Railroad Terms

Submitted by Dick Killian, Las Vegas, Nevada


Old train engine

A steam locomotive with a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement (US).
A clear track in a switching yard.
A steam locomotive with a 4-4-0 wheel arrangement.
Angel seat; angel's perch
The second-level seats on a Cupola style caboose.
All-purpose employee; an employee who is a promoted engineer who can also be forced to work as a conductor or trainman.
A steam locomotive with a 4-4-2 wheel alignment.
Auxiliary reservoir
A reservoir located on each rail car that stores air supplied by the locomotive.
Baby lifter
A brakeman.
Bacon slicer
A cutoff controlled by a wheel operating through a worn and nut (UK).
Fireman. So called because his head was near the door of firebox when shoveling coal.
A fireman's shovel.
Bend the iron
To line a switch (US).
A steam locomotive with a 2-8-4 wheel alignment.
Black Snake
A coal train.
A walkway between two passenger cars covered with either canvas or leather in an accordion shape. From the outside of the blinds to the outer edge of the cars there was a space about 24 inches wide. There was a ladder running up to the top of the car in this space and the bums would grab hold of the ladder and hold on to it. That was "riding the blinds."
Blue flag
A blue flag or signal that is placed on a car or locomotive when workers are around or under it. When a car or locomotive is blue-flagged, then it must not be coupled to or moved in any manner. The only person allowed to remove a blue flag is the person who put it there in the first place.
A small caboose with just four wheels rigidly mounted to the frame and refers to the bouncing action while in motion (US archaic).
British: term for a signalman in the United Kingdom. Derives from railway policeman of early railways. The policeman being "invented" by Sir Robert (Bobby) Peel.
Itenerent railroad workers. Always moving from one road to another.
Branch line
A secondary line of a railroad, not the main line.
Brass hat
A railroad executive, usually a division manager or higher; a.k.a. Suits.
A railroad policeman.
A condition where both drawbar knuckles are closed, making the coupling impossible without opening one knuckle (US).
Replacing train service with bus service.
Formal name for a craft employee who inspects and repairs railway cars.
Car toad; car tonk
Car inspector who checks the condition of freight and passenger cars and conducts the air brake tests.
A steam locomotive with a 4-6-6-4 wheel arrangement.
Cinder dick
Railroad detective.
A steam locomotive with a 2-8-0 wheel arrangement.
Coon et, to
To walk across the tops of freight cars.
Cow and calf
A diesel locomotive with a crew cab permanently coupled to a similar slave diesel locomotive without a crew cab.
Cow catcher
A metal frame on the front of a locomotive to remove obstructions from the tracks.
Crowbar hotel
A jail.
A wooden, two truck, or bobber trucked caboose. Also called a way car, hack, or, in the days of living in them, a bean shack.
A small cabin on the roof of a caboose to afford a means of lookout for the train crew.
Date nail
A small nail used by railroads from late 1800's to present used to mark the year a tie was placed in roadbed. Nails are distinctive in that each has the last two digits of placement year stamped in the head. Usually found within six inches of the tie end, but some are located mid-tie to allow easier inspection. Rarer nails value in hundreds of dollars range to collectors.
Dead head
A railroad employee traveling on a pass.
A steam locomotive with a 2-10-0 wheel alignment.
A yard master.
Empty boxcar train.
Dog catching
Taking over a train whose crew has exceeded their hours of service (US).
A brakeman or switch-tender; someone who throws switches.
A passenger trainman. Usually used by freight trainmen who are adept at station switching, and all the other skills needed in general freight service.
Double iron
A double-tracked main line (US).
The movement of a heavy freight train, such as a coal drag or an ore drag.
Drawbar horsepower
The total horsepower of a locomotive less the amount of horsepower that it takes to move the locomotive itself; the balance being available to pull the load.
Drill track
A track connecting with the ladder track, over which locomotives and cars move back and forth in switching.
To switch a car behind the engine onto an adjacent track when the engine can't run around the car. Requires two trainmen, one to pull the pin on the car to be dropped and the other to throw the switch after the engine has passed to let the car run onto the parallel track.
A railroad policeman.
Elephant ears
Metal side plates used on some large steam locomotives to lift the smoke above the train at speed.
Elephant style
Joining several single-cockpit locomotives (e.g., F's) so that all cockpits look in one direction (like elephants in a circus).
Engine Whistle Signals



· ·
· · ·
· · · ·

– –
– – –
– – –
– – – –
– – – – –
– · ·
– · · ·
· · · –
– – ·
– – · –
– · · –

   means a short blast of the whistle or horn
   means one long blast
   apply brakes, stop
   answer to any signal not otherwise provided for
   when standing, back
   call for signals
   test train brakes
   release train brakes
   when running, stop at next passenger station
   when standing, train parted
   recall flagman from south or west
   recall flagman from north or east
   calling attention to another train that signals are displayed for a following section
   flagman protect the rear of train
   flagman protect the front of train
   approaching meeting or waiting points
   approaching crossing at grade
   answer to yellow temporary reduced speed flag placed 1 1/2 miles in advance of restricted tracks   
End Of Train unit (see also Caboose). An EOT transmits brake pipe pressure to the lead unit (head end locomotive), while a two way EOT is also capable of receiving a transmission from the lead unit to open the brake pipe and put the train into emergency stop.
Fallen flag
A railroad that is defunct (US).
Fettle; fettling
Making repairs to rail track.
To join the end of rails in a jointed track (UK).
The rear brakeman. The great country music singer Jimmie Rodgers used to brag about being a flagman. Reason? Because flagmen had to know how to read so they could understand train orders.
To board a moving train.
The name used by train crews to identify the people who gather along the railroad tracks to watch or take pictures of trains.
Four-day Ray
An employee who habitually marks off from duty on the fifth day of the work week (US).
Fresh fish
A new hand or worker.
A section boss.
Gandy dancer
A railroad track worker or a section worker. Name came from the Gandy Mfg Co. in the 19th century that made a lot of track tools.
A doughnut.
Broad gauge (Spain): 1674 mm - 5'5 9/10th"
Broad gauge (Portugal): 1665 mm - 5'5 11/20th"
Broad gauge (Ireland): 1600 mm - 5'3"
Broad gauge (Finland): 1524 mm - 5' exactly
Broad gauge (former USSR): 1520 mm = 5'
Standard gauge: 1435 mm - 4'8 1/2"
Narrow gauge (Cape gauge): 1067 mm - 3'6"
Narrow gauge (meter gauge): 1000 mm - 3'3 37/100"
Glad hand
The metal attachments to which train line air hoses connect.
A hand-powered railroad car or small gasoline-powered railroad car.
A yard engine.
Good set
A train with no problems and with good air. Used by crews at turn over points or when being relieved by other crews.
Grease the pig
Oil the engine.
A promoted engineer with trainman seniority.
Covered hoppers, which are often used to transport grain and other bulk fluid solids.
A section of curved track that has flange lubricators.
Green eye
A clear signal.
Trainman's suitcase.
Guinea; guinny
A green worker or one who is not an familiar with job requirements.
Gum shoe
A railroad detective.
A caboose because it carries the crew around as in a taxicab (US).
Hammerhead style
Running a diesel locomotive with its long hood forward (US).
A waitress.
Head end
The front of the train. Use of this term is declining with the demise of the caboose.
Time interval between two following trains.
Any locomotive added to assist a train up a grade.
An oversized boxcar usually used to haul autoparts.
A signal given to proceed at maximum permissible speed (US).
High cube
A boxcar whose vertical clearance is excessive (US).
High iron
The railroad's mainline track, usually with more ballast and heavier rail, which made this track higher than yard track.
High rail
Main track.
Hit the ground
To derail.
An individual who rides freight trains to get from town to town. Not to be confused with a bum -- a hobo is a transient worker.
A locomotive.
Hog law
The federal law limiting a train crew's on-duty time to 12 hours (US).
Hoghead; hogger
A railroad engineer.
Hole (The)
A passing siding.
Holy roller
A graffiti term for a car transport car. As in their great length, perfect for doing an end to end and other large "productions" with the illegal spray-paint techniques.
A small commuter passenger train or trolly (US).
An overheated wheel bearing (the grease "box" overheating).
A fast train (US).
House track
A track entering, or along side a freight house. Cars are spotted here for loading or unloading.
A steam locomotive with a 4-6-4 wheel alignment.
A rail yard with a hill. Cars are cut off in motion at the top of the hump and gravity pulls the cars to the classification tracks.
Iron bender
A dwarf signal (US – Boston, Maine, New York New Haven, and Hartford railroads).
Jerk a lung
To break a train in two, usually bu shearing the knuckle pin in a coupler (US).
Jailhouse spuds
Waffled potatoes.
A small town with few facilities, identified on the railroad only by the existence of a water plug.
Join the birds (To)
To jump from a locomotive cab before a collision or boiler mishap (US).
Joint bar
To join the ends of rails in a jointed track (UK).
Joint facilities
Any facilities owned by two or more railroads.
Journal box
Metal box around an axle bearing for holding a lubricant saturated pad next to the wheel bearing.
A steam locomotive with a 4-4-4 wheel alignment.
British: A passenger leaping from a moving train on the blind side to avoid paying.
A small locomotive; a small steam engine (US).
A car in which the load has shifted (US).
Lightning slinger
A railroad telegrapher.
Line-haul road
A railroad that handles freight over a medium to long distance.
Lizard scorcher
A cook.
A unit propelled by any form of energy, or a combination of such units operated from a single control station; used in train or yard service.
Main track
A track extending through yards and between stations which must not be occupied without authority or protection.
A train signal that is used to indicate the end of the train.
A steam locomotive with a 2-8-2 wheel alignment.
Mile post
A post or sign on pole each mile along the track that shows the distance from a predefined location such as a major rail terminal.
A steam locomotive with a 2-6-0 wheel alignment.
Monkey's tail
The handle of a switch stand, as in twisting the monkey's tail.
A steam locomotive with a 4-8-2 wheel alignment.
Mud chicken
A surveyor.
A brakeman; a movable, hand-carried derail that is placed on either rail.
Muzzle loader
A hand fired locomotive.
Railroader's derisive nickname for residents who are opposed to trains running through their neighborhoods (US – "Not in my back yard."
A steam locomotive with a 4-8-4 wheel alignment.
Number dummies
Clerks who worked as yard checkers.
Old head
One who has been around long enough to become familiar with his work or who "has his head cut in" -- knows how to do his job well.
Out of station (O. S.)
Report the telegrapher would give the dispatcher on the Rock Island and presumably other railroads when the train would be past their station.
To cease operation of a train at the federal time limit of 12 hours (US).
A steam locomotive with a 4-6-2 wheel alignment.
Paired track
When two railroads own single track lines, they may reach an agreement whereby one railroad's track services both roads in one direction, while the other railroad's track services both roads in the other direction.
Parlor boy
A Flagman.
Pearl diver
A dishwasher.
Pig train
An "intermodal" train, so nicknamed after its "piggyback" hauling of trailers and containers on flat cars (US).
Trailer on a flat car (TOFC). Originally used when truck trailers were loaded onto flat cars for shipment by rail.
A locomotive engineer trainee.
An employee assigned to a train when the engineer or conductor is not acquainted with the rules or portion of a railroad over which the train is to be moved.
Portion of track within a terminal on which a train may stand for a period of time.
Pony truck
The casting and wheel set or wheel sets which make up the leading wheels of most steam locomotives; intended to guide locomotives through curves and switches, and used to properly distribute the weight of the locomotive.
A name used to mention the engine units on a train.
A steam locomotive with a 2-6-2 wheel alignment.
A helper added at the rear of a train.
Railroad detective, police, or security personnel, often found in plain clothes in rail yards or piggy-back lifts where high-dollar freight is being moved.
Quiet zone
A designation by the Federal Railroad Administration that removes the requirement for train operators to sound their horn when approaching each public crossing in a certain area.
Radio train
A heavy train that has additional "slave" locomotives located in the middle of the train that are controlled by the engineer remotely by radio.
A group of passenger coaches coupled together (UK).
A freight car.
A fast freight train.
Red eye
A red stop signal or horizontal semaphore arm requiring the train to stop and proceed with caution.
A fast freight train.
A refrigerator car.
Register station
A station at which a train register is located.
Regular train
A train authorized by a timetable schedule.
A usually old locomotive owned by a leasing company (US).
Revenue collection Train
A train which picks up the revenue collected by the railroad clerk.
Ribbon rail
Continuous welded rail, laid in 1/4 mile lengths then welded end to end to make a continuous length.
Rip track
A small car repair facility, often a single track in a small yard. Name derived from "Repair, Inspect, and Paint."
Rolling resistance
Resistance that is made up of wheel friction, journal friction, and wind resistance. It is non-recoverable.
A trainee.
Rotary dump car
A car that is unloaded by turning it completely over.
Rotary dump coupler
A specially designed coupler used in rotary dump cars that rotate allowing them to be dumped without being uncoupled.
A brakeman.
Rule G
The universal rule prohibiting the use of drugs and alcohol (US).
Run in
Describes the action of the slack between the cars moving forward and hitting against the engine. A run out would be the opposite effect.
Santa Fe
A steam locomotive with a 2-10-2 wheel arrangement.
Saw-by; double saw-by
Maneuver used by two trains at a meeting point, when the train on a siding is too long for the siding. Double saw-by is a complicated maneuver allowing two trains that are both longer than the siding at meeting point to pass one another at that siding.
Non union member doing work usually contracted by railroads for railway union labor contracts.
Scrap iron
Broken knuckle due to uncontrolled slack action in a train or overly aggressive starting technique.
That part of a timetable which prescribes class, direction, number, and movement for a regular train.
Shaker bar
A tool carried in steam locomotive cabs that would be placed on the grate levers mounted in the cab deck to allow the fireman to shake the grates in the firebox, dumping ashes into the ash pan below the firebox.
A type of steam locomotive using a gear drive in place of a side rod drive, designed by Ephraim Shay in the late 1800's, and produced by what became the Lima Locomotive Works. This locomotive was designed for logging and other operations where heavy grades and sharp curves existed and prevented the use of side rod type locomotives.
Shiny pants
A railway clerk.
The effect of a sudden change in speed of a car, locomotive, or train, or part of a train.
Shoo fly
A temporary track built around a train wreck or washout (US).
Side track
A track auxiliary to the main track.
A track auxiliary to the main track for meeting or passing trains. The timetable will indicate stations at which sidings are located.
The man who controls the signals and authorizes the movements of trains on running lines.
Silk hat
A railway official.
Single-car test device
Used to test the air brake equipment on car that is sent to a repair track.
Single track
A main track upon which trains are operated in both directions.
A doughnut.
The conductor.
The motion, forward or back, that one or more cars, locomotives, or parts of a train has without moving other coupled cars, locomotives, or parts of the train. "Loose slack" is the free movement or lost motion between parts of a train. "Spring slack" is the movement beyond the free or lost motion brought about through compressing the draft gear springs. Slack is necessary so as to start one car at a time and so that the train may be operated around curves and over high and low places.
Slack action
Movement of part of a coupled train at a different speed than another part of the same train.
Slippery track
A highly greased track near the roundhouse or back shop where a newly rebuilt locomotive could be run in without going anywhere, and without calling an engine crew or pilot.
A switchman belonging to the Switchman's Union of North America (SUNA).
The title of a track laborer or Gandy dancer. One who builds or repairs railroad track.
A four-wheel MOW vehicle to carry men and supplies to and from a railroad work site.
A company employee charged with spying on other employees -- especially old time passenger conductors who collected cash fares from passengers and sometimes did not turn all the receipts in to the company at the end of the trip.
The act of placing a car in a specific location on a track.
Split switch
A term referring to the condition that exists at a switch when one pair of wheels under a car follows a course different from all other wheels under the car, generally resulting in a derailment.
Spring switch
A switch equipped with a spring mechanism to restore the switch points to original position after having been trailed through.
Stack train
A train made up entirely or mainly of single or double stack containers on flatcars designed just for that purpose.
Standing cut
A term for making a cut of cars by walking to the cut to be made rather than pulling the cut to you.
A place designated in the timetable station column by name.
A portable insulated pole used by railroads (and transit authorities) with third rail trackage. The pole is used to "reach" from an existing third rail power source to the pickup shoes of the electric locomotive in instances where the shoes of the locomotive are not contacting the third rail. The stinger can also be used to move electric locomotives within a shop complex.
Stub track
A form of side track connected to a running track at one only and protected at the other end by a bumping post or other obstruction.
Sun kink
A section of rail that elongates and bends out of alignment due to heat expansion.
Superior train
A train having precedence over another train.
Swing man
Supplementary brakemen added to a crew for all or part of a trip, perhaps to give more hand brake capacity in mountainous territory, or for other reasons.
Tallow pot
Fireman. In the 1800's tallow was used as a lubricant.
Tangent track
Straight track.
Tare weight
The weight of an empty car.
Team track
A track on which rail cars are placed for the use of the public in loading or unloading freight.
Another name for an End of Train (EOT) device that transmits End of Train info to the engine. Also: "Telem," "Tele," "Fred," and "Freddie."
A steam locomotive with a 4-6-0 wheel alignment (US).
A vehicle connected to most steam locomotives which carried the coal (or oil) and water for the locomotive.
Terminating line-haul road
The last railroad over which any shipment travels.
Terminating station
The last station on each subdivision to which a train is authorized to occupy the main track.
A steam locomotive with a 2-10-4 wheel alignment.
Tightlock coupler
A specially designed coupler used mostly on passenger cars that minimize slack and has interlocking features.
The authority for the movement of regular trains subject to the rules. It may contain classified schedules and includes special instructions.
A railroad tie.
Towpath; toepath)
Towpath (or Toepath) originated with canal barges and referred to the path alongside the canal used by the horses that pulled the boats, hence towpath. It was later used to describe the path alongside the first railroad tracks, because before steam locomotives were developed for the purpose, the original power was furnished by horses that pulled the cars. The horses could not walk between the rails because of the ties, therefore they walked on a path alongside the rails, the towpath. In later years, some railroad workers, unfamiliar with the history of the walkway, began referring to it as a toepath. Both versions are equally acceptable now.
An explosive cap fastened to the top of the rail and exploded by the pressure of a rolling wheel to give an audible indication of conditions on the track ahead.
Track bulletin
A notice containing information as to track conditions or other conditions, necessary for the safe operation of trains or engines.
Track car
Equipment, not classified as an engine, which is operated on a track for inspection or maintenance. It may not shunt track circuits or operate signals and will be governed by rules and special instructions for trains other than passenger trains.
Track gauge
The distance between the inner faces of the track heads. Nominally, 4 feet, 8.5 inches.
Track head
The top of the track on which the wheels roll.
Track pan
A water filled trough placed between the rails at certain locations on a railroad's main line, each trough having a length of up to 2500 feet, for the purpose of adding water to the tender of a steam locomotive via an air activated scoop that was located on the underside of a locomotive tender. The use of a track pan arrangement prevented a need to stop to obtain water. Users of track pans included the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads in the US.
Track permit
A form used to authorize occupancy of a main track where designated by special instructions.
Track web
The thin section of track between the base and the head.
Tractive force
The amount of force at the driving wheel rims to start and move tonnage up various grades.
Trailing truck
A fabricated or steel casting containing one, two, or three wheel sets, located under the engine cab and firebox of some steam locomotives.
An engine or more than one engine coupled, with or without cars, displaying a marker and authorized to operate on a main track.
Train register
A book or form used at designated stations for registering time of arrival and departure of trains, and such other information as may be prescribed.
Additional track laid at a major junction to allow trains to be turned by running the three sides of the triangle rather than reversing in a wye. Found outside major terminal stations where fixed passenger sets need to be turned to equalize flange wear.
Enclosed freight car for carrying three levels of automobiles.
Truck hunting
Rapid oscillation of an empty car truck at high speeds where the flanges tend to ride up on the head of the rail.
Undesired Emergency. An emergency that is not initiated by a crew member.
Another term for a locomotive engine.
A short-handled shovel.
Unit train
A train composed entirely of one commodity, usually coal or mineral, and usually composed of cars of a single owner and similar design, and usually destined for a single destination.
A term used in Canada for a caboose.
Water plug
The standpipe where a steam locomotive would stop to fill its tender with water.
Wheel knocker
Another name for car knocker. This person would check the wheels for flaws.
Wheel pull
Action caused by the friction between the brake shoe and the wheel and transmitted to the rail.
Wheel rolling
The wheel rotating on its axle theoretically without motion existing between the wheel and the rail at the area of contact.
Wheel slipping
The wheel rotating on its axle with motion existing between the wheel and rail at the area of contact.
Wheel sliding
The wheel not rotating on its axle and motion existing between the wheel and rail at the area of contact.
Whistle post
A specially marked post on the engineer's side of the train that tells him when to start whistling for a grade crossing. Slower trains may delay whistling until closer to the crossing.
Whyte notation
A system of describing steam locomotive wheel arrangements, e.g., 4-6-4, 2-10-2.
Wide-vision caboose
Caboose with center areas extended out past normal sides of caboose allowing for unobstructed forward viewing.
A car going down a track with no air or hand brake applied.
A track shaped like the letter "Y," but with a connector between the two arms of the "Y." A wye is used to reverse the direction of trains or cars. A train pulls completely through one leg of wye, the switch is thrown and reverses the direction, allowing the movement across the semi-loop track of the wye, and the train is then headed in the opposite direction.
Slang for road crossing or level crossing (US).
A system of tracks, other than main tracks and sidings, used for making up trains, storing of cars, and for other purposes.
Yard engine
An engine assigned to yard service.
Yard limits
A portion of main track designated by yard limit signs and by timetable, train order Form T, or track bulletin, which trains and engines may use as prescribed by Rule 93.
Yellow eye
A yellow signal.
A steam locomotive with a 2-8-8-4 wheel alignment.
Zig zag
A switchback; a way of climbing hills, where the train reverses direction for a while, then reverses again to continue its journey.