Glossary of North American railway terms

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This page contains a list of terms, jargon, and slang used to varying degrees by railroad enthusiasts / 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.

This list does not include nicknames for railroad companies; those can be found at Railroad nicknames.

For general rail terminology, see Rail terminology.
For terminology specific to the types of lines used for passenger trains, see passenger rail terminology.
For terminology specific to the United Kingdom, see Glossary of United Kingdom railway terms.
For terminology specific to Australia, see Glossary of Australian railway terms.
For terminology specific to New Zealand, see Glossary of New Zealand railway terms


  • Armchair railfan: Someone who only railfans indoors (i.e. sitting in an armchair and listening to the railroad band on a radio scanner).[citation needed]
  • Amshack: A small shelter that serves as a train station for Amtrak trains in a small town. There are normally no manned services offered at these small stations.[7]
  • Aardvarks: nickname for Canadian Pacific's GP20C-ECOs since their long, narrow noses resemble that of an Aardvark animal.[citation needed]


A GE U18B locomotive, or "Baby Boat."
A Guilford Rail System locomotive showing the "Big G" paint scheme.
  • Big Blue: A nickname for Conrail / Consolidated Rail Corp due to the medium blue livery that their locomotives were painted.[citation needed]
  • Big hole: When a railroader's 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. Over the radio: "We just big holed."[citation needed]
  • Big Red: Nickname given to GG1 #4877 because it was repainted into PRR Tuscan Red in 1981.[citation needed]
  • Billboard: Santa Fe locomotive in the pre-1972 blue and yellow scheme.[4]
  • Bloody Nose: Southern Pacific locomotive (post-1959 grey and red paint scheme where the nose of the diesel locomotive was painted in scarlet red).[4][8][14] or Amtrak Phase I paint scheme: reddish-orange nose and then the Amtrak Chevron logo on the side of the engine.
  • Bluebonnet: 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.[4]
  • Bluebirds: nickname given to the GE U34CH's because they were delivered in dark blue and silver NJDOT paint.
  • Blueliners: 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.
  • Buda Car: 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."[citation needed]
  • Bull: A railroad police officer.[4][19]
  • Butthead / Butt Head: GM Electro-Motive Division model 'MP' or 'SW' endcab switching locomotives.[citation needed]


  • Cabbage: 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'.[31][unreliable source?]
An EMD TR1, one of several models of cow-calf locomotives.
  • Car Knocker: Railroad car repair-person or car inspector; one that taps or knocks the wheels of a railroad car to check their soundness; one that checks the running gear of a train.[citation needed]
  • Catfish: Norfolk Southern locomotives with white stripes painted on the nose, which are said to look like catfish whiskers.[8][35]
  • Centennials: Name given to Union Pacific's EMD DDA40X locomotives. World's most powerful diesel locomotives, delivered in 1969, the year of Union Pacific's centennial.[36]
  • Centipede: Nickname given to a 12-axled Baldwin diesel locomotive.[37] Also a tender (as on a steam engine) with seven axles (three wheel truck, with four fixed axles).[citation needed]
  • Cherry / Cherries: Red colored signal aspects (lights) when mixed with other colors of a signal aspect; i.e.: "Two cherries and a lemon" would denote a Red over Red over Yellow aspect colors.[citation needed]
  • Cinder Dick: an older term for railroad police detective, derived from the detective having to walk on the railroad ballast rock, also known as "cinders".[citation needed]
  • Circus loading: Loading trailers on flatcars sequentially from the end; the standard method of loading in early piggyback service.[40]
  • Cornfield meet: A term used when two locomotives/trains have a head on-collision.[citation needed]
  • Coffin car: 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.[45]
  • CPLs: Color Position Lights, a type of signal used most prominently by the Baltimore & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads.[47][unreliable source?]
  • Crummy: A caboose.[50]


CSX SD40-2 in "Dark Future" paint.
"Darth Vaders" in Washington, D.C.
  • Deadhead: A passenger train that is traveling along a line but is not hauling passengers.[52]
  • DPU: Distributed Power Unit. 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.[citation needed]
  • Draper-Taper: Nickname for certain Canadian locomotives that feature a full-width carbody with improved rear visibility, designed by William L. Draper, an employee of Canadian National Railway.[55]
  • Dynamite/Dynamite the Train: Another term for causing an emergency brake application (whether intentional or not).[citation needed]


  • Eight and Sand: Term used to wish train crews well wishes and quick uneventful journey. Comes from 'Notch 8' (highest power setting of modern locomotive throttles) and to apply sand to prevent wheel slipping.[citation needed]
  • Elephant-style: A lashup of multiple locomotives with all units facing forward; resembling the nose-to-tail train of elephants in a circus parade.[58]
  • Emeralds: Clear aspects (green colored signal lights) indicating maximum allowable speed for that section of track or route. Emeralds are the opposite of "Rubies".[citation needed]
  • Emergency, in: 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.[citation needed]
  • Espee: Nickname given to the Southern Pacific railroad by railfans.[59]
  • Ex-Con: A former Conrail locomotive or former Conrail employee.[citation needed]


  • Fallen flag: a railroad company that no longer operates, or has been merged with (or acquired by) another railroad company.[60]
  • Filet-toupee: Filet refers to 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. Toupee refers to the reverse process, where a single stack train coming from reduced clearance territory has additional containers placed on top for the rest of its trip.[62]
  • Wings/Flags/Flares (W/F/F): 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.[14][35]
  • Flatback: Industry slang for trailer-on-flatcar service in the 1970s, especially in the trade journal Railway Age.[64]
  • Foamer: a railfan, particularly one whose enthusiasm appears excessive. They figuratively "foam at the mouth" while railfanning.[65]
A FRED mounted on a container train.
  • FRN: an acronym for "fucking rail nut", a derogatory term used by some railroaders for railfans.[68]


  • Geep: Nickname for EMD's GP series of locomotives.[8][70]
  • Genset: A locomotive that uses multiple high-speed diesel engines and generators (generator sets), 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.[72]
  • Ghost: 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-grey paint.[citation needed]
A demonstrator Green Goat locomotive.
  • Green Goat: A type of "hybrid" switching locomotive utilizing a small diesel engine and a large bank of rechargeable batteries.[75]


  • Helpers: A locomotive or locomotives used to assist heavy tonnage trains over steep grades. Helpers do not travel the entire run from departure point to destination point of a train and are added just before and removed soon after the ascent and descent of a train over the grade.
  • High Ball: 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.[19][43][77][78][79] Also a slang term used among railroad employees to convey to the crew of a train that they were clear to proceed.[citation needed]
  • Hog Law: 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.[citation needed] Currently 12 hours.[citation needed]
  • Honorary Steam Engine: Common term for Alco diesel locomotives, due to their tendency to blow clouds of black smoke when throttling up, due to turbo lag.[citation needed]
  • Hospital train: a train composed of defective "bad order" equipment/locomotives that are en route to a repair shop.[citation needed]
  • Hot box: 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.[79][83][84]



A preserved refrigerator car that was used on the Juice Train.
  • Joint: 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."[citation needed]


  • Kodachrome: 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.[8][29]


  • Light Engine / Engines: A locomotive unit or units travelling 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.[citation needed]
  • Line Up/All Lined Up: To have switches aligned correctly before a move. i.e. over the radio "Would you call the dispatcher for a line up so we can get out of here?"[citation needed]


A westbound SP manifest train west of Chicago.
  • Manifest: A freight train with a mixture of car types and cargoes. Also known as a Mixed Freight Train.[88][89]
  • Mother: The locomotive that is paired with a slug.[27]
  • Multimark: Named for the Canadian Pacific paint scheme given from 1968 - 1996.[citation needed]


  • Nose To Ass: A group of locomotives that are oriented "elephant style".[citation needed]


  • OCS: abbreviation of Office Car Special. Also used as an acronym for "On Company Service", referring to freight cars being used to haul materials for the railroad company rather than for a customer.[citation needed]
  • Office Car Special: 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 / reconstruction of facilities that are needed for expansion / modernization; as well as streamlining of operations or removal of obsolete infrastructure. Also, OCS 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.[citation needed]
  • Outlawed: Train crew members who have reached their daily 12 hour maximum of hours worked and must cease working due to regulations.[citation needed]
  • Overhaul: A train of exclusively locomotives, usually retired, that exceeds the ordinary maximum number of locomotives in one train.[citation needed]
  • Owl-eyed Cars: Uncommon nickname for the 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.[citation needed]


UP 588, formerly owned by SP, showing a "patch" paint job to apply the new owner's reporting marks.
  • Patch: (also patch job) A locomotive or car wearing a new reporting mark and/or number on a "patch" over existing paint, usually of the former owner's.[14][94]
  • Pepsi Can: An Amtrak GE Dash 8-32BWH, in reference to the units' original paint scheme with large red and blue stripes.[8] Also referred to as "Cutters" for the striping's supposed similarity to striping on Coast Guard vessels.[citation needed]
  • Pig train: a train devoted exclusively to intermodal (piggyback) traffic, generally trailers on flatcars (TOFC) or containers on flatcars (COFC).[97][unreliable source?]
  • Pooch: Nickname for the General Electric P30CH locomotives. So termed by the similar appearance of the model name to the word pooch: P30CH / POOCH.[98]
  • (Pennsylvania) Position Light Signal(s): signals made by the Pennsylvania Railroad that make use of a circular disc with up to 8 lights mounted in a circle, with one light in the center. The lights would line up in a straight line to give the indication. These signals are still in use today, although they are quickly being replaced by "Darth Vader" colorlight signals. For Pennsylvania signals that are still in use, most have had all of their yellow/amber lenses removed (except for their "approach" and diverging indications), and have had their "stop" indication fitted with red lights. Some signals may have their "clear" or "go" indication with green lights.[99][unreliable source?]
  • Private varnish/PV: privately owned passenger cars.[100][101]


  • Q: Shorthand nickname for the old Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad.[citation needed]


  • Raccoon: Norfolk Southern locomotives that have the entire area around the cab windows painted white, resembling the face of a raccoon.[14]
  • Racks: 1. Multiple autoracks 2. The portion of an autorack which is attached to a flat car in order to protect the vehicles inside and may contain 1, 2, or 3 levels depending on the height of the vehicles being shipped.[citation needed]
  • Rainbow Consist: So named for a group of locomotives of different colors and/or liveries leading a single train. Also known as a "Skittles Consist or Skittles Line Up".[citation needed]
  • Rare Mileage: A passenger train traveling over track that does not have regular passenger service.[107]
  • Roster Shooter: Someone interested in photographing every locomotive road number they can.[109][unreliable source?]
  • Rubies: Stop signal aspect (red colored signal lights), or a red aspect in conjunction with other colors. Also known as "cherries".[citation needed]
  • Run-through Power: Locomotives from a faraway railroad running on a train operated by another railroad. This happens when the train originates on one railroad, with its destination on another road, and the locomotives simply "run through" along with their consist instead of being exchanged for home road locomotives at the crew-change point, in order to save time.[citation needed]
  • Running Board(s): Description of the walkboards found on the tops and ends of rail cars. Also called grating.[citation needed]


  • Screamer or Screaming thunderbox: EMD F40PH locomotive, in reference to it operating in a constant state of full throttle (in order to provide head-end power to passenger cars).[35] Coined by MBTA railfans.[citation needed]
CN SD60F 5500 shows the sergeant stripes paint scheme.
  • Sergeant Stripes: a Canadian National locomotive in the 1970s-1980s paint scheme featuring light grey stripes on the locomotive's long hood.[14][110]
  • Shove: To push a cut of cars backwards with a locomotive.[citation needed]
  • Sister: Locomotives with numbers that come after or before one another.[citation needed]
  • Skittles Consist / Skittles Line Up: A group of locomotives of different colors and/or liveries leading a single train. Also known as a "Rainbow Consist". So named for the appearance of various colored Wrigley brand Skittles® candies.[citation needed]
  • Slug: A locomotive, with or without an operator's cab, which lacks a diesel engine, and draws power for its traction motors from a normal locomotive, known as a "mate" or "mother."[20][22][27]
  • Snail: A locomotive with a diesel engine, but does not have traction motors, often used for external power for a rotary snow plow.[citation needed]
  • Speeder: a small, motorized track inspection vehicle. Also called motorcar, trackcar, putt-putt, or golf cart.[111]
  • Stacks: Nickname for double-stack cars or trains.[112]
  • Stealth Unit: The early CSX grey & blue paint scheme. So named for their virtual invisibility in poor light. Also refers to NS D9-40CWs in light gray primer paint, and a scheme used on some Metro-North locomotives.[8][29]


An Amtrak AEM-7, sometimes called a "toaster" due to its boxy shape.
  • Thunder Pumpkin: Nickname for the orange paint scheme on the BNSF Locomotives.[citation needed]
  • Toaster: Amtrak AEM-7, New Jersey Transit ABB ALP-44, or GE P42DC locomotives, due to its 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.[8][35]
  • Trailing Protection: This is a switch machine protection that, the switch are not allowed to be damaged and derailments when a trailing movement happens.[citation needed]
  • Trops: Tropicana, Reefer, Boxcar. 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.[citation needed]
  • Turbo Lag: Characteristic of Alco and GE diesel locomotives, where the turbocharger lags behind the throttle-up of the engine, shooting dense clouds of black smoke and/or flames from the exhaust stack when initially throttling up.[117][unreliable source?]
  • Turn: A local freight train that makes a round trip, returning to originating station.[citation needed]



  • Vomit Bonnet: Derogatory name for BNSF's first attempt at a paint scheme, which used olive and beige as its principal colors but in the configuration of the traditional AT&SF "Warbonnet" scheme.[119][unreliable source?]


Santa Fe Dash 8 #881 is sitting at CN's Battle Creek fueling depot, displaying the modern interpretation of the company's classic red and silver "warbonnet" livery.
The combined Super Chief/El Capitan passenger train at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal in 1966 shows the red and silver warbonnet livery.
  • Warbonnet: 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.[14][29]
  • Warpumpkin: Name given to the BNSF orange and black update of the classic Sante Fe Warbonnet scheme.[8]
  • Washboards: name given to M.U. cars, subway cars, and other equipment made with corrugated side panels that resembled washboards.[120][unreliable source?]
  • Wickerliners: Nickname for the DL&W electric multiple unit cars because of their wicker lined seats.[citation needed]



  • Yellowbonnet: 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.[14][29][123]
A CSX unit wearing the YN2 paint scheme
  • YN1: 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.[14][29]
  • YN2: 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.[14]
  • YN3: CSX's third yellow-nose paint scheme; dark blue overall with a yellow nose; yellow "CSX" lettering.[14]


  • Zebra Stripes: A Santa Fe locomotive in the early black scheme with white warning stripes.[124] CN Rail has also used this scheme on earlier locomotives.[citation needed]
  • Z-Train: 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.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


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