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Railway Vocabulary

British Railway Vocabulary

Autocoach
A type of passenger coach popular on the Great Western at one point, for use on their branch lines. Autocoaches were single coaches, hauled by a small steam engine, usually a tiny 14XX class 0-4-2. The thing that made them unusual was that they had a clever system installed that permitted the driver to run the train from a special cab at the end of the coach. This was done when the engine and coach ran backwards, since autocoaches were used on small branch lines that lacked the necessary facilities to turn engines around. Of course the fireman had to stay in the engine, shovelling away, only without the driver to keep him company. On railways other than the GWR these were usually called push-pull arrangements. Autocoaches were superseded by diesel railcars.

Beeching
The 1960s in particular saw a tremendous decline in rail services in the UK. British Rail was run by a certain Dr. Beeching during much of this period, and he oversaw an extensive programmeof cutbacks, in which unprofitable branchlines were eliminated.

Bogie
A bogie is the self-contained metal frame that contains usually two or three wheel axles, and is mounted on a swivel underneath passenger coaches and larger goods vehicles.

Boiler
The long large cylinder that makes up the bulk of a typical steam engine. Contains all the pipes and whatnot in which water is pumped and heated to produce steam.

Brake van
An enclosed vehicle at the end of goods trains, in which the guard rides. Thus sometimes called a guard van.

Broad gauge
Generally speaking, any railway tracks that are wider than standard gauge. The term has certain historical meaning in the UK, however. Brunel felt that the standard rail gauge of 4' 8.5" wasn’t good enough for his railway, and decided instead to build his trains on a 7' gauge. The idea being, of course, that the greater width would mean the trains would be more stable and able to run at greater speeds. However, it proved such a nuisance in the end because every other major railway in the UK ran on standard gauge, so by the late 1800s the GWR was forced to convert to standard gauge.

Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer and personality behind the Great Western Railway.

Buffer
UK railways traditionally used short chains (three-link and screw-link couplings) to link wagons and coaches together, unlike North America which has relied on sturdy knuckle-shaped metal couplers for a long time. Accordingly, UK rolling stock has buffers - sprung metal posts with caps - buffer heads - on the end. These buffers absorb the blow of the wagons and coaches bumping into each other, because chains obviously have a lot of slack between them. Buffers on British engines are nearly always painted red.

Buffer head
The two metal discs mounted on posts at the end of each buffer.

Buffer stop
A thing mounted across the rail at the end of the track to prevent rolling stock from rolling off. Rail-built buffer stops are triangular metal frames, bolted to the rails. Sleeper-built buffer stops are wooden boxes built of old rail sleepers, and filled with ballast or some other material.

Buffet Car
A coach that was designed to prepare and serve food and beverages

Bullhead
For many years most British rail was of the bullhead variety. In cross-section it approximated a squarish figure of eight, but with a heavier lower half. In the earliest days of rail it was pretty well symmetrical, the idea being that the rail could be turned upside down once the upper half had worn down, though apparently this wasn’t actually done very often. Nowadays the British use the same flat-bottom rail.

Bulleid
O.V.S. Bulleid, the last chief mechanical engineer to the Southern Railway. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him. He was renowned for unusual and innovative - if sometimes rather strange-looking - locomotive designs.

Bunker
Tank engines, since they lack tenders, have storage space at the back for fuel - usually coal. This is a bunker. Thus if a tank engine is running backwards it’s said to be running bunker-first.

Cab
The usually enclosed part of the engine in which the fireman and driver work.

Catch point
A point designed with the express purpose of derailing a train. What, you might ask, is the point of that? Well, sometimes derailing a train is preferable to having a runaway train end up on the mainline track, where it can collide with a high-speed express train.

Cattle dock
A raised trackside platform, fenced-in, used to herd cows aboard cattle vans. Once very common at rural stations.

Cattle grid
Shallow ditch covered with parallel metal pipes, used on roads and railways to prevent cattle and other livestock from crossing.

Cattle van
An enclosed van with ventilation slots in the side, used to ship the poor old cows off to their untimely demise.

Chairs
Metal brackets, bolted to the sleepers and used to hold the rails in place.

Chief mechanical engineer
The handful of men who defined the technical characteristics of Britain’s railways. Each railway company had a CME, the man in charge of designing locomotives, coaches, determining technical standards, etc.

Churchward
G. J. Churchward, a chief mechanical engineer to the Great Western Railway. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Coach
In UK railway talk, an unpowered piece of rolling stock used for carrying passengers.

Coal staithes
Open trackside wooden bunkers, often built of old railway sleepers, used to store coal.

Collett
C. B. Collett, a chief mechanical engineer to the Great Western Railway. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Compartment
For years, British passenger coaches had individual compartments rather than being open vehicles with seats, as has long been the case in North America. Something to do with weird British notions of privacy or people travelling in family groups, I think. Each compartment had around a half dozen seats in it, with doors to either side. So once the train was moving it was impossible to get out of the compartment. Later British coaches retained the compartment idea but also had a long narrow corridor running the length of the vehicle, along which the conductor would walk. Modern British coaches are generally open coaches - open with rows of seats.

Compound
A type of steam engine. The Midland Railway, for example, had a class of 4-4-0 engines commonly known as Midland Compounds. The name comes from the three-cylinder design. The outer two cylinders were low pressure and the third, tucked away inside the frame, was high pressure.

Corridor coach
See compartment.

Corridor connectors
The accordion-style passageways that join passenger coaches.

Coupling rods
The heavy metal rods that keep the driving wheels of steam engines (and small mechanical diesels) turning together. Also known as connecting rods.

Crewe
Railway works in Cheshire.

Darlington.
The home of the first passenger carrying railway.

Deltic
An early type of large diesel-electric engine, one of a few varieties with a bulbous nose on either end. They seem popular for some reason, and the name crops up often.

Diesel
Any locomotive that uses a diesel motor - an internal combustion engine of the kind invented by Herr Diesel that runs on heavy oil-like fuel and lacks spark plugs - is a diesel locomotive. Obviously. There are three common types of diesel engines. Very small engines use mechanical linkages, whereby the motive power is transmitted from the diesel motor directly through to the wheels. Such mechanical linkages are not practical for larger engines, and so anything bigger than a shunter is usually diesel-electric or, occasionally in the past, diesel-hydraulic.

Diesel-electric
A diesel engine in which the diesel motor generates electricity, not mechanical power. The electricity in turn then powers the electric motors that actually drive the thing forward. The most common type of diesel engine today.

Diesel-hydraulic
In the early days of nationalisation the Western Region, formerly the fiercely independent Great Western Railway, generally tried to do things its own way. One thing they did early on was insist on building diesel engines in which the motor powered the wheels through a complex hydraulic system. Western, Warship and Hymeks are three classes of engine commonly associated with this design, built with German help. The engines had a history of mechanical problems and were eventually discontinued in favour of diesel-electric engines.

Distant signal
Distant signals were warning semaphore signals that told the driver what the state of the next home signal was. Contrast home signals. Distant signals were usually painted yellow with a black chevron (v-shape), and the arms had a V-shaped notch cut in the end of the arm.

DMU
Diesel multiple unit. Diesel-powered passenger vehicles that replaced steam engines on non-express (suburban, rural, commuter) railway lines. They resemble two, three or four passenger coaches coupled together - the motive power is tucked away inside one or two of the coaches.

Driver
The man (historically rarely if ever a woman) who drives the train. Now more women are employed as drivers.

Driving wheels
The powered wheels on a steam engine, coupled through to the pistons and whatnot. As opposed to the usually smaller pony wheels, which just roll along.

Drummond
Dugald Drummond, a chief mechanical engineer to the LSWR. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

EMU
An electric multiple unit. Like a DMU, but powered electrically. Common in the southern region, because that area has a lot of electrified track. (mainly using an outside third rail, not an overhead system.)

Evening Star
The last steam engine built by British Railways, now preserved. For what it’s worth it’s a class 9F heavy freight locomotive, No. 92220.

Firebox
The part of the locomotive in which the actual fire was located. On a typical British steam engine the firebox was the (often square cross-section, on Belpaire boilers) thing at the end of the boiler, before the cab starts. How’s that for a brilliantly technical description?

Fireman
In the days of steam, the man who had the unenviable task of shovelling the coal into the voracious gaping maw of the engine.

Fishplate
A fishplate is a metal device used to join rails. In the prototype, fishplates are bolted to each segment of rail. In the model world, rail joiners could be considered sort of fishplates.

Fish van
A van used for shipping fish. Logical enough, really. Code-named Bloater on the GWR.

Footplate
The part of the cab where the driver and fireman stand. Hence the term footplate experience, which refers to experience in driving or firing an engine.

Fowler
Sir Henry Fowler, a chief mechanical engineer to the LMS. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Frog
The part of a point where the two rails cross, forming a sort of X shape.

Gauge
The distance between the rails. The standard gauge in most countries of the world is the rather weird 4 feet and 8.5 inches. See also broad gauge, standard gauge, narrow gauge.

General utility van
A bogie vehicle the length of a passenger coach. GUVs are used to ship express parcels and other goods, and are coupled to passenger trains, not goods trains.

Gooch
Sir Daniel Gooch, Superintendent of Locomotives for the early GWR.

Goods
Anything shipped by rail that doesn’t involve live human beings.

Gresley
Sir Nigel Gresley, a chief mechanical engineer to the LNER. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him. Known particularly for designing A3 (eg: Flying Scotsman) and A4 (eg: Mallard, the fastest steam engine built) express locomotives.

Grounded van or coach
A condemned van or coach that has been recycled. Instead of throwing it out someone has taken it off the tracks, mounted it on blocks, and used it for storage, accommodation, popular at seaside sites in the 50's.

Grouping
In 1923 nearly all the standard gauge private railway companies in England, Wales and Scotland were amalgamated by Act of Parliament, forming four large regional companies - the Big Four. These were the Great Western Railway (primarily the western UK, and the only railway company to emerge from grouping relatively unscathed), the Southern Railway (primarily the south-east), London, Midland and Scottish and the London North-Eastern Railway. Or GWR, SR, LMS and LNER. Railway enthusiasts thus talk of pre-grouping and post-grouping periods.

Guard
The chap who rides at the end of the train and performs various duties. On passenger trains, for example, the guard is the person who closes any open doors on the train and signals to the driver that the train is ready to depart by blowing a whistle and now also the conductor collecting fares. On goods trains the guard keeps a close eye on the wagons, applies the brakes manually in the event of a disaster, such as a coupler break, etc.

Home signal
Home semaphore signals controlled the next section of track. If the signal was level (horizontal, meaning stop) the train was to proceed no further. Contrast distant signals. Home signals were usually painted red with a vertical white stripe on the front. The back of the signal arm was usually painted white with a vertical black stripe.

Ivatt
H. A. Ivatt, a chief mechanical engineer to the Great Northern Railway. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Lagging
Stuff used as thermal insulation under the outer skin of the boiler, cylinders, etc.

Level crossing
The point where road and rail cross. In the old days, level crossings were usually protected by wooden crossing gates that were manually swung out across the road. Now usually protected by electrically operated crossing barriers that swing upwards out of the way.

Lining
Painted lines on an engine or coach. Frequently English steam engines had decorative circular bands painted around the visible circumference of the boiler - the lining.

Livery
The paint scheme of a locomotive, coach, etc.

Loading gauge
The clearances - height and width - around the track that dictate the size of locomotive and rolling stock that can be used on a rail line. For historical reasons, British trains have a much smaller loading gauge than European and American trains - bridges are lower, tunnels are more narrow, etc. The track gauge is usually the same, but trains are not as tall and are also more narrow because of these clearance restrictions - though it should be noted that the loading gauge did vary from railway company to railway company. Much of the GWR, for example, had a very wide loading gauge because its early trackwork was built to broad gauge standards. A loading gauge is also the name for the post with curved overhanging arm used to check that rolling stock doesn’t exceed the railway’s clearances.

Lorry
Any large, usually diesel-powered, freight vehicle for roads.

Lower quadrant
In the days of semaphore signals, a few UK railways - notably the Great Western - used lower quadrant signals. This meant that a horizontal arm meant stop whereas an arm pointing downwards at an angle meant proceed (clear). Contrast upper quadrant.

Maunsell
R. E. L. Maunsell, a chief mechanical engineer to the Southern Railway. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Mineral wagon
Open wagon for shipping minerals - coal, ballast, sand, etc.

Narrow gauge
Any railway built to a gauge that’s narrower than 4' 8.5". In the UK, the small narrow gauge railways built in Wales to service the slate industry are particularly notable.

Nationalisation
The postwar period found the private railway companies in rather difficult financial straits. That, and the fact that a Labour government came to power, meant that the Big Four railway companies were all nationalised and brought under state control in 1948. Thus British Railways; later British Rail. Now Network Rail.

Pacific
Some of the American names for locomotive wheel configurations were adopted by the British. Pacifics were 4-6-2 steam engines.

Pandrol clip
The trademarked name for the loopy rail fasteners used to attach rails to concrete sleepers. Made out of metal rod, bent into a characteristic looped shape.

Pannier tank
A type of tank engine. Similar to a saddle tank engine, only the tanks are long rectangular tanks on either side of the boiler, not rounded ones. The GWR was famous for small pannier tank engines. Fans of the late Rev. Awdry’s Railway books will know that Duck is a GWR pannier tank engine.

Parallel boiler
A locomotive boiler which is a simple cylinder. Contrast tapered boiler.

Plank wagon
The size, or capacity, of ordinary wagons, was often described in terms of the number of wooden planks that made up the sides. Thus 7 plank wagons had higher sides than 5 plank wagons.

Point
In UK railway talk, a device that lets a train move from one track to another.

Pony wheels
The small non-driving wheels of a steam engine.

Prairie
Some of the American names for locomotive wheel configurations were adopted by the British. Prairies were 2-6-2 steam engines.

Preservation line
Across the UK are many preservation or heritage railway lines - short lines run by enthusiasts, frequently volunteers, who want to keep memories of the old steam and occasionally older diesel engines alive.

Private owner
Rolling stock - usually a wagon or van - owned by a private non-railway firm. eg: Fyffes banana vans, Colman’s Mustard vans, wagons owned by collieries or private coal companies, etc.

Privatisation
In the mid 1990s the Tory government decided to dismantle and sell off British Rail. It did so at bargain prices, and the result is a confusing situation in which the passenger services are run by a large number of private regional franchise-holders and the goods services are largely controlled by the American-owned English, Welsh and Scottish Railways. I imagine the current livery and ownership chaos of British railways is causing great consternation amongst model manufacturers.

Railcar
A self-contained, self-propelled passenger vehicle. In a sense a predecessor to modern DMUs, only they usually were single vehicles, not several coaches coupled together. The Great Western had a famous diesel-powered streamlined railcar, sometimes cheerfully referred to as the Flying Banana.
A group of passenger coaches coupled together to form a train. In other words, the coaches of a passenger train minus the engine.

Refrigerator van
An enclosed van with a refrigeration unit to keep the contents cool.

Running plate
Loosely speaking, the flat metal plate upon which the boiler rests and which runs the full length of most steam engines.

Saddle tank
A type of tank engine in which the water tank is sort of draped over the boiler, like a saddle. Hence the name. Contrasts with most tank engines, which have two separate rectangular boxlike tanks, one on either side of the boiler. Fans of the late Rev. Awdry’s Railway books will know that Percy is a saddle tank engine.

Semaphore signal
A trackside signal that employed a swivelling moving arm, operated mechanically. Traditionally these were worked manually - a guy in a signal box pulled a lever, thereby pulling the signal arm up or down. The signal contained a lamp, and moving the arm would also move a coloured piece of glass in front of the lamp, so the signal could be identified at night by the colour of the light. See lower quadrant and upper quadrant signals.

Shirtbutton
A nickname for the later GWR emblem, which consisted of the letters GWR arranged to form a circular badge.

Shunter
A small locomotive used for shunting purposes. Called switchers in North America.

Shunting
Moving wagons around a yard or sidings

Signal box
A trackside building, usually with large windows, which housed a complex mechanical signal frame. The signalman would pull levers installed on this frame to operate semaphore signals.

Sleeper
The wooden or, more commonly these days, concrete cross-pieces on which the rail rests.

Smokebox
The front section of the boiler, which houses the chimney. Generally painted black on most British locomotives, regardless what colour the rest of the engine was.

Smoke deflector
On engines, the large metal panels on the very front end of the smokebox that make the engine look like it’s wearing blinkers. These were sometimes installed on fast engines, and were supposed to created an up draught at high speeds, blowing the smoke out of the way.

Splasher
On steam engines, the curved metal boxes that encase the driving wheels at the point where the wheel protrudes above the running plate.

Stanier
Sir W. A. Stanier, a chief mechanical engineer to the LMS. Thus any engine or coach, etc. designed by him.

Standard gauge
For no particularly good reason that anyone can fathom, though colourful and hotly-disputed theories often involving Roman chariots abound, the earliest railways in the UK were built to the rather illogical gauge of 4' 8.5". (ie: that’s how far apart the rails are) This continues to this day, and most railways the world over are built to that gauge.

Station Buffet
Every station had a Buffet for serving passengers with food and beverages all served alcohol and the proper title was Station Buffet and Refreshment Rooms. There are only three original buffets left in the UK

Swindon
The Great Western’s railway works in Wiltshire, now home to the Great Western Railway museum.

Tank engine
A small steam locomotive that doesn’t have a tender for storing water and fuel. Instead it has large metal water tanks, mounted on either side of the boiler. Fuel - usually coal - is stored in a bunker at the back of the engine. Fans of the late Rev. Awdry’s Railway books will know that Thomas, Duck and Percy are all tank engines.

Tapered boiler
A locomotive boiler that’s more narrow at the front end than the back end. Contrast parallel boiler.

Tender
A piece of rolling stock that’s permanently coupled behind larger steam engines. Contains the water and fuel needed by the locomotive.

Truck
Another name for a goods wagon. Also the bogie on a steam engine which holds the pony wheels. (pony trucks)

Twin track
A model railway controller with two sets of controls for controlling two separate locomotives. Usually called twin cab in North America. Also refers to a double-track railway line in real life. (ie: one in which trains run in one direction on one line and in the other direction on the other.)

Tyre
The metal rim of a wheel.

Upper quadrant
In the days of semaphore signals, most UK railways used upper quadrant signals. This meant that a horizontal arm meant stop whereas an arm pointing upwards at an angle meant proceed (clear). Contrast lower quadrant.

Van
A goods wagon, but one that’s fully enclosed with a roof and doors. Roughly analogous to the North American boxcar, only smaller.

Wagon
Used to be spelt waggon. An unpowered railway vehicle designed to carry goods only, and usually open at the top.

Wheelbase
The distance between the two outer-most axles. Thus the coupled wheelbase is the distance between the two outer-most coupled axles.

Works
In the UK, a sizeable engineering facility of some sort.

Y point
A point or turnout shaped like an uppercase Y; in other words a turnout with two equal diverging tracks rather than one straight track and one diverging one.

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Common acronyms that you might run across.

BR - British Railways; later British Rail.

Cl - Class. (eg: diesel locomotive class 50)

CME - Chief mechanical engineer.

DMU - Diesel multiple unit.

EMU - Electric multiple unit.

ER - Eastern Region (of British Rail).

GCR - Great Central Railway.

GER - Great Eastern Railway.

GNR - Great Northern Railway.

GPO - General Post Office.

GUV - General utility van.

GWR - Great Western Railway.

HST - (British Rail; now private franchise) high speed train.

I/C - (British Rail; now private franchise) InterCity.

L & Y - Lancashire and Yorkshire (Railway).

LB&SC or LBSCR - London Brighton & South Coast (Railway).

LMS - London, Midland and Scottish (Railway).

LMR - London Midland Region (of British Rail).

LNER - London, North-Eastern Railway.

LNWR - London and North Western Railway.

LSWR - London & South Western Railway.

MPD - Motive power depot.

MR - Midland Railway.

MRA - Model railway association.

NCB - National Coal Board.

NSE - Network Southeast.

NYMR - North York Moors Railway

Res - Rail express systems.

RF - Railfreight.

S&DJR - Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway.

SECR - South-Eastern and Chatham Railway.

SR - Southern Railway. Occasionally Southern Region (of British Rail).

WD - War Department.

WR - Western Region (of British Rail).

 

 

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