Railroad Jargon

Most professions have their own jargon, a specialized vocabulary that applies to that field. Railroading is no different in this respect. Many railroading terms are familiar to us. Terms like whistle stop and cowcatcher are distinctly old-fashioned.

But not all railroad jargon terms are archaic or obsolete. Here is a selection of modern terms in use by those who run the railroads.

angle bar, n., length of steel used to join sections of track or to repair gaps in a track

armadillo, n., a van carrying replacement crews

autorack train, n., a train carrying automobiles

baby lifter, n., a brakeman

bad order, n., a rail car that needs repair

beaner, n.,  a B.N.S.F. (railroad company) train

block, n., a length of track controlled by a single signal

block signal, n., a signal at the entrance of a block that governs trains entering that block

bowl, n., area of tracks in a yard where cars are organized into trains

branch line, n., a secondary line of a railroad

bronco, n., automobile equipped to ride on rail tracks; bronco in the canyon, n., such an automobile on the tracks

bulk train, n., a train carrying a single commodity, other than coal

caboose, n., crew car at the end of a train, very few are still in use

coal train, n., a train carrying coal; in the US, coal trains are by far the longest and heaviest trains

conductor, n., the senior crewman responsible for cargo and passengers

consist, n., the contents of a car

crossing, n., a place where railroad tracks cross a road or other track; grade crossing, a ground level crossing; signed crossing, a crossing marked with a warning signs; whistle guard crossing, a crossing that sounds a whistle as a train approaches; guarded crossing, a crossing with gates that close as the train approaches

crossover, n., a track connection between two adjacent tracks; v., to drive a train from one track onto another

curfew, n., period where no trains are scheduled, used for track maintenance, cf. window

cut, n., a group of cars in a switchyard intended for the same train; v., to separate car(s) from a train

dark territory, n., a stretch of track without signal control where instructions must be relayed via radio

dead man’s pedal, n., a pedal that must remain depressed in order for the train to move

dead on the law, adj., stopped by the legal requirement for crew rest

dead, adj., stopped

diamond, n., intersection of tracks where only one can be used at a time

distributed power, n., the use of locomotives in the front to pull the train and  simultaneously others in the rear to push; also DPU for distributed power unit

dogcatcher, n., a crewman dispatched to replace a crew that needs rest

drag out, v., to move a cars out of yard to make room for others, past tense is drug out

engineer, n., a crewman responsible for driving a locomotive

enroute, n., train destined for a particular yard

extra train, n., an unscheduled train

flag, v., to authorize a train to proceed, to override an automated signal that says stop

flat switching, n., organizing trains in a yard without humps

fluidity, n., state where the trains are moving

frog, n., metal flange that guides a train’s wheels from one track to another at a switch

go in the hole, v., when passing another train, to take a siding, cf. hold the main

go training, v., to engage in train watching

health monitoring, n., maintenance inspections

hold, v., to keep a train in a yard or station beyond its planned departure

hold out, v., to keep a train outside a yard or station until there is room

hold the main, v., when passing another train, to remain on the main track, cf. go in the hole

hot box, n., an overheated axle bearing

hot shot, n., a priority train

hot wheels, n., overheated wheel from a sticking brake

hump, n., a small rise used to assist in coupling train cars in a yard; v., to couple cars through use of a hump

humper, n., a train heading to the hump yard
intermodal train, n., a train consisting of cars carrying containers

lay down, v., to stop a train on the tracks for an extended period, usually with power shut down (cf. tie down)

manifest train, n., a train consisting of mixed types of cars

pit, n., fueling station

recrew, n., a replacement crew

roll by, n., an inspection by the crew of another train as it passes

ruling grade, n., the steepest grade on a route, it determines or "rules" how heavy a train may be

run-through, n., a train that passes through a yard without cars being added or detached

shoofly, n., temporary track laid to bypass an obstacle, such as a mud slide

shooter, n., a high-priority train

slave locomotive, n., an unmanned locomotive controlled by a manned locomotive

slot, v., to schedule a train to depart a yard or terminal

spur, n., short, dead-end section of track used to load trains, access a location, or for parking

stack train, n., a train carrying stacked containers

switch engine, n., an engine used to move cars in a yard

throw the fence, n., technique where the engines in the front of a train slow the cars descending a hill while locomotives at the rear are still pushing cars up the other side of the same hill

tie down, v., to stop a train temporarily outside a terminal

tie up, v., to finish a run

train watcher, n., a hobbyist who observes trains, called a train spotter in Britain

trim, n., a line of coupled cars ready for departure awaiting a locomotive; v., to organize a line of such cars

trim lead, n., track leading from the sorting tracks to the departure yard where a trim is joined with its locomotive

UDE, abbrev., undesired emergency

walk, v., to run a train at the speed a person can walk, usually because of a suspected defect in the track

window, n., period where no trains are scheduled, usually for reasons other than track and signal maintenance, cf. curfew

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