Railway turntable

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A small turntable at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA. This type of turntable with the central tower and supporting cables is called a “gallows turntable”.
A larger turntable in front of a roundhouse, 1909
A small turntable at the Textilmuseum Bocholt
Wagon turntable at the National Slate Museum on 2 ft (610 mm) gauge track
Drivers turning cable car on a turntable at San Francisco
The right Portal of the building leads to a covered turntable for (rotary) snow ploughs of the Rhätische Bahn on the Bernina Hospiz
A heavy German goods locomotive on the turntable at the German Steam Locomotive Museum, Bavaria. The pivot of this turntable is off-center, which prevents the turntable from rotating a full 360 degrees.
Turntable at Papar Station (Sabah, Malaysia)

A railway turntable is a device for turning railroad rolling stock, usually locomotives, so that they can be moved back in the direction from which they came. This is especially true in areas where economic considerations and/or a lack of sufficient space have served to weigh against the construction of a turnaround wye. In the case of steam locomotives, railroads needed a way to turn the locomotives around for return trips as their controls were often not configured for extended periods of running in reverse and in many locomotives the top speed was lower in reverse motion. In the case of diesel locomotives, though most can be operated in either direction, they are treated as having "front ends" and "rear ends" (often determined by reference to the location of the crew cab). When operated as a single unit, the railway company often prefers, or requires, that a diesel locomotive be run "front end" first. When operated as part of a multiple unit locomotive consist, the locomotives can be arranged so that the consist can be operated "front end first" no matter which direction the consist is pointed. Turntables were also used to turn observation cars so that their windowed lounge ends faced toward the rear of the train.[1]


Most turntables consisted of a circular pit in which the bridge rotated. The bridge was typically supported and balanced by the central pivot. A rail running around the floor of the pit supported the ends of the bridge when, but only when a locomotive entered or exited the bridge. The turntable bridge (the part of the turntable that included the tracks and that swivelled to turn the equipment) could span anywhere from 6 to 120 feet (1.8 to 36.6 m), depending on the railroad's needs. Larger turntables were installed in the locomotive maintenance facilities for longer locomotives, while short line and narrow gauge railroads typically used smaller turntables as their equipment was smaller. Turntables as small as 6 feet (1.83 m) in diameter have been installed in some industrial facilities where the equipment is small enough to be pushed one at a time by human or horse power. Indeed such small turntables, called turnplates, were common on the early horse-drawn mine railways before the development of the steam locomotive, and were widely used for marshalling wagons and carriages in the goods and passenger stations of the earliest steam railways.

Turntables will have a positive locking mechanism to prevent undesired rotation and to align the bridge rails with the exit track. Rotation of the bridge could be accomplished manually (either by brute force or with a windlass system) by an external power source or by the braking system of the locomotive itself, though this required a locomotive to be on the table for it to be rotated.


In engine maintenance facilities, a turntable was usually surrounded, in part or in whole, by a roundhouse. It was more common for the roundhouse to only cover a portion of the land around a turntable but fully circular roundhouses exist, such as these preserved roundhouses:

By country[edit]

North America[edit]

Due to the asymmetric design of many locomotives, turntables still in use are more common in North America than in Europe, where locomotive design favors configurations with a controller cabin on both ends or in the middle. In San Francisco, USA, the Powell cable car line uses turntables at the end of the routes, since the cable cars have operating controls at only one end of the car.

Great Britain[edit]

In Britain, where steam hauled trains generally have vacuum operated brakes, it was quite common for turntables to be operated by vacuum motors worked from the locomotive's vacuum ejector or pump via a flexible hose or pipe although a few manually and electrically operated examples exist.


There is a turntable at the Talaguppa end of the Shimoga-Talaguppa railway.[2]

In 2012, Mumbai Metro One, the BOT operator of the Mumbai Metro Line 1 announced that it had procured turntables to be used on the Rapid Transit system.[3]

Sri Lanka[edit]

In Sri Lanka, most of turn tables which were used in steam era are still in use and some have been abandoned. Most are situated at the major railway yards like Kandy, Anuradhapura, Maho, Galoya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and depots in Dematagoda and Maradana. All working turn tables in Sri Lanka Railways are operated manually. They are used to turn some of rolling stock and non dual cab locomotives.

Surviving turntables[edit]

Several working examples remain; many on Heritage railways in Great Britain, and also in the United States. Examples include:

The following are in store, awaithin installation at UK sites

  • Barry Rly. -– 65’ outer race. Dismantled ( ex Bricklayers Arms 1970s; moved from Mid Hants Rly.)
  • South Devon Rly. - Dismantled ( ex Hull Botanic Gardens in 2005; built 1955, 60 ft )
  Planning permission to install at Buckfastliegh requested
  see ( http://www.southdevonrailwayassociation.org/Turntable.html )
  • Midland Railway Centre – Swanwick Jnc. – Dismantled - Hand powered, Balanced 60’, ( ex Chinley ).
  • Severn Valley Rly. - Dismantled ( ex Bristol Bath Road ) Stored at Eardington.
  Intention is to install at Bridgnorth. 70’; 
  • East Lancs Rly. – Dismantled ( ex Germany. ) – stored at Buckley Wells
  • Dean Forest Rly. - Dismantled ( ex Calais Shed, SNCF, ex MLST Loughborough. )
  • Quainton – 60’ Dismantled ( ex Hitchin GNR ) R&R
  • Tyseley – stored dismantled – to be installed at Stratford upon Avon - ex Thornaby (new location proposed 2004, not yet u/c, to be installed by Tyseley Locomotive Works Ltd. )

(( Probably CS 10063 9-10-56 Drwg 19253 70’, 180 tons, Electric, Articulated BTC E&NE.Reg ))

  • Swanage Rly. Furzebrook ex Old Oak Common Depot 2011 -

BR( WR) 70’ /125T ?E CS 9709/53

    ( in use at OOC to 2008; was used for HST power car turning and etc.)
  • Mallaig, Network Rail – Dismantled, scheme to install the ex Whitchurch table which is stored at Corpach or Fort William. ( via Severn Valley Railway?? )


In the United States, when deciding liability for turntable accidents, most state courts followed the precedent set by the United States Supreme Court in Sioux City & Pacific R.R. v. Stout (1873).[4] In that case, a six-year-old child was playing on the unguarded, unfenced turntable when his friends began turning it. While attempting to get off, his foot became stuck and was crushed. The Court held that although the railroad was not bound by the same duty of care to strangers as it was to its passengers, it would be liable for negligence "if from the evidence given it might justly be inferred by the jury that the defendant, in the construction, location, management, or condition of its machine has omitted that care and attention to prevent the occurrence of accidents which prudent and careful men ordinarily bestow."[5]

In the case of Chicago B. & Q.R. Co. v. Krayenbuhl (1902), a four year old child was playing on an unlocked, unguarded railroad turntable. Other children set the turntable in motion, and it severed the ankle of the young child. The child's family sued the railroad company on a theory of negligence and won at trial. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the railroad company may have been liable for negligence after considering the "character and location of the premises, the purpose for which they are used, the probability of injury therefrom, the precautions necessary to prevent such injury, and the relations such precautions bear to the beneficial use of the premises." However, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision based on an improper jury instruction as to the evidence.[6]

Accidents to locomotives sometimes occurred. For example, if the turntable was incorrectly set and a locomotive was accidentally started or failed to stop, it might fall into the turntable pit.[7][8]

Unusual turntables[edit]

  • In one location in France[specify], lack of space forced the installation of an asymmetric turntable, where the pivot point was about one-third along its length. Such a turntable cannot rotate 360 degrees. A similar, operational turntable is located in Bavaria at the German Steam Locomotive Museum, pictured above.
  • At Ventnor railway station, due to lack of space a small turntable was provided to allow steam engines to run around their trains, and similarly at Bembridge railway station.
  • There is a turntable for trolleybuses on the Solingen, Germany, trolleybus system, at the former southern end of route 683.[9] The turntable, in German Drehscheibe "Unterburg", was in regular use until November 2009, at which time the route was extended beyond it, but it remains operational and is used for special occasions.[10]
  • The last remaining 3-gauge turntable in the world, used to station trains into the 23 bay roundhouse, exists at the Steamtown Heritage Centre in Peterborough, South Australia.[11]

Multiple turntables[edit]

Stations housing large numbers of engines may have more than one turntable:

See also[edit]

  • Wye – a way of turning whole trains.
  • Transfer table (UK: 'traverser') – provides access to two or more parallel tracks in a space saving manner like a turntable, but without the ability to turn.
  • A Sector plate or sector table is a traverser that rotates by a small angle.
  • Nowadays control cars, or coaches with controls at one end, have largely eliminated the need for turntables.
  • Singapore and Hong Kong have a combined traverser-turntable that takes 4-car sets.


  1. ^ The Elements of Railroad Engineering, 5th Edition, 1937, William G. Raymond. Published by John Wiley and Sons, New York
  2. ^ "A trip on the Shimoga Town - Talguppa MG railbus". Irfca.org. Archived from the original on 2007-12-20. Retrieved 2008-02-21. 
  3. ^ Aklekar, Rajendra (16 July 2012). "Metro retro: Forgotten turn-tables back on track". Mumbai. Daily News and Analysis. Retrieved 2012-07-22. 
  4. ^ Epstein, Richard A. (2008). Cases and Materials on Torts (9th ed.). United States of America: Aspen Publishers. p. 589. ISBN 978-0-7355-6923-2. 
  5. ^ Sioux City & Pacific R.R. v. Stout, 84 U.S. 657,661 (1873)
  6. ^ Chicago, B & Q.R. Co. v. Krayenbuhl, 65 Neb. 889, 91 N.W. 880, (Neb., 1902)"
  7. ^ Photo of L&N 1250 after it rolled into the turntable pit
  8. ^ Photo of CSXT 806 with its front truck in the air and rear truck in the turntable pit
  9. ^ Google Inc. "Railway turntable". Google Maps (Map). Cartography by Google, Inc. http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=fi&geocode=&q=solingen&sll=50.95662,7.145239&sspn=1.283743,2.471924&ie=UTF8&ll=51.137279,7.147213&spn=0.001249,0.002414&t=h&z=19. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  10. ^ Trolleybus Magazine No. 290 (March–April 2010), p. 41. National Trolleybus Association (UK). ISSN 0266-7452.
  11. ^ http://www.peterboroughsa.com.au/steamtown.php