Railroad Vocabulary: A List of Words and Phrases Used in the Industry

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 inclusive as possible.

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

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 rocky surface beneath 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."

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.

Bull - A Railroad police officer or security personnel.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Train Order - A system for authorizing main track occupancy using telephone, telegraph, and wayside stations to pass authority to train crews.

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".

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.

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.

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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