New to UK / US railfanning? Here's our Jargon Buster.



December 17th, 2020

For new railfans, young and old, one challenge can be deciphering the unique names and phrases given to many different aspects of the hobby. With differing dialects and translations across the globe, sometimes the longest serving members of the railfan community can be baffled by terms used in other countries. We decided to put together a list of some of the more common phrases used by English-speaking railfans in the US and UK, to help the community better understand one another.

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  • Railfans / Enthusiasts: The terms 'railfan' and 'railfanning' arguably define the hobby in the United States, but are not commonly used in the UK, where they more likely referred to as simply ‘rail enthusiasts’. ‘Trainspotting’ in the UK effectively covers what ‘railfanning’ is in the US even though the activity ‘spotting’ often refers specifically to noting the numbers of locomotives and trains down in a notebook.
  • Railway / Railroad: Equally, whilst ‘railway’ is used to describe transport systems around the world, in places like the USA, Canada and sometimes Australia, railroad is more common. The French translation of its term ‘chemin de fer’ literally means ‘iron way’ or ‘iron road’. Eric-Smith-US-Model-Railroad A HO Scale BNSF C40-9W runs through a lifelike canyon model railroad. Photo by Eric Smith

  • Modeling / Modelling: As a result of the above, the modeling hobby is described aside the Atlantic as ‘railway modelling’ in the UK and ‘model railroading’ in the US.
  • Fallen Flags: This term is used only in the USA and refers to dissolved railroad companies that fell due to merging with other railroads or disappearing altogether. In many ways the closest UK equivalent would be those lines closed through the Beeching Axe but unlike the 'Fallen Flag' companies that disappeared, in the UK it was often the railway routes themselves that were closed and dismantled. Adam Bunkelman Norfolk Southern This Norfolk Southern 'Fallen Flag' Heritage Unit 1069 pays homage to the Virginian Railway which ceased operation in 1959. Photo by Adam Bunkelman.

  • Beeching Axe: A report published by Richard Beeching in the 1960s to make the UK rail network more efficient, which resulted in many railway lines closing. Some have since reopened as heritage railways or converted to cycle routes.
  • Railroad Engineer / Train Driver: Whilst in the UK, an engineer might be someone who designs, builds or repairs a locomotive, in the US a railroad engineer is someone who operates the locomotive. In the UK, they are known simply as Train / Locomotive Drivers.
  • Bashing / Bashers: Railfans taking trips with a pure railfan focus (so not for work or other kinds of travel) can sometimes be referred to as ‘bashers’. Bashing can refer to taking trips on a certain line (Line Bashing) or behind certain locomotives (Duff Bashing – riding behind a BR Class 47).
  • P-Way / Maintenance of Way: In the US, the upkeep of railroads, specifically the actual line, rails and ballast, is referred to as ‘maintenance of way’. The term P-Way or Permanent Way describes the line itself in most parts of the world, stemming from the early days of rail when a temporary line was laid first, before making the line ‘permanent’ later on. John Copping X552 Austria Austrian Class X552 Maintenance of Way vehicle, run by national operator ÖBB. Photo by John Copping.

  • Switch / Turnout / Points: In America, the point at which rail splits off into a siding or branch line is often called a switch or turnout. In the UK, these are more commonly referred to as ‘sets of points’.
  • Cab Car / Control Trailer / DVT: Some carriages / cars or units without motors or engines can be used to control a train from the opposite end to the locomotive or power car. In the States, these are called Cab Cars, in Australia / New Zealand they are Control Trailers and the in the UK have been described as Autocoaches or Driving Van Trailers (DVTs). LEHL_Anime_Railfan-Cab-Car A former NJT Comet I Cab Car leading the Kringle Adventure Christmas train. Photo by Billy Winz (LEHLAnimeRailfan).

  • Up / Down Trains: In the UK, China and Japan, the direction of a train can sometimes be described as ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ rather than North, South etc as in the USA. Up trains are those heading in the direction of the capital city (ie London, Beijing, Tokyo) and Down heading away from it. For example: A Reading to Taunton service is a Down train and a Birmingham to Oxford service is an Up train. This system is also used in France and Italy, using terms in their own language that translate to ‘odd’ and ‘even’.
  • Switcher / Shunter: Small locomotives used in yards to move stock and cars around are called Switchers in the USA and Shunters in the UK. Yards are termed likewise as Switching or Shunting yards. Nandan-Polpakara-Shunter WDS-6 A WDS-6 Shunting Locomotive at New Delhi Railway Station, India. Photo by Nandan Polpakara.

  • Brake Van / Caboose: Mainly seen in the heritage sector these days, Brake Vans / Guards Vans in the UK are called Cabooses in the USA. These railroad cars would have held crew members on freight trains. In the UK they also provided braking services for trains that did not have continuous brakes throughout – hence the term Brake Van. The term Caboose may have German origins and similar words have been used in previous centuries to describe the galley on ships.
  • Formation / Consist / Rake: Whilst universally, the term ‘train’ defines a series of cars, wagons or carriages connected together and pulled by a locomotive, sometimes specific terminology can be used when a train is formed of certain items. In the UK, a 'rake of coaches / carriages' describes a set of passenger coaches pulled by a locomotive. Trains can also be described as a ‘formation’, particularly when both passenger and freight stock is used. In the US, ‘consist’ is more commonly used to describe a ‘formation’. Tank621-Class-43-East Midlands Parkway Two East Midlands Railway Class 43 power cars sandwich a rake of Mk3 Coaches. Photo by Tank621.

  • Wagon / Freight Car: Freight movements can involve a wide variety of stock all with unique names and uses in both the USA and elsewhere in the world. Generally, in the UK these are called wagons and can be in tanker, flatbed, box van or car-carrying form with many more in use for more specific kinds of transport like nuclear flask and ordinance movements. Short, open wagons can also be referred to as trucks, like the Troublesome Trucks in the UK version of Thomas the Tank Engine. In the US, many of these vehicles are more commonly known as freight cars.

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