Railroad Vocabulary: A List of Words and Phrases Used in the Industry - Updated February 2024

As somebody who enjoyed watching trains, but was not an employee of the railroad industry (at least growing up), when I would interact with railfans and historians, there was often a lot of technical jargon that applied only to the railroad industry thrown back and forth that made it difficult for a newcomer to understand what they were talking about. For example, what is a dinky? It's actually a passenger train.

This non-inclusive language seems to keep the loop closed to members of the community, and to uncouple (no pun intended) that technical jargon and help make it easier for people to communicate with people in the industry, I am creating a list of railroad vocabulary that I'm hoping will make the industry more transparent. 

BNSF 2361. Image: Matt Flores

While I ultimately believe that such technical jargon has no place outside of perhaps technical communications between employees, I know quite well that I alone am not going to stop people from communicating in a non-inclusive way. So with that in mind, here are some definitions of trains and industry knowledge. If you know of something that's not in this list, please feel free to add it into the comments. Much like my abandoned railroad map, this list is going to start small and eventually expand slowly over time to become as large as possible.

NOTE: This list is for North American jargon. The Wikipedia Article is a great resource as well.

Acela Express - Amtrak's high-speed passenger train service operating in the Northeast Corridor.

Air Brake - A railway air brake is a railway brake power braking system with compressed air as the operating medium.

ALCO - The American Locomotive Company - most often used to refer to their switching locomotives.

Amtrak - The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, founded in 1971.

Autorack - A specialized railroad car for transporting cars and automobiles.

Ballast - The crushed rock or gravel that forms the foundation of a railroad track.

Bandit - A particular type of Milwaukee Road locomotive. "Soo Line covered up the Milwaukee Road name and logo on the orange locomotives with black paint, causing them to resemble bandits."

Block signal: A signal that controls the movement of trains over a specific section of track, also known as a block.

Boxcab - An electric locomotive with a box-like shape, featuring cabs at both ends.

Boxcar - A type of rolling stock with a flat bottom enclosed on all sides and top, which is loaded and unloaded from sliding doors on each side.

Brakeman: A railroad worker responsible for operating the brakes on a train.

Bull - A Railroad police officer or security personnel.

Bullnose - A streamlined locomotive or car with a rounded, protruding front.

Cab car - A passenger coach which has a full set of train controls at one end, allowing for the use of push-pull train operation

Car knocker - Railroad car repair-person or car inspector. The term is derived from a worker who taps or "knocks" on railroad equipment to check its soundness.

Caboose - A railroad car located at the end of a freight train that serves as a workspace for crew members.

Catenary - The system of overhead wires and supports used to supply electric power to trains.

Coffin car - A nickname for a passenger car with an engineer's cab. Also known as a cab car or control car. So named due to the alleged additional danger posed to passengers in such cars (which are pushed by the heavier trailing locomotive) in frontal collisions.

Consist - The totality of a single train, including train engines, cars and any other rolling stock attached to one another.

Consolidation: A type of steam locomotive that is characterized by a large firebox behind the cab.

Crossbuck: A type of traffic sign used at railroad crossings, warning drivers that a train may be approaching.

Crosshead -  The pivot between the piston rod and the main rod on a steam locomotive. 

Cut of cars: A group of rail cars that are coupled together and moved as a unit.

Derailer: A device used to intentionally cause a train to leave the tracks, typically used in the event of an emergency or for maintenance purposes.

Distributed Power - Locomotives at the end or in the middle of a train. Can either be manned or automatically controlled. Manned units are preferred to be called helpers by railfans and some railroad personnel.

Dinky - A nickname given to small locomotives, particularly one running in industrial service or on narrow gauge tracks. Also, a small old-fashioned trolley.

Ditch Lights - Extra lights mounted on locomotives, typically on the front, to enhance visibility.

Doodlebug - A nickname for a type of self-propelled railcar most commonly configured with both passenger and freight. [I cannot stand this term]

Double Head - A configuration in which two steam locomotives are coupled head-to-tail in order to haul a heavy train up a long or steep hill. In the present day, double headers are done primarily on large passenger trains.

Double Stack - Transporting intermodal containers stacked two high on specially designed railcars.

Drawbar: A metal bar that connects the coupler of one rail car to the coupler of the next rail car.

Draft Gear - A mechanism on railcars to absorb shocks and forces during train movement.

Dynamic brakes - A method of braking in which the motors on the locomotive wheels generate electric power from the momentum of the moving train, and this power is dissipated through resistor grids as heat.

Elephant style - A consist of multiple locomotives with all units facing forward, resembling the nose-to-tail train of elephants in a circus parade. Nose to Ass also refers to this operation.

EMD - Electro-Motive Division, a division of General Motors that once produced diesel-electric locomotives.

Fallen flag - A defunct railroad, having either merged or discontinued operations.

Filet - Converting a double-stack container train to single stack by removing the top layer of containers, allowing the rest of the train to proceed along track that lacks double stack clearance. The removed containers can be trucked to local destinations. The opposite process is toupee.

Fishplate - In rail terminology, a fishplate, splice bar or joint bar is a metal bar that is bolted to the ends of two rails to join them together in a track.

Flatback - Industry slang for truck trailer-on- railroad flatcar service. 

Flatcar - A type of rolling stock, which can be a flat-bottomed car with no sides on which freight (including intermodal containers) can be stacked. A bulkhead is a flatcar with walls on the front and rear. 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.

Flanger: A device attached to the wheels of a rail car that keeps the car on the track.

Flying switch - The practice of uncoupling a locomotive from a car in motion and running over a switch, whereupon an employee on the ground lines the switch to divert the car onto an adjacent track. This practice is now prohibited.

Frog - The crossing point of two rails on a track.

GEVO - A nickname for GE Evolution Series locomotives, in reference to the GEVO-12 engine used in those units.

Gondola - An open-topped railcar with sides and no roof, used for transporting bulk goods.

Guard Rail - A double rail section of track, sometimes found in train yards and on bridges to prevent derailments or limit damage caused by derailments by having rail on both sides of the wheel flange. Also found on curves with a tight radius, switches, and crossings. The Kinzua Bridge, for example, featured these.

Hack -  A caboose.

Handcar - A small, hand-powered railroad car used for track inspection

Head car - The front car of the train.

Head-end power: The power source used to provide electricity to the lights, heating and air conditioning, and other systems on a train.

Helper - A locomotive temporarily coupled to heavy-tonnage trains to, for example, assist them over steep grades.

Hi-rail - Railroad maintenance vehicles equipped with retractable railway wheels for on-road and on-track operation.

High Ball - A clear signal, derived from the days of steam where a station operator would hoist a large wooden ball up a standard, signaling that the engineer was authorized to proceed.\

Hospital Train - A train with defective equipment en route to a railroad repair shop.

Hotel power -  Electric power used to provide for the comfort of passengers aboard a train en route.

Huck - Slang for the coupling system that connects railcars together.

Interlocking - 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.

Intermodal: The transport of goods using multiple modes, such as rail and truck or ship and rail.

Jennies - A relatively short, open top hopper car primarily used in the transport of iron ore.

Journal Box - A housing for the journal (bearing) of an axle on a railcar or locomotive.

Knuckle - The coupler device that connects two railcars together.

Loading gauge: The maximum height and width of a train and its load that can safely pass through a tunnel or under a bridge.

Locomotive - An engine on rails using diesel, steam, or electricity to pull trains.

Light power - A locomotive unit traveling to a destination without a train attached.

Light Rail - A form of passenger rail transit, often with lower capacity and shorter trains. Usually not directly connected to the rest of the US railroad network, except perhaps in railyards not accessible to the public.

Manifest - A freight train with a mixture of car types and cargo.

Multiple unit - The ability of diesel and electric locomotives or multiple units to be joined together and controlled from one driving station.

OCS (Office Car Special) - A special train used for business or inspection purposes, often carrying executives.

Overhaul - A train of exclusively locomotives, usually retired, that exceeds the ordinary maximum number of locomotives in one train.

Outfit car: A type of rail car that carries tools and equipment for maintenance and repair work.

Patch - A locomotive or car wearing a new reporting mark or number on a "patch" over existing paint, usually of the former owner's.

Pantograph - An apparatus on an electric train to collect power from overhead lines.

Pennsy - A short-form for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Pig Train - A train devoted exclusively to intermodal traffic, generally trailers on flatcars (TOFC) or containers on flatcars (COFC)

Piggyback: The transport of truck trailers or shipping containers on a flatbed rail car.

Plate - The measurement of a freight car's vertical clearance. Plate F and above is considered excess height, and such cars must avoid low-clearance routes.

Position Light Signals (also known as Pennsylvania or Conrail Signals) - Signals made by the Pennsylvania Railroad that make use of a circular disc with up to eight lights mounted in a circle, with one light in the center. The lights would line up in a straight line to give the indication.

Racetrack - A nickname for a stretch of Metra BNSF Railway freight and passenger line between Chicago and Aurora, nicknamed due to the frequent trains along the route.

Railhead: The top surface of a rail on which the wheels of a train run.

Rail joint: The point at which two pieces of rail are joined together.

Rail profile: The shape and dimensions of the rail head and base.

Rare Mileage - A passenger train traveling over track that typically doesn't have passenger service.

Rear car - The back end of the train.

Reporting Mark - A code assigned by the Association of American Railroads to identify the owners of rolling stock in North America.

Right-of-way: The land and property that a railway company has the legal right to use for its tracks and infrastructure.

Rolling Bomb - A unit tank train usually carrying flammable liquids.

Shoo-Fly - A temporary stretch of track that takes trains around track construction or an accident scene.

Shunting Neck - A length of track feeding a number of sidings that permits the sidings to be shunted without blocking the main line, or where two lines merge into one before ending with a buffer, to allow a run-round procedure to take place.

Sidetrack: A railway track that is used for temporary storage of rail cars or for bypassing a blockage on the main track.

Sleepers - Railroad ties

Slug - A locomotive which lacks a diesel engine, and draws power from a normal locomotive. 

Snail - A locomotive with a diesel engine, but does not have traction motors, often used for external power, such as for a rotary snow plow.

Steam dummy - A steam dummy or dummy engine, in the United States and Canada, was a steam locomotive enclosed in a wooden box structure made to resemble a railroad passenger coach.

Steeplecab - An electric locomotive with a central cab and sloping "noses" on each end.

Switcher - A small locomotive used for assembling trains and moving railroad cars around, usually in a  yard or spur line, otherwise known as a switch engine.

Tender: A railroad car that carries fuel and water for the locomotive.

Terminal - A station where a railway line or service ends or terminates.

Third Rail - An additional rail providing electric power to trains, typically located alongside or between regular tracks.

Torpedo -  A small explosive device strapped to the top of a rail to alert an approaching train of danger ahead by creating a loud noise upon contact with a locomotive wheel.

Trackage rights - The legal right of one railroad company to use the tracks of another, as agreed to by the companies concerned or their predecessors.

Trainmaster: A manager who is responsible for the operation of trains in a specific area.

Train Order: A written document used to give instructions to train crews, including information about track conditions and train movements.

Union Station - A railway station or terminal at which tracks and facilities are shared by two or more railway companies. This is why many stations in major cities are simply named "Union Station".

Unit Train - A train consisting of only one type of cargo, often used for bulk transportation.

Waybill - A document giving details and instructions relating to a shipment of goods. A waybill is issued by the railroad after receipt of the Bill Of Lading.

Whistle Stop - A station or other stop that a train will only stop at upon request, similar to a flag stop.

Wig-Wag - An automatic grade crossing signal with a swinging mechanical arm.

Wye - Three railroad tracks in a triangular form with switches at all three corners, can be used to turn a train around.

Yard - A large are of railroad tracks used to store, sort, load and unload railroad cars and locomotives.

Yardmaster: A railroad worker who is responsible for the movement of trains in a rail yard.

Yellow Signal - A signal indicating caution, often requiring a train to slow down.

Zephyr - A historical streamlined train operated by the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Two Amtrak routes carry the Zephyr name today.


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