This page contains a list of terms, jargon, and slang used to varying degrees by railfans and railroad employees in the United States and Canada. Although not exhaustive, many of the entries in this list appear from time to time in specialist, rail-related publications. Inclusion of a term in this list does not necessarily imply its universal adoption by all railfans and railroad employees, and there may be significant regional variation in usage.
3-step protection (US)
The protection given by a locomotive engineer to an employee working near, between, or under cars to which the locomotive is coupled, via a three-step process:
Fully apply independent brake.
Set reverser to neutral.
Turn off generator field (or notify the ground employee, depending on company-specific rules and locomotive type, that protection is provided).
A metal plate that joins the ends of rails in jointed track
A small shelter that serves as a train station for Amtrak trains in a small town. Normally, there are no manned services offered at these small stations. More generally, any station built under Amtrak's Standard Stations Program in the 1970s and 1980s.
A nickname for Milwaukee Road engines after the railroad was sold to the Soo Line Railroad. The Soo covered up the Milwaukee Road name and logo on the orange locomotives with black paint, causing them to resemble bandits. Also often applied to similarly patched, second-hand locomotives, especially if the patches are crudely applied.
When a train suffers a loss of all brake air and stops or when the air brakes on the train are placed in emergency. It refers to the air ports in the automatic brake valve, the emergency portion being the biggest port or hole. (e.g. over the radio: "We just big holed.")
Southern Pacific locomotive (post-1959 gray and red paint scheme where the nose of the diesel locomotive was painted in scarlet red), or Amtrak Phase I paint scheme: reddish-orange nose and then the Amtrak Chevron logo on the side of the engine.
One of two Santa Fe paint schemes. The standard freight scheme from 1972 until the BNSF merger was dark blue with yellow on the front, with the same color division as the warbonnet scheme. It is also known as Yellowbonnet. Bluebonnet can also mean a warbonnet unit with only the red painted over, resulting in a silver and blue locomotive; this was used on passenger engines transferred to freight service after the formation of Amtrak.
A nickname given to the GE U34CH's because they were delivered in dark blue and silver NJDOT paint
A nickname given to the Reading Railroad's heavyweight MU cars, in reference to the bright blue and white paint scheme they wore in later years before being sold to SEPTA
A train crew member who performs railcar and track management—often a single job description along with switchman ("brakeman/switchman"). A brakeman manually activated brakes on railroad cars before the advent of air brakes.
A small hut at one end of a railway wagon to protect the brakeman from the elements
The middle CSX tricolor paint scheme (also known as Yellow Nose 2 or YN2)
A type of inspection car or speeder, typically streamlined, manufactured by the Buda Engine Co. Sometimes built out of an ordinary automobile body, with flanged wheels added. It was driven by small engines from 30 to 200 horsepower.
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
Former EMD F40PH locomotives with the diesel engine removed, and a roll-up baggage door installed in the center of the carbody; used as cab/baggage cars in Amtrak push-pull service. Portmanteau of 'cab' and 'baggage'.
A system in which signals and switches for a given area of track are controlled from a centralized location
Red colored signal aspects (lights) when mixed with other colors of a signal aspect (e.g. "Two cherries and a lemon" would denote a Red over Red over Yellow aspect colors)
Chessie System's kitten logo; the profile of the Chesapeake and Ohio's sleeping kitten mascot Chessie appears inside the corporate C logo
Railroad police detective. The term is derived from the fact that railroad police have to walk on ballast, which is sometimes known as "cinders" (before dieselization, many railroads used spent steam locomotive cinders for ballast)
Loading trailers on flatcars sequentially from the end; the standard method of loading in early piggyback service
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.
Color position light (CPL)
A type of signal used most prominently by the Baltimore & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads
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 (and occasionally triple headers) are done primarily on large passenger trains or as a show for railfans.
Nickname for the Canadian-built GMD SD40-2F, SD50F, SD60F, GE C40-8M, and BBD HR-616. These locomotives feature a full-width carbody with improved rear visibility, designed by William L. Draper, an employee of Canadian National Railway.
Term used to wish train crews well wishes and quick uneventful journey. Comes from notch 8 (the highest power setting of modern locomotive throttles) and to apply sand to prevent wheel slipping.
Three locomotives coupled elephant style
A consist of multiple locomotives with all units facing forward; resembling the nose-to-tail train of elephants in a circus parade
Clear aspects (green colored signal lights) indicating maximum allowable speed for that section of track or route. Emeralds are the opposite of "Rubies".
When a train has made a full brake application due to adverse event, or has lost its train air due to a defective valve (a "kicker"), or a broken air line or train separation. The train crew will normally declare that they are "in emergency" over the train radio, thus warning other trains and the dispatcher that there is a problem.
The agency which oversees rail operation regulations and safety requirements for U.S. freight, passenger and commuter rail operations
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.
The EMD SD45, with its dynamic brake blisters and radiators that distinctively flare from the top of the unit. Also Flare 45. Both forms distinguish the SD45 from the SD45-2 and SD45T-2, which lack flared radiators. The GP40X and SD70M models also bear similar flared radiators.
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.
Industry slang for trailer-on-flatcar service in the 1970s, especially in the trade journal Railway Age
A railfan, particularly one whose enthusiasm appears excessive. They figuratively "foam at the mouth" while railfanning.
A form of electronic caboose with a flashing red light mounted on the end of a train. Also monitors various train functions such as brake-pipe pressure, motion, and GPS location.
Flying switch or drop (US)
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. Once commonplace, this practice has led to several lawsuits against railroad companies and is now strictly prohibited due to the high risk to life and property.
From "generator set", a locomotive that uses multiple high-speed diesel engines and generators, rather than a single medium-speed diesel engine and a single generator. Sometimes confused with Green Goat locomotives; the only similarities between the two types are their outward appearance and that both are designed to reduce air pollution and fuel consumption.
An unpainted (but usually numbered) locomotive that has not yet been painted with company's livery. A ghost locomotive can be either in transport from the locomotive builder to the paint shop, or an unpainted locomotive may have been placed in revenue service without livery due to power shortage or, in rare cases, pushed out of the factory preemptively due to an impending labor strike. May also refer to an EMD E8, #4261, belonging to the Boston commuter agency, MBTA. This locomotive was known for its unique, plain light-gray paint.
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 and switches and crossings
A small, hand-powered railroad car used for track inspection
Heavy rail (US)
A city-based transit rail system that runs on its own dedicated track and often underground. Subways are considered heavy rail. Refers to commuter rail and inter-city rail when used by the FRA or in other countries.
During the period between about 1910 and the mid nineteen thirties, most passenger cars in the US were built with three axle trucks, concrete floors, and riveted, double walled sides and often weighed 90 tons or more. Heavyweight construction was used to improve ride quality.
A locomotive temporarily coupled to heavy-tonnage trains to assist them over steep grades
Another term for a clear signal, derived from the days of steam where a station operator would hoist a large wooden ball up a standard, signalling that the engineer was authorized to proceed
A slang term used among railroad employees to convey to the crew of a train that they were clear to proceed
High cube (US)
A boxcar whose vertical clearance is excessive
The federal hours-of-service law that forbids certain classes of railroad employees, including those operating trains, from working longer than a certain time after reporting for duty—currently 12 hours
An overheated wheel bearing. This comes from the era before the widespread use of roller bearings where the ends of an axle rested in solid copper bearings housed in a journal box filled with oil soaked cotton waste. An overheated axle led to a hot journal box that often ignited the oiled waste. The term is used to refer to a railway wheel bearing that has over-heated due to internal friction caused by some fault in the bearing.
Hot rail (US)
Any section of track over which a train movement is imminent. The closer or faster the approaching train, the "hotter" the rail.
On some electrified railroads and rapid transit lines, the third rail which supplies power to locomotives or cars
Hotel power (US)
Electric power used to provide for the comfort of passengers aboard a train en route
A fast, long-distance train given priority on the track over other trains
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 switch/points and signals from being operated in ways that would allow for conflicting train movements.
Synonym for the verb "couple" used by brakemen when flat switching a yard. Talking on the radio, they will tell the engineer how many car lengths to back up in order to couple to another car (i.e. "five cars to a joint")
Joint bar (US)
A metal plate that joins the ends of rails in jointed track
To pass an absolute signal and thereby change its aspect to stop; originated in the days of semaphore signals whose arms would drop to the stop aspect when passed
Southern Pacific Santa Fe Railroad's red, yellow, and black paint scheme, which resembled the packaging of Kodachrome color transparency film. This was the scheme instituted when the merger between Southern Pacific and Santa Fe was assumed to be approved. Hundreds of locomotives were painted in Kodachrome colors before the merger was denied.
A locomotive unit traveling to a destination without a train attached. Can be a power pool transfer (relocation of a surplus of locomotives from one location to another), or can be a helper locomotive/locomotives being sent or returning from helping a heavy tonnage train over a grade.
The ability of diesel and electric locomotives or multiple units to be joined together and controlled from one driving station. Such a set of joined locomotives is called a consist or (colloquially) "lash-up" and is said to be "MUed together".
A train composed of passenger cars that are privately owned by the railroad corporation and which travels along their rail lines, so that upper level management can review facilities, assess the addition or reconstruction of facilities that are needed for expansion or modernization; as well as streamlining of operations or removal of obsolete infrastructure. Also, these trains are used to escort visiting upper level management from other railroads for the purpose of a proposed purchase or sale of a rail line.
Operation of a train by the driver or motorman alone, without a conductor
Train crew members who have reached their daily 12-hour maximum of hours worked and must cease working due to regulations
A train of exclusively locomotives, usually retired, that exceeds the ordinary maximum number of locomotives in one train
An uncommon nickname for Pennsylvania Railroad's MP54s and related heavyweight MU cars, in reference to their distinctive porthole front windows that give the appearance of a pair of eyes when viewed from the front
A nickname for Canadian Pacific Railway's 1968–1996 logo featuring a black triangle within a white half-circle, which resembles the main character of the video arcade game Pac-Man. It was CP's corporate logo for all business aspects - railway (CP Rail), shipping (CP Ships), telecommunications (CNCP), trucking (CP Express) and airline (CP Air). It was officially known as the Multimark.
An Amtrak GE Dash 8-32BWH, in reference to the units' original paint scheme with large red and blue stripes. Also referred to as "Cutters" for the striping's supposed similarity to striping on Coast Guard vessels.
A train devoted exclusively to intermodal traffic, generally trailers on flatcars (TOFC) or containers on flatcars (COFC)
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. See also: Loading gauge
Pole switching (also called "poling")
Detail of a photo showing the poling pocket on the corner of a freight car in the 1930s.
A method of switching cars on adjacent tracks in which a pole is positioned between the locomotive and car, then the locomotive pushes the car using the pole. The pole is fitted into poling pockets on the locomotive and car to ensure it does not move during the switching maneuver.
A nickname for the General Electric P30CH locomotives. So termed by the similar appearance of the model name to the word pooch: P30CH / POOCH.
Position light signal (Pennsylvania)
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.
Detail of a photo showing the poling pocket on the corner of a freight car in the 1930s.
Shorthand nickname for the old Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad
Quarterly inspection, Q-inspection, or periodic inspection (US)
In the United States, a federally-mandated safety inspection performed on a locomotive every 92 operating days
Quiet zone (US)
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, often near residential neighborhoods who have asked for the status. Because the train does not sound its horn while approaching the crossings, safety upgrades to all of the crossings must be made in order to compensate. These upgrades usually include double gates, additional signage, lights, and bells, if they are not already present. Additionally, the residents requesting the status must indemnify the railroad from any resulting crossing mishaps.
Platform track and a run-round loop at Toyooka Station, Hyogo, Japan, the terminus of the line from Miyazu
The practice of detaching a locomotive from its train, driving it to the other end of the train and re-attaching it, to allow the train to proceed in the direction it has just come from (e.g. when it reaches its destination and forms a service in the other direction).
A train that originates on one railroad, with its destination on another road, that is simply "run through" to its destination instead of being exchanged for home road rolling stock at the crew-change point, in order to save expense
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
An iron or steel plate used to spread the weight of rail over a larger area of sleeper (tie) and facilitate a secure, low maintenance, fastening with bolts or clips
An AmtrakAEM-7—sometimes called a toaster due to its boxy shape
EMD AEM-7 and ABB ALP-44 locomotives, due to their visual appearance and tendency to emit sparking and clicking sounds when idling. Also sometimes used to refer to any GE locomotive, due both to their tendency to shoot flames out of the exhaust stack during Turbo Lag and to General Electric's historic involvement in the manufacture of household appliances.
A system for authorizing main track occupancy using telephone, telegraph, and wayside stations to pass authority to train crews
Tropicana reeferboxcar. Shortened from Tropicana, referring to the orange or white refrigerated boxcars used to haul frozen concentrated orange juice to packaging facilities north of Florida. Term is specifically used by CSX crews in Cincinnati Terminal where a large such packaging facility is located.
Santa Fe's red and silver paint scheme. The scheme first appeared in 1937 on the railroad's E1 passenger locomotives for the Super Chief train. It is widely considered the most famous and the most recognizable of railroad color schemes. The Santa Fe phased out its use from the early 1970s on, then revived it in 1989. It has become less common since the BNSF Railway merger in 1995.
M.U. cars, subway cars, and other equipment made with corrugated side panels that resembled washboards
A nickname for the DL&W electric multiple unit cars because of their wicker lined seats
Characteristics used to designate Union Pacific's paint scheme and engine type. Wings = "Wing" Decal on the engine nose, Flags = "American Flag" Decal on engine body, Flares = "Flared Radiators" of certain SD70Ms on the long hood. Some UP engines have one or more of these characteristics.
One of two Santa Fe paint schemes. The standard freight scheme from 1972 until the BNSF merger was dark blue with yellow on the front, with the same color division as the warbonnet scheme. It is also known as Bluebonnet. Yellowbonnet can also mean a warbonnet unit with only the red painted over, resulting in a silver and yellow locomotive; this was used on passenger engines transferred to freight service after the formation of Amtrak.
CSX's first yellow-nose paint scheme; gray overall with dark blue on the top half of the cab and yellow on the front of the nose; blue "CSX" lettering
A CSX unit wearing the YN2 paint scheme
CSX's second yellow-nose paint scheme; more yellow on the nose; the whole cab is dark blue, along with a stripe on the side; blue or yellow "CSX" lettering
CSX's third yellow-nose paint scheme; dark blue overall with a yellow nose; yellow "CSX" lettering
A CSX unit wearing the YN2 paint scheme
A Santa Fe locomotive in the early black scheme with white warning stripes. CN Rail has also used this scheme on earlier locomotives.
An intermodal train (such as the ZBRLC or ZLTLC). Such trains are commonly operated by BNSF and Union Pacific. Usually the hottest (fastest), highest priority train.
^Cunningham, William A. (1997). The Railroad Lantern, 1865 to 1930: The Evolution of the Railroad Hand Lantern as Reflected by the United States Patent Records and by Lanterns Made by Cross, Dane & Westlake, Dane, Westlake & Covert, the Adams & Westlake Manufacturing Co. & the Adams & Westlake Company. Wm. A. Cunningham.
^Phernetton, Ronald A. (2008). "Jargon, unfamiliar or nonstandard terms used in the story". The Rock. AuthorHouse. p. xiii. ISBN 1452073880. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
^"Galveston, H. & S. A. Ry. Co. v. Butts (No. 6138); Court of Civil Appeals of Texas, San Antonio, Jan. 29, 1919; Rehearing Denied Feb. 26, 1919)". The Southwestern Reporter. Vols. 209-210. West Publishing Company. 1919. p. 422. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
^Cudahy, Brian J. (2001). The Cruise Ship Phenomenon in North America. Cornell Maritime Press. p. 45. ISBN 0870335294. Retrieved September 6, 2015. Called the multimark, it was a geometric design showing a triangle and crescent inside a square, rendered in colors appropriate for the service in question. When used on the locomotives and passenger cars of CP Rail, the multimark was rendered in red, white, and black.
^Middleton, William D.; Smerk, George; Diehl, Roberta L., eds. (2007). "Poling Yards". Encyclopedia of North American Railroads. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 281. ISBN 978-0-253-34916-3 – via Google Books.
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