Bad railroad language

Posted by Bill Withuhn
on Friday, September 18, 2009

Trains is pleased to welcome Smithsonian Transportation Curator Bill Withuhn to our blogs. Withuhn is well known to Trains readers for his many articles in the magazine and his work in preservation. You can read much more about him and his fascinating career in our November 2009 issue. — Jim Wrinn, Editor 


President-elect Barack Obama rode in a "blue caboose" from Philadelphia to Washington before his swearing-in. Well, that was how the Washington Post described it.

As you've noticed, no doubt, the common language among reporters and lay people regarding railroad terms has shifted inexorably over the past several years.  Sadly, it's probably far too late to change ....

A locomotive is a “train.”

Those robber barons manage “train companies.”

A locomotive, provided the reporter or speaker knows the difference between what pulls the cars and the cars themselves, is the “train engine.”

A single rail, if referred to at all, is “a track.”

And there’s never a single track; it’s almost always “the tracks.”

And what is a switch? Is that how you turn on the “train engine”?

A railroad car, freight or passenger, is a “train car.”

A “trolley” is that rubber-tired travesty that plies the streets of cities all over the country.

A trolley or streetcar is a “light-rail car” (Three words for one, and our fellow professionals are responsible for that obfuscating term.)

The ancient and honorable title, “locomotive engineer,” is now “train operator.”

And, oh yes, all that the “train operator” ever does, on either a freight or passenger train, is just look at a computer, which does everything.

The “conductor” is the one who “drives the train.”

It is always nice to see all the “conductors” on a given passenger train. But I guess we can pin that one on Steve Goodman’s classic 1970 song, “City of New Orleans” that Arlo Guthrie popularized.

A chime horn is “the whistle.” (Thank goodness, though, that Southern Railway went to such trouble to help create the melodic horn tones we can still hear today....)

A recent Washington Post article on Amtrak’s Carolinian tragically hitting a man on the track near Lorton, Va., described how the “train operator” activated the “emergency systems” to try to stop the train.

No reporter has any clue of the key principle that's been vital to airbrake systems since the late-19th century: the principle ensuring that brakes throughout the train apply forcefully whenever any part of the brake system springs a big leak or is ruptured. It's George Westinghouse's great legacy to railroading, and it's one of the very first successful, truly fail-safe systems in the entire history of American industry.

A coupler is often a “hitch” (ie, like a trailer hitch.)

If you’re brave or foolhardy, you can reach down between cars on a fast-moving train, pull something that opens the “hitch,” and the two halves of the train will slowly separate and just keep rolling right along, the back half maybe a bit slower than the front half. (Impossible, of course: as soon as the two brake hoses pull apart, Westinghouse's principle takes over -- instantly -- for both halves of the train.)

A “train car” will occasionally “fall off” the “tracks.” That’s sometimes caused by a “crack” in the “tracks.”

By the way, what’s a “flange?”

Those big, round and black freight cars, or the big, somewhat round and grey ones, are all “tankers.”

But quite often they aren’t in freight trains, they’re in “cargo trains.”

All “cargo trains” or freight trains, without exception, are laden with lethal chemicals, and therefore such trains are “evil,” “cause cancer,” or “explode all the time.” (Yes, I’ve actually had people who should know better tell me all those things.)

A persistent geographic faux pas: the great historical place in America’s development is Promontory Summit, or just Promontory, not Promontory Point. A private-car owner has even christened his car with the erroneous name.

Any good map of Utah will disclose that the “Point” refers to the spit of land sticking down into the lake (it’s a point, right?), far south of the Golden Spike site.   The famous site is on a rise in the desert land north of the lake.  


In comparison, nomenclature is always important when one is around those sea-going things, so you’d better be accurate as to whether it’s a ship, boat, yawl, sloop, skipjack, catboat, dingy, or whatever.  And one will be instantly chastised by any old salt at the slightest sloppiness in the proper use of terms: A big ketch, for example, is not a sloop or a schooner.  Etc.

One must be accurate around younger sailboat owners, as well. A line is not a “rope” (and it might be a sheet); no boat or ship has either a “front end” or a “rear end;” it isn’t “right,” it’s  starboard; the “big sail” doesn’t exist, it’s the mainsail; “that rope you pull the big sail up with” is the main halyard; the big, horizontal pole at the bottom of the “big sail” isn’t a “big pole,” it’s the boom; the “little sail in front” is the jib....  Any sailor, even a fair-weather one, can go on and on, and on some more.

For fear of acute embarrassment, news reporters actually try to get nautical terms right. They also try (usually) with aircraft terms.   

So, what’s so unimportant about railroad nomenclature? A thesaurus for reporters might help. Anyone want to print one - and as important, circulate one to newsrooms?

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