Glossary of North American railway terms
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.
- ALCOhaulic: Nickname for the DH643 diesel-hydraulic locomotive built by American Locomotive Company (ALCO). Also a nickname for railfans who are "addicted" to ALCO locomotives.
- Armchair railfan: Someone who only railfans indoors (i.e. sitting in an armchair and listening to the railroad band on a radio scanner).
- 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.
- AAR: The Association of American Railroads.
- Aardvarks: nickname for Canadian Pacific's GP20C-ECOs since their long, narrow noses resemble that of an Aardvark animal.
- B-Boat: GE B23-7, B30-7 or B36-7 locomotive. By analogy with U-boat, since with the Dash 7 line, the "B" or "C" moved to the beginning of the designation.
- Baby Tunnel Motor: EMD GP15-1 or GP15T locomotive, so-called because its low air intakes resemble those of the much larger SD40T-2 and SD45T-2.
- 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.
- Beans/Going to Beans: Taking a break from work to eat.
- Big Blue: A nickname for Conrail / Consolidated Rail Corp due to the medium blue livery that their locomotives were painted.
- Big G, the: Nickname for Guilford Rail System, in reference to the large "G" emblem on their locomotives and boxcars. Also refers to Great Northern Railway.
- 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."
- Big Jack: Nickname given to EMD's DDA40X.
- Big Red: Nickname given to GG1 #4877 because it was repainted into PRR Tuscan Red in 1981.
- Billboard: Santa Fe locomotive in the pre-1972 blue and yellow scheme.
- 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.
- 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.
- Booster: (Diesel locomotive) - a cabless B unit or Slug. Although a Slug and a B unit differ slightly, (See related articles for details) both serve the same purpose of adding more tractive effort.
- 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."
- Butthead / Butt Head: GM Electro-Motive Division model 'MP' or 'SW' endcab switching locomotives.
- 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'.
- Cadillac: A nickname for EMD SD9 locomotives, in reference to their smooth ride quality reminiscent of a Cadillac automobile. This nickname is said to have originated on the Southern Pacific Railroad.
- Can Opener: Conrail's herald.
- 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.
- Catfish: Norfolk Southern locomotives with white stripes painted on the nose, which are said to look like catfish whiskers.
- 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.
- Centipede: Nickname given to a 12-axled Baldwin diesel locomotive. Also a tender (as on a steam engine) with seven axles (three wheel truck, with four fixed axles).
- 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.
- Ches-C: Chessie System's kitten logo; the profile of the Chesapeake and Ohio's sleeping kitten mascot "Chessie" appears inside the corporate C logo.
- 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".
- Circus loading: Loading trailers on flatcars sequentially from the end; the standard method of loading in early piggyback service.
- 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.
- CPLs: Color Position Lights, a type of signal used most prominently by the Baltimore & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads.
- Crummy: A caboose.
- Dark Future: The current CSX paint scheme, also known as Yellow Nose 3 (YN3) or Gold Nose 1 (GN1).
- Dark Territory: Rail lines without wayside (train control) signals.
- Darth Vader: The lens hood on a modern style of railroad signals, due to its vague resemblance to the helmet of Darth Vader from Star Wars.
- Deadhead: A passenger train that is traveling along a line but is not hauling passengers.
- Deathstar: The logo of the Illinois Central, which has the letter "i" inside a circle — based on a vague resemblance to the Death Star battle station in Star Wars.
- Dinky: Nickname given to small locomotives, particularly one running in industrial service and/or on narrow gauge tracks. Also, a small old-fashioned trolley.
- 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.
- Dynamics/dynamic braking: Regenerative braking in which the motors on the locomotive wheels generate electric power off of the momentum of the moving train, and this power is dissipated through resistor grids as heat.
- Dynamite/Dynamite the Train: Another term for causing an emergency brake application (whether intentional or not).
- 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.
- Fallen flag: a railroad company that no longer operates, or has been merged with (or acquired by) another railroad company.
- FELA: the Federal Employers Liability Act, a U.S. federal law that protects and compensates railroaders injured on the job.
- 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. The GP40X and SD70M models also bear similar 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.
- FRED: "Flashing Rear End Device" located on the rear of trains, measures train air line pressure and train speed.
- FRN: an acronym for "fucking rail nut", a derogatory term used by some railroaders for railfans.
- 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.
- GEVO: Nickname for GE Evolution Series locomotives, in reference to the GEVO-12 engine used in those units.
- 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.
- Green Goat: A type of "hybrid" switching locomotive utilizing a small diesel engine and a large bank of rechargeable batteries.
- Hack: A caboose
- 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, as well as the GE BQ23-7.
- 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.
- 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.
- Horsehead: Norfolk Southern's current locomotive livery with a horse's head embedded in the NS Logo (sometimes also called 'Mr. Ed'). tives
- Hospital Train: a train composed of defective "bad order" equipment/locomotives that are en route to a repair shop.
- 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.
- Iron Triangle (The): An area near downtown Fostoria in northwest Ohio where two main lines of CSX Transportation (the former Baltimore and Ohio line between Akron and Chicago and the former Chesapeake and Ohio Railway line between Columbus and Toledo) and one main line of Norfolk Southern (the former Nickel Plate Road line between Bellevue and Fort Wayne) cross each other in close proximity.
- 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.
- K-turn: see Three-point turn (term not necessarily limited to railway terminology).
- 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.
- 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?"
- Manifest: A freight train with a mixture of car types and cargoes. Also known as a Mixed Freight Train.
- Meatball/Swedish Meatball: Amtrak EMD AEM-7 / ABB ALP-44 electric locomotives; so named for their design being based on the Swedish Rc4.
- Minuteman: The name given to the maroon and gold paint scheme applied to Boston & Maine Railroad diesel-electric locomotives from the 1940s to early 1950s, bearing the famous Revolutionary-inspired Minute Man statue.
- Mother: The locomotive that is paired with a slug.
- Mud Missile: Derogatory nickname given to GE Genesis locomotives, in reference to one's involvement in the 1993 Big Bayou Canot train disaster.
- Multimark: Named for the Canadian Pacific paint scheme given from 1968 - 1996.
- N2A: Abbreviation of "Nose To Ass".
- Nose To Ass: A group of locomotives that are oriented "elephant style".
- 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.
- 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.
- Outlawed: Train crew members who have reached their daily 12 hour maximum of hours worked and must cease working due to regulations.
- Overhaul: A train of exclusively locomotives, usually retired, that exceeds the ordinary maximum number of locomotives in one train.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pumpkin: BNSF Railway's current bright orange paint scheme, CSX's or Amtrak's maintenance-of-way paint scheme. Formerly also ICG's all-orange scheme.
- Q: Shorthand nickname for the old Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad.
- Racetrack: Nickname for a stretch of Metra Commuter Rail line and BNSF freight line between Chicago and Aurora where commuter trains and freight trains commonly attain high speeds. Also used to refer to the parallel tracks of the O&W and DL&W north of Norwich.
- 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.
- 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".
- Rare Mileage: A passenger train traveling over track that does not have regular passenger service.
- Rent-a-Wreck: Locomotive owned by a leasing company.
- Reporting mark: A code assigned by the Association of American Railroads to identify the owners of rolling stock in North America.
- Right Way: A "high nose" locomotive running with the long hood facing forward. Reminiscent of the Southern Railway and the Norfolk & Western Railway style of running locomotives.
- Rhino(s): Nickname for HHP-8 electric locomotives used by Amtrak for Northeast Regional service.
- Roster Shooter: Someone interested in photographing every locomotive road number they can.
- Rubies: Stop signal aspect (red colored signal lights), or a red aspect in conjunction with other colors. Also known as "cherries".
- 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.
- Running Board(s): Description of the walkboards found on the tops and ends of rail cars. Also called grating.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sister: Locomotives with numbers that come after or before one another.
- Skate: Another name for a wheel chock.
- 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.
- 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.
- Taco Belle: Nickname for the new Southern Belle-inspired paint scheme on Kansas City Southern Railway locomotives assigned to subsidiary KCS de Mexico.
- Thunder Pumpkin: Nickname for the orange paint scheme on the BNSF Locomotives.
- Tie Down: To apply hand brakes to the trainset.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Warpumpkin: Name given to the BNSF orange and black update of the classic Sante Fe Warbonnet scheme.
- Washboards: name given to M.U. cars, subway cars, and other equipment made with corrugated side panels that resembled washboards.
- Whiteface: first version of Norfolk Southern's "Horsehead" paint scheme. High visibility paint scheme used on various Burlington Northern locomotives, primarily SD60Ms, SD40-2s, GP50s, GP39 rebuilds, and GP28 rebuilds.
- Wickerliners: Nickname for the DL&W electric multiple unit cars because of their wicker lined seats.
- Winnebago: Nickname for Metra's fleet of EMD F40PHM-2 locomotives, in reference to that model's resemblance to the popular recreational vehicle.
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- 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.
- 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.
- Zebra Stripes: A Santa Fe locomotive in the early black scheme with white warning stripes. CN Rail has also used this scheme on earlier locomotives
- 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.
- Glossary of Australian railway terminology
- Glossary of New Zealand railway terminology
- Glossary of UK railway terminology
- Rail terminology
- Railroad nicknames
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