This page contains a list of terms, jargon, and slang used to varying degrees by railroadenthusiasts / 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.
Bandit: 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.
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."
Bloody Nose:Southern Pacific locomotive (post-1959 grey 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.
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.
Bluebirds: nickname given to the GE U34CH's because they were delivered in dark blue and silver NJDOT paint.
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'.
Cornfield meet: A term used when two locomotives/trains have a head on-collision.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Elephant-style: A lashup of multiple locomotives with all units facing forward; resembling the nose-to-tail train of elephants in a circus parade.
Emeralds: Clear aspects (green colored signal lights) indicating maximum allowable speed for that section of track or route. Emeralds are the opposite of 'Rubies'
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.
Espee: Nickname given to the Southern Pacific railroad by railfans.
Ex-Con: A former Conrail locomotive or former Conrail employee.
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.
Flares: Refers to 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.
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.
Flatback: Industry slang for trailer-on-flatcar service in the 1970s, especially in the trade journal Railway Age.
Foamer: a railfan, particularly one whose enthusiasm appears excessive. They figuratively "foam at the mouth" while railfanning.
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.
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.
GN1: Gold Nose 1, the current CSX paint scheme. Another term for YN3.
Hammerhead: A GE locomotive with "winged" radiators, when running long hood forward. Also a nickname given to certain early ALCO roadswitchers with a high nose.
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. Also a slang term used among railroad employees to convey to the crew of a train that they were clear to proceed.
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. Currently 12 hours.
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.
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."
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. Also known as Shouldn't Paint So Fast.
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.
Pac-Man: 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.
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.
Pepsi Can: 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.
Pig train: a train devoted exclusively to intermodal (piggyback) traffic, generally trailers on flatcars (TOFC) or containers on flatcars (COFC).
Pooch: Nickname for the General Electric P30CH locomotives. So termed by the similar appearance of the model name to the word pooch: P30CH / POOCH
(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.
Raccoon:Norfolk Southern locomotives that have the entire area around the cab windows painted white, resembling the face of a raccoon.
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.
Rare Mileage: A passenger train traveling over track that does not have regular passenger service.
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). Coined by MBTA railfans.
CNSD60F 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.
Shove: To push a cut of cars backwards with a locomotive.
Skate: Another name for a wheel chock.
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."
Snail: A locomotive with a diesel engine, but does not have traction motors, often used for external power for a rotary snow plow.
Speeder: a small, motorized track inspection vehicle. Also called motorcar, trackcar, putt-putt, or golf cart.
Stacks: Nickname for double-stack cars or trains.
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.
An AmtrakAEM-7, sometimes called a "toaster" due to its boxy shape.
Thunder Pumpkin: Nickname for the orange paint scheme on the BNSF Locomotives.
Tie Down: To apply hand brakes to the trainset.
Toaster:AmtrakAEM-7, New Jersey TransitABB 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.
Trailing Protection: This is a switch machine protection that, the switch are not allowed to be damaged and derailments when a trailing movement happens.
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.
Tunnel Motor: Southern Pacific EMD SD40T-2 / EMD SD45T-2. Named for the lower-located air intakes to prevent the locomotive from pulling diesel exhaust in with the clean air while traveling through a tunnel.
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.
Turn: A local freight train that makes a round trip, returning to originating station.
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.
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.
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.
YN3:CSX's third yellow-nose paint scheme; dark blue overall with a yellow nose; yellow "CSX" lettering.