer trucks.
  • Island platform: a platform that has tracks along the full lengths of both sides.


  • Jointed track - rails that are bolted together with fishplates every 20m or so.



  • Loop (UK), siding (US): used on single-track railway lines, a loop is a second parallel set of tracks (running for a short distance), allowing two trains to pass by one another.


  • Mallet: type of articulated locomotive designed by Anatole Mallet ("Mallay"). See "Compound Engine" above.
  • Mogul: locomotive with a 2-6-0 wheel arrangement
  • Multiple unit (UK): a self-propelled rail vehicle which can be joined with compatible others and controlled from a single driving station. The sub-classes of this type of vehicle; Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU), Diesel-Electric Multiple Unit (DEMU) and Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) are more common terms. These may also be termed railcars.
  • Multiple unit (US), Multiple working (UK): generally seen as the abbreviation MU, this normally refers to the ability of most North American diesel and electric locomotives to be joined together and controlled from one driving station. Such a set of joined locomotives are called a consist or (colloquially) "lash-up" and are said to be "MUed together".
  • Multiple working (UK): see Multiple unit (above).


  • Narrow gauge: railroad track where the rails are spaced less than Template:Standard gauge apart. There are many common gauges narrower than standard, amongst them 3 ft 6 in (1097 mm) widely in Africa and Asia, 36 in (914 mm) which was the most common narrow gauge in the US, and 2 ft (600 mm) which saw widespread use in the UK. Narrow gauge lines are often found in mountainous terrain where the cost savings of building a smaller railroad can be considerable.


  • Open wagon (UK), Gondola (US).


  • Pacific: locomotive with a 4-6-2 wheel arrangement
  • Pannier tank: a tank locomotive with the water tanks mounted on the boiler like panniers.
  • Pantograph: arm to pick up current from overhead lines
  • Per diem: fee paid by a railroad to the owner of a car for the time it spends on the railroad's property. Pronounced by US railroaders per die-um, not per dee-um.
  • Points (UK): switch (US). Also "turnout".
  • Pony truck:
  • Prairie: locomotive with a 2-6-2 wheel arrangement
  • Push-pull: a mode of operation whereby a locomotive-hauled train may be driven with the locomotive at either the front or middle or the back of the train. See Top and tail for train with locomotives at both front and back.




  • Saddle: a plate which is bolted to sleepers, holding the rails in place.
  • Saddle tank: a tank locomotive with the water tank mounted on top of the boiler like a saddle.
  • Safeworking (Australia): the system of rules and equipment designed to ensure the safe operation of trains.
  • Semaphore: usually a type of signal that has a mechanical moving arm, but the term strictly applies to any signalling using semaphores.
  • Safety Appliance Act (US): law mandating air brakes, grab bars, and automatic couplers
  • Schnabel car: A specialized type of freight car for extra heavy and oversized loads; the car is loaded in such a way that the load forms part of the car superstructure.
  • Section: the division of the track for security (occupation)
  • Shoofly: A temporary stretch of track that takes trains around construction or an accident scene
  • Shunt: to move trains or vehicles from one track to another.
  • Shunter (UK): switcher (US) or shifter (PRR only): a small locomotive used for assembling trains and moving railroad cars around. Also, a person involved in such work.
  • Shuttle service: a train, usually a passenger service, that runs back and forth over a relatively short distance, such as between a junction station and a branch-line terminus.
  • Side tank: a tank locomotive with water tanks mounted each side of the boiler.
  • Siding: a section of track off the main line used for storing rolling stock or freight. In the US the term is also used to cover the British term: loop.
  • Signal: a device that indicates to the driver of a train information about the line ahead.
  • Signal Passed At Danger or SPAD (UK): where a train disobeys a stop signal.
  • Six foot: the narrow corridor between a pair of closely-spaced tracks, measuring six feet, and the most dangerous place to stand. The boundary between a six foot, where one may be hit by a train, and the wider designation/width of ten foot, where one is usually safe, is hard to judge. See also four foot and ten foot.
  • Sleeper (UK), tie (US): bars placed at 90 degrees to the rail tracks to support the rails. Generally of wood, concrete or steel, with various contraptions to affix the rails to the sleeper. Usually spikes, nails or bolts are used.
  • Spike: a bolt, pin or nail used to hold rails, or plates connected to the rails (known as saddles), to sleepers.
  • Smokestack (US): chimney (UK)
  • Staff and ticket: a method of safeworking involving a token.
  • Standard Gauge: railroad track where the rails are spaced Template:Standard gauge apart. This is by far the most common gauge of railway wordlwide.
  • Subway (US): a railroad that runs underground, generally in a large city.
  • Superelevation (UK): synonymous with cant: the banking of railroad track on curves.
  • Superheater: a device for further heating the steam on a steam locomotive to increase power.
  • Switch (US): points (UK). Also "turnout".
  • Switcher (US), shunter (UK): a small locomotive used for assembling trains and moving railroad cars around.
  • Switchman: a railroad worker responsible for assembling trains and switching railroad cars in a yard; these days often used together with brakeman as a single job description ("brakeman/switchman").


  • Ten foot: an area, usually at least ten feet wide, between a pair of widely-spaced tracks, wide enough to form a place of safety in which railwaymen can stand while a train goes past. See also four foot and six foot.
  • Ten-wheeler (US): locomotive with a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement
  • Tie (US): sleeper (UK)
  • Through platform: the standard platform and track arrangement at a station. The train pulls alongside the platform, arriving from one end of the station, and may pass out the other side of the station by continuing along the same track.
  • TOFC: an acronym for "Trailer On Flat Car".
  • Token: a physical object given to a locomotive driver to authorize him to use a particular stretch of single track.
  • Top and tail (UK): a train with locomotives at both ends, for ease of changing direction.
  • Track circuit: an electrical device for detecting the presence of trains on sections of tracks, and used to put signals automatically to green or red as required.
  • Track warrant, safeworking for single lines.
  • Trailing: a turnout is trailing if the two legs of that turnout merge in the direction of travel. See Facing.
  • Trainset: a group of rolling stock that is permanently or semipermanently coupled together to form a unified set of equipment. Trainsets are most often used in passenger train configurations.
  • Triangle (railway): a way of turning engines or trains. Wye (US).
  • Truck (US): bogie (UK)
  • Truck (UK): wagon (US)
  • Trackage rights: the right of a railroad company to use the tracks of another, usually agreed-to by the companies or their predecessors.
  • Turntable: a section of track that can rotate, allowing engines to change direction, and also allow a large number of engine maintenance sidings to be accessed in a small area.


  • Union station or union terminal: a train station in which tracks and facilities are shared by two or more railway companies.
  • Up (UK, etc.): a direction (usually towards London or the capital city) or side (left side when facing in up direction). The opposite of down. The up direction is usually associated with even numbered trains and signals.


  • (goods) Van (UK), boxcar (US): an enclosed railroad car, or piece of rolling stock, used to transport freight.
    van (Canada): slang word for caboose.
  • (Vacuum brake)


  • Way car: term used by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, Chicago and Northwestern Railway and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway instead of caboose
  • Well tank: type of tank locomotive water tank
  • Wheel tapper: historical railway occupation; people employed to tap train wheels with hammers, with a view to listening to the sound made so as to determine the integrity of the wheel; cracked wheels, like cracked bells, do not sound the same as their intact counterparts. The job was associated with the steam age, and is an early form of acoustic investigation. Contemporary planned maintenance procedures have obviated need for the wheel-tapper.
  • Whistle: train whistles are used as a safety warning and also by the engineer to communicate to other railroad workers. See train whistle for a description of the whistle code used to communicate.
  • Whyte notation: system of describing steam locomotive wheel arrangements, ie. 4-6-4, 2-10-2, etc. The first number indicates the "pilot" wheels that help lead the engine into turns. The second in the number of coupled wheels ("drivers"). Third are the trailing idler wheels, usually to provide support to larger fireboxes.
  • Wye: (UK: triangle): three railroad tracks in a triangular form with switches at all three corners. With sufficient lengths of track leading away in all three directions, a wye can turn a train of any length.



  • Yard: a location where rolling stock is switched to and from trains, freight is loaded or unloaded, and consist made up.
  • Yellow: a colour assocated with warning or slow down when used by flags or signals; the exact meaning varies from railway system to railway.


  • Zig zag: a way of climbing hills, where the train reverses direction for a while, and then reverses again to resume the forward motion. Some Zig Zags:
    • Lapstone or Little Zig Zag, New South Wales, Australia (c1860-1890)
    • Lithgow or Great Zig Zag, New South Wales, Australia (c1870-1910) (now a Museum railway).

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