Transit Glossary: Rail Terminology

Ahh, who doesn’t love trains?

Trains have been around for roughly three centuries, and going nowhere soon.  In fact, it’s making a comeback!  With that said, from subways in New York to streetcars in Portland, here are some common railfan, railroad employee, and trainspotter terms most often used.  Please note that some of the terms used in the bus glossary post are very similar in the rail world, so they won’t be duplicated here.

  • train crew:   Depending on the system, some trains have a one-man crew, while others have two or more people.  In light rail operations, most systems have a train operator that operates the train and activates doors.  Most subways are also one-man operations.  The New York City Subway has a train operator piloting the train and a conductor who activates doors and makes announcements.  In the PATH system, the train operator is titled an engineer.  On commuter railroads, there is an engineer piloting the train, a conductor who makes announcements and commands the train, and one or more assistant conductors who collect fares and assist passengers on and off the train.
  • on the stand:  A train is in the station, on the platform ready to go.  At most terminals, a train operator picks up his train to complete a trip to the next terminal.  This term applies more to rail systems where the train operator or engineer picks up his train at a terminal versus those systems where train operators or engineers take over a train at an employee loading platform.
  • wrap it around or on the post:  This means that the train operator or engineer is taking full power on the train he is operating.  On trains with two controllers (or valves), one for the brakes and one for acceleration, the term “wrap it around” is more commonly used; with single-controller trains, the term “on the post” is used more often.
  • hit a signal:  This means that the train operator or engineer went past a signal that wasn’t in his favor, usually red in most cases.
  • reading the iron:  This is probably one of the most important parts of being a train operator, no matter what the system or size of the trains.  Being able to see the track switch and determining whether you can change tracks safely without derailing.
  • scraping the wall:  This is a term used for trains that normally run express during the day but are local at night or due to track work.  NYC Transit’s A train runs local after 10pm and before 6am due to the C train not running at that time.
  • restricted speed:  This term has the same implications across the board, though different railroads use different language when writing it in their rulebooks.  Generally speaking, it means that the train is to be operated at a slow speed which would allow the train to stop immediately at a safe distance if there is anything on the track including debris, personnel, or another train in front of it.
  • block:  This is basically a length of track, determined by the railroad engineers that built the track, with defined physical or electrical limits.  This could be the distance between two signal boxes or signal apparatus in between the rails on the track.
  • absolute block:  This is a situation where, for any reason, only one train at a time can occupy a single section of track and no other train can go behind it or in front of it until the first train clears.  This is done with strict coordination between the train dispatcher, signal or switch towers, and the train operator or engineer so that there are no head-on collisions or rear-ending of trains.
  • wrong-railing:  In most systems, trains usually travel in one direction on a track and the placement of the signals reflects that.  Sometimes, trains must run in the opposite direction for special moves or track work.  On tracks that are usually used in one direction only, trains must operate with restricted speed and an absolute block may be in place to help protect the train from other trains.
  • reverse-running:  In all systems, there are areas of track that are used by trains in either direction, called bidirectional track, with signals in place for trains to operate in either direction.  In some places, bidirectional track is usually only  found at terminal stations where track ends in what’s called a bumping block to keep it from going off the rails.  In rail systems such as the PATH system, trains can run in the reverse direction of traffic with signals that operate much like they do in the normal direction of traffic, as is done between Exchange Place and the World Trade Center during overnight and weekend hours.
  • single-track operation or single-tracking:  This is done on lines with two tracks and one track is taken out of service for track or station work.  Depending on what type of track is used, there can be reverse-running, where one train at a time can run on that track with signal protection, or wrong-railing, where in one direction or both directions, there must be some absolute block protection to prevent two trains from colliding or running into each other.
  • track gauge:  Conventional trains run on two rails, called running rails, which are spaced a certain distance apart based on the needs of the railroad, called the gauge.  The standard used by many railroads is 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches (56.5″) between the running rails, called standard gauge.  Broad gauge is usually anything larger than standard, such as the 5 feet, 2 1/2 inches used by SEPTA’s Market-Frankford El or the 5 feet, 5 inches used by the BART in San Francisco.  Narrow gauge is usually anything smaller than standard, like some streetcar systems in Europe for passing through narrow passageways and urban streets.  See here for detailed information.
  • track grade:  The level of the track with respect to the ground.  If the track is on the ground, it is said to be at-grade.  If the rail is above the ground, like an elevated railway, it is said to be above grade.  If the rail is below the ground, such as in a tunnel or an open cut, it is said to be below grade.
  • right-of-way (ROW):  This is the way of the train, the way the tracks are laid, the space at grade or above/below grade where the train has the right to travel at a specific operating speed.
  • open cut:  This is where the ROW is below grade but is still visible from the outside from a location on the surface.  Such an example would be the NYC Transit N line from New Utrecht Avenue to 86th Street Stations.
  • embankment:  This is where the ROW is at-grade or slightly above grade but not exactly on an elevated structure.  Trains run on a raised or level bed of rocks (called ballast for reduction of noise and vibration of trains running over it) for a long distance with short elevated sections in some places to cross over streets.  Such an example would be NYC Transit’s Q line from Avenue H to Sheepshead Bay Stations.
  • cut-and-cover:  This is a type of rail tunnel construction where the ground is dug up, a station or tunnel structure is erected, then covered up by the soil that was originally dug out.  Such an example would be the MBTA Green Line Boylston Street Tunnel.
  • deep tunnel boring:  This is a type of rail tunnel construction where a tunnel-boring machine (TBM) is used to dig its way through deep rock and soil in order not to disrupt normal daily functions of residents and businesses on street level.  The TBM can also construct tunnel walls behind it, combining digging and building functions with one machine.  Such an example would be the WMATA Metrorail Red Line between Downtown DC and Bethesda.
  • intermodal:  A freight train with cargo that is destined to travel on another mode of transport after it reaches the nearest freight yard or terminal.  It usually consists of box trailers to be towed by a tractor-trailer truck and metal freight containers to be loaded onto special trailers to be towed by trucks.  They can also be loaded onto barges and container ships for shipment overseas.  A double-stack is an intermodal train with containers stacked two units high for transport on one trains versus two.
  • auto-rack:  A freight train that carries brand-new automobiles for shipment to transfer stations, where auto-carrier trucks take them to dealerships to be sold.

Any more?  Feel free to add some…but these are the basic ones.

Stay tuned for some aviation terms.


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