Glossary of Terms

Are you new to the lingo of railroading and model railroading? Check out this handy glossary of some common terms used on model railroads and prototype railroads.

Accessory: an item intended to complement a toy train set but generally not included with it, such as a switch, a building, or a trackside light. Some accessories, such as billboards, tunnels, and many buildings, are static, while others, such as coal loaders, control towers, or gatemen, have an operating feature.

Airbrush: A miniature paint sprayer that gives a controlled application of thinned paint.
Articulated: locomotive with a jointed frame that is flexible in at least one direction.

Benchwork: A frame that is the foundation of a model railroad or toy train layout. L girder and open-grid are two popular types.

Block: an electrically insulated zone of track.

Body shell: the housing of a locomotive or car that covers the interior workings. Sometimes referred to as the "cab"

CA: Short for cyanoacrylate adhesive, also known as super glue. A high-strength adhesive that can be used on metal and styrene plastic.

Cab control: A method of controlling model trains in which one power pack is used for each train so the power pack can be connected to one set of blocks and remain disconnected from all others. Only one engine or set of engines can be controlled in each block.

Can motor: a permanent magnet motor enclosed in a metal "can" (housing). A can motor is generally direct current (DC)-only.

Chassis: frame and mechanism of a locomotive or car; what the body shell sits on.
Chemically blackened: a metal part treated with chemicals to achieve a painted or blackened look. Manufacturers use these processes on wheels, trucks, and frames.

Coil coupler: (see coupler) a toy train connecting device that uses a solenoid to open and close it; the electricity to operate the solenoid comes via a device beneath the truck that slides along the track, activated when a button is pushed and current is provided.

Command control: A way of controlling trains by sending electronic messages through the rails. Each locomotive has a decoder or receiver which only responds to the messages specifically directed to it. Engines can be controlled independently anywhere on a layout. Also known as Digital Command Control (DCC).

Consist: Cars which make up a train; also a list of those cars. Locomotive consist is a group of engines put together to pull a train.

Couplers: are the devices by which cars and locomotives are hooked together. The most widely used coupler is known as a "knuckle" coupler. These generally replicate full-size couplers as used on U.S. rolling stock. Not every knuckle couple available will mate with every other, for a variety of reasons.

Crossover: Two turnouts (a.k.a. switches) and a connecting track that allow a train to be diverted to a parallel track.

Die-cast: a manufacturing process in which molten material is poured or injected into a metal mold. The molds are always metal in this process, but the material cast may be metal or plastic. There are other casting processes, such as sandcasting or lost-wax casting, but these are less common.

Duckunder: An area on a layout where you must bend down and go under the benchwork to gain access to another part of the layout.

EOT device: An end-of-train device (sometimes called a FRED, or flashing rear-end device) that has replaced cabooses. Along with a flashing light, many EOTs can transmit information on brake-line pressure and speed to the locomotive.

E-unit: the mechanism that provides the reverse sequence on toy trains; there are two-position (forward-reverse) models and three-position (forward-neutral-reverse) models.

E unit: a General Motors Electro-Motive Division (EMD) six-axle streamlined passenger locomotive of the 1930s-'60s.

EMD: abbreviation for Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, manufacturer of prototype locomotives.

F unit: an EMD four-axle streamlined freight/passenger diesel of the 1940s and 1950s, made in several variants.

Factory prototype/factory sample: Manufacturers produce these preproduction models for executives and employees so they can work out plans to design and decorate the final model. Most prototypes/samples were never intended to leave the company, but over the years many have made their way into the hands of collectors, giving them a glimpse of the production process. The terms are most often used with regard to toy trains.

Factory error: usually a train with faulty paint or lettering (decoration), or a part (factory installed) that varies from most examples. They are often worth more than a similar, but correct, item.

Flex track: Prefabricated flexible sections of track used on a layout. It usually comes in straight, 3-foot-long sections which can be bent as needed. Other kinds of track are sectional (rigid pieces of straight and curved track that come with train sets) and hand laid (built with handmade ties, rail, and spikes).

Frame: the base structure of a locomotive or car, without trucks, motors, etc.

Free-lance: Modeling that does not closely follow a real (prototype) railroad.

Gauge: The distance between the inside of the heads of track rails. Standard gauge on real railroads is 4'-8 1/2". Narrow gauge means rails with a width less than standard gauge. For example, On3 means O scale trains with 3 scale feet between the rails.

Gondola: A long, flat, open car with short sides and ends for hauling items like iron, steel, and scrap.

Grade: refers to the level of the ground or the ground surface upon which track is laid.

Ground throw: a machine that is used to move the point rails of a switch. It is built to a low profile, close to the ground, hence its name. An upright machine that does the same job is called a switch stand.

Hard shell: A scenery base made by dipping paper towels in plaster or using plaster-impregnated gauze and laying it over a light support structure like cardboard.

process of lettering using a hot metal dye and a colored tape ribbon. Heat-stamping leaves a slight impression on plastic or metal surfaces.

Helix: A rising curve which turns around an axis like a corkscrew. Used on multilevel model railroad layouts to allow trains to move from one level to another.

Hi-rail: broadly speaking, hi-rail refers to modeling prototype railroading as accurately as possible using toy trains on a layout with realistic scenery.

Homasote: A pressed paperboard often used for roadbed on a model or toy train layout.

Hopper car: An open-top car for hauling items that don't need protection, such as coal and gravel. Unloaded through doors in funnel-like bins in bottom of car. Covered hoppers have roofs and carry grain and other items that need protection from weather.

Intermodal: Shipments that are carried by more than one mode of transportation, mainly containers and piggyback trailers.

Kit bashing: Taking one or more model railroad kits (often structure kits) and changing the construction process or combining parts to make a unique model.

Large scale: toy trains manufactured since 1970 that use No. 1 gauge track. The trains themselves are scaled (if at all) to different ratios, including 1:22.5 (G scale, originated by LGB and also used by Bachmann).

Live steam locomotives: model trains that run on real steam. Their boilers contain water that is heated by a fire. The cylinders function in much the same way as a full-size locomotive's.

Magne-Traction: Lionel's patented toy train system, dating from 1949, for increasing locomotive traction by way of magnetized axles.

Magnetic coupler: a post-1947 Lionel toy train coupler that uses either a movable metal plate or a metal shaft to open the coupler. A magnetic coupler requires an electromagnet to operate.

Main line: is the primary track that defines the railway and which connects the railway's most important destinations. It does not include spurs, branch lines, yards, sidings, or passing tracks.

A section of a layout built following a standard pattern or dimensions. Each module can be connected interchangeably with any other module built to the same standards. Ntrak is an organization that has developed standards for N scale modules.

MOW: Maintenance-of-way equipment. Used by a railroad to keep track and roadbed in good condition.

Operation: Running trains on a model railroad layout in a way that simulates real railroad activity.

Passing siding: a track that parallels the main line and joins it at both ends. It is usually long enough that an entire train can pull into it so that another may pass in the opposite direction.

Point-to-point: a type of track plan whereby the train begins its journey at a dead end and ends it at another. The track does not form a continuous loop, nor are there turning or reverse loops at the ends.

Points: can refer to an entire switch or turnout or to the actual rails that move within a switch to change the direction of the train, also called point rails.

Rail joiner: the device that holds rail ends together and in alignment. Commercial, sectional track comes with slide-on joiners. Clamp-on joiners are also available.

Reefer: A refrigerator car. Similar in appearance to a boxcar but uses ice or mechanical cooling equipment.

Reproduction: a newly manufactured model train that's closely patterned in style, color, and materials after an older train that is long since out of production.

Roadbed: Foundation of built-up earth under tracks.

Rolling stock: Freight and passenger cars.

Running board: Walkway along roof or along sides of tank cars.

Scale: The size of things on a model railroad relative to things on a real railroad. For example, in the most popular scale, HO, models are 1/87th full size. Other popular scales are Z (1/220), n (1/160), S (1/64), and O (1/48).

Scratch building: Making a model from raw materials and parts, not using kits.

Semi-scale: in toy train terminology, almost a true scale model.

Styrene: Short for polystyrene, a versatile plastic commonly used for modeling. Comes in sheets, blocks, and rods of many different thicknesses and sizes.

Tinplate: Originally, this term came from a reference to the tin-plated steel used to construct toy train track and cars. People outside the toy train hobby often use this term to refer to nearly all aspects of toy trains, particularly the metal models made before World War II.

Traction: City and suburban trolley lines; equipment run by electricity.

Train set: a train sold as such by its manufacturer, with or without track and transformer.

Transformer: strictly speaking, an electrical device for raising or lowering AC voltage, but in toy train parlance, and AC power pack for controlling train speed and direction.

Truck: Assembly holding a group of two or more wheelsets together beneath a car.

Turnout: A piece of track that allows a train to go from one track to another. Called a switch on a real railroad. Referred to by number. For example, a no. 6 turnout spreads one unit for each six units of travel measured from the frog (the point at which two rails join to form a V).

Universal motor: an open-frame motor that has a wire-wound armature and a wire-wound field coil in series, allowing it to operate on AC or DC.

Variations: slightly different production versions of the same numbered set, locomotive, or piece of toy train rolling stock. Often, the differences are slight and may involve subtle changes in color, lettering, or detailing.

Wheelset: a pair of wheels connected by an axle.

Weathering: Making shiny new models look more realistic by dirtying them up with chalk or paint.