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Model Train Glossary


We have put together a glossary to help you learn some of the terms used in the model railroad hobby.

Auto Carrier – a railroad car made to carry cars & light trucks. Most are now enclosed to protect the vehicles from vandals while in transit.

Baggage Car – a railroad car to to carry the baggage of the passengers or express shipments. They usually have 1-3 large side doors and very few, if any, windows.
Ballast – usually made of broken up rock, but could also be made from burned clay or locomotive cinders. The material is place under the track to help drainage of water, and support and cushion the track. Used mostly for show on model trains, but can also cut down on noise and hold track in position.
Benchwork – a structure, such as a table, made to hold up the entire layout.
Boxcar – a railroad car that is enclosed to carry goods that need to be protected from the outside elements. Early era boxcars were literally boxes on wheels with side doors. Now, boxcars have extra equipment such as racks, movable bulkheads, etc.
Branch Line – a secondary track turning off of the main line, like a branch, and heading towards smaller, less important towns.

Cab (Locomotive) – an enclosed section where the locomotive is controlled.
Caboose – a railroad car usually at the end of a train. It’s usually an office used by the conductor and train crew.
Can Motor – a small precision electrical motor used in more upscale locomotives, and require little electrical current. Called “can motor” because the metal covering the motor is enclosed in resembles a can.
Coach – a railroad car for transporting passengers. It usually does not contain sleeping accommodations, but seats arranged in pairs with a center aisle running the length of the car.
Code (Rail) – the height of the rail, measured in thousandths of an inch. Also used in different scales to represent different rail weights.
Combine – a railroad passenger car with more than one section for different purposes. The most common combine has both baggage and coach sections.
Command Control – a system used to control model trains. A constant voltage is placed on the track with an impressed control signal. A special receiver is used on each locomotive to decode/read the signal. This allows more than one locomotive to run at different speeds and directions. The most common command control is DCC.
Container Car – a railroad car used to carry intermodal containers.
Cork Roadbed – a cork material placed under the track to represent the ballast of the roadbed, to cushion the train, and to reduce the amount of noise made by the motors.
Couplers – used to join together the cars in a train.

DCC (Digital Command Control) – the most widely used command control system in model railroading sponsored by the NMRA (National Model Railroad Association). An alternation current is put on the track with a varying frequency control signal, which is an alternating DC waveform containing the digital information. The signal is then decoded by the locomotive and does the desired command. The NMRA Standard is used so DCC equipment made by different manufacturers can be used together.
Dining Car – a restaurant railroad car with tables, chairs and usually a full kitchen in the same car.

Easement – a curve of gradually decreasing radius before a regular curve to ease a train from straight track to curved. In model trains it is sufficient to start with a larger curve before the regular curve. This makes trains look better when entering and exiting a curve, and cuts down on derailments.
Engineer – the train crew member that drives the locomotive.
Express Car – a baggage railroad car or boxcar used for express company services similar to a pre-1970 UPS.

Fine Scale – a model that has components closer to the actual scale or dimensions of the prototype.
Flat Car – a railroad car with a flat deck.
Flextrack – track which can be custom curved to almost any radius. Usually sold in 3 foot lengths, and comes with rails connected to realistic ties.
Flywheel – a round weight attached to the drive shaft of a motor so that the starts and stops are smooth.
Freight Car – any type of railroad car used to carry freight, such as: boxcars, container cars, flat cars, hopper cars, gondola cars, tank cars, etc.

G Gauge – railroad track with rails 64mm (2.519″) apart. The most common scale used with G gauge track is 1:22.5 (.533″ to the foot).
Gauge – the distance between rails on ties. The most common U.S. gauge is 4′ 8.5″ and rare 3′ narrow gauge.
Gondola – a railroad car with a low side open top used to carry bulk goods that are too big to fit in a boxcar. Some may have doors in the bottom for dumping.
Ground Foam – dyed foam rubber, used in model scenery, that has been ground to represent various kinds of foliage.
Grade – track which rises from one level to another. Expressed in the U.S. as a percentage, i.e. a rise of 2 feet in every 100 feet is equal to a 2% grade.
Guard Rail (Bridge) – rails placed on a bridge between the regular main rails so in the event of a derailment, the train will not go completely off the track.
Guard Rail (Turnout) – short pieces of rail across from the switch frog that pull the wheels away from the frog and guide them through the switch or turnout.

Hi-Cube – a railroad boxcar with a higher height to provide more space for low weight high volume freight.
Hi-Rail – using scale trains on tinplate (usually O gauge 3-rail) track.
HO Scale – a model train of 1:87.1 (3.5 mm to a foot) scale, and uses a gauge of 16.5 mm (.649″)
Hopper Car – a railroad car that has doors in the bottom called “hoppers” designed so that its contents can slide through the doors. Originally they were open topped, but now they are covered to protect the contents from the outside elements.
Horn-Hook Coupler – a type of coupler used on cars in most train sets and cars for sale to beginners. Designed by the NMRA committee, they never were adopted by the NMRA as a standard.
Hydrocal – a brand of gypsum plaster known for quick drying and high strength. Mostly used by model railroaders as a thin scenery base.

Interchange – tracks used to exchange railroad cars between trains.
Intermodal – equipment used by more than one form or transportation, usually rail, road and water.


Kitbash – changing or combining parts of one or more kits to make a unique railroad car or structure.

Layout – consists of the track, buildings, locomotives, rolling stock and scenery.
Left Hand Turnout (Left Hand Switch) – a turnout that directs a train to the left of the straight track.

Main Line – the most used tracks of a railroad, or the primary route.
Meter (Electric) – a gauge to measure the flow of current.
M.O.W. (Maintenance Of Way) – used to maintain the track and track structure of a railroad.

N Scale – a 1:160 (.075″ to a foot) scale with a standard gauge of 9 mm. The “N” was used because of the 9 in the measurement of the gauge. The gauge since then has been changed to 8.97 mm (.353″)
Narrow Gauge – track whose rails are based on a gauge less than the standard 4′ 8.5″. The most common narrow gauge in the U.S. is 3′ or 24″

O Scale – a 1:48 (.25″ to a foot) scale, with a standard gauge of 1.250″. It was the most popular scale pre-WWII before being passed by HO scale.
O-27 & O-72 Gauge – tinplate track and models built by manufacturers such as the Lionel Corporation. The numbers indicate the diameter of the circle made by the tracks. Tinplate trains are not O scale strictly speaking, but are often referred to as such.
Open Frame Motor – an older style of motor found on less expensive models. It draws more current, and tend to “cog” when they try to start from a stop, making a jerky or uneven start.
Open Framework Benchwork – benchwork that is open, except in level areas, so that scenery may be built above and below track level.

Passing Siding – track used so that 2 trains can pass each other on the same track line, or so that an engine can run around its train. In model railroad layouts it has turnouts at each end, but may be stub ended in the prototype.
Passenger Car – a railroad car that carries passengers, or for the service of passengers, such as dining car or lounge car, or for use in a passenger train, such as baggage or postal car.
Percent Grade – See grade.
Points – the movable rails of a turnout or switch.
Postal Car – a railroad car used to carry U.S. Mail until the mid-1970s.
Power Pack – a unit for powering model trains, consisting of a transformer so that house voltage is reduced to the requirement needed to run trains, a rectifier to change AC to DC, a rheostat to vary voltage to the track, and a reversing switch.
Prototype – the real thing, from which models are based.


Rail – a steel ‘T’ shape laid end-to-end on cross ties, or other supporting material to support trains. Prototype rail size is measured by pounds per yard, and in thousandths of an inch in model railroading. See “code”.
Rail Joiner – a metal or plastic piece folded to join two pieces of rail and hold them in alignment.
Rail Code – see “code (rail)”
Railway Post Office (RPO) – a railroad car built to standard postal designs and leased to the United States Post Office. Postal clerks would pickup, sort, and deliver mail while the car was en route.
Razor Saw – a thin metal cutting saw used for cutting track and other things.
Ready-To-Run (R-T-R) – rolling stock that can be taken out of the box and placed on the track with minimal (if any) assembly.
Rerailer – a plastic device in a piece of track that will make a derailed truck to run back onto the rails. Most are disguised as a railroad crossing.
Right Hand Turnout (Right Hand Switch) – a turnout which directs a train to the right of the straight track.
Riser – a wood piece (or other material) extending from the benchwork to support track at a specific height.
Roadbed – material laid under the track to support it, lessen noise, and represent the contour of the ballast. Most often made of cork, but could be made of other materials.
Rolling Stock – freight, passenger and M.O.W. cars, or any equipment made to roll on the track.
RPO – see “Railway Post Office”

S Scale – a 1:64 (.188″ to a foot) scale, with a standard gauge of .875″ (22.2 mm).
Scale – the ratio of the model size to the real thing.
Scenery – material used to simulate land, crops, grass, trees, weeds, water, etc. of real life. Structures are also considered to be scenery.
Scratch Build – a model that is completely built by the modeler. No commercial parts except for motor, gears, couplers, light bulbs, and wood and metal shapes can be used.
Sectional Track – track usually sold to beginners in standardized lengths, and curves of a fixed diameter.
Shake-The-Box Kit – a kit designed for a beginner that has very little assembly, i.e. “shake the box” and it’s assembled.
Siding – a track auxiliary to the main track where trains can meet or pass. It can be with a turnout on one end only, or with turnouts on both ends. Modelers extend the meaning to include the track used to store freight cars to be loaded or discharged.
Signal – used to tell the engineer the condition of the track ahead. Information includes whether the track is clear and also the route the train will travel.
Sleeping Car – a railroad car with sleeping accommodations. Beds are usually designed to fold away during daylight hours.
Spike – an “L” shaped nail used to secure track.
Staging – track, usually hidden, used to store trains away from the layout.
Stock Rail – the continuing extension of the original two rails of a turnout.
Switch (Track) – a device allowing two rails to split into two or more directions. Model railroaders usually refer to these as turnouts.
Switch (Electrical) – a device used to turn on/off or divert electrical current.

Table Top Benchwork – a table-like top fastened to a stiff framework upon which track is laid.
Tangent – straight track, not curved.
Tank Car – a railroad car used for carrying fluids. They may be insulated, lined, or carry goods under pressure. Modern tank cars have a horizontal tank, but early ones had one or more vertical tubs carried on a flat car.
Terminal Block – an electrical device used to connect a circuit’s wires. It will have two screws joined by a brass plate, and one or more wires can be fastened under each screw. Solder lugs can also be used instead of screws. Multiple terminal blocks can be ganged together to allow wires from several circuits to have their own connections.
Throttle – device used to control the speed of a train by the amount of voltage applied to the track. The lower the voltage, the slower the train will run.
Throw Bar – a narrow bar that joins the rails at the points of a turnout which allow the switch to be “thrown” from one side to the other.
Tie – the components to which the rails are fastened. They keep the rails in gauge, cushion the rails, and transmit the forces from the train to the ballast. Traditionally, they were made out of wood, but on high speed track, concrete is being substituted.
Tin Plate – designed to be sold to children, most often on 3 rail track. Cars and locomotives were shortened to allow them to make sharper turns. Originally pressed from thin sheet steel (tinplate), and detail is often exaggerated.
Track – parallel rails fastened to cross ties that support a train while transferring its forces to the ballast and roadbed.
Track Gauge – a device used to maintain the proper distance between rails.
Track Nail – small nails to fasten sectional track to its base.
Traction – general term for electrically propelled street cars (trolley cars) and interurban cars.
Train Set – provided for beginners, usually by a single manufacturer, and contains an engine, an assortment of cars, track and usually a power pack. Some train sets are inexpensive, but caution should be used as components are of poor quality.
Trolley – the wheel at the end of a “trolley pole” that rides the wire which provides electric power to a street car.
Trucks – an assembly of wheels, axles, bolster and side frames that make up the rolling portion of a car or diesel locomotive.
Turnout Number – ratio of the number of units along the center line of a switch frog traversed for each unit the frog spreads to the sides. A #4 frog diverges 1 unit for every 4 it moves ahead.


Volt – a unit of electrical pressure.

Weathering – simulating the action of time, sun, rain, dirt, and dust on the model. Weathered models look more realistic than non-weathered ones.
Wye – a triangular set of track so that engines or trains can be turned around. Wye tracks need special wiring to prevent short circuits.


Yard – an assembly of tracks used for the purpose of breaking down arriving trains, storing cars, making up departing trains, cleaning and repairing cars, and servicing locomotives.

Z Scale – a 1:220 (.055″ to a foot) scale, with a gauge of approximately .25″.


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