ballast – A layer of material on top of the roadbed, usually crushed rock, cinders, or gravel, that holds the ties in position and facilitates drainage.
berths – Sleeping space, generally in a bunk arrangement, that could be folded up out of the way when not in use.
block – A physically defined section of track. To prevent collisions, normally only one train is permitted in each block at a time.
block signal – Signal placed at the beginning of a block, which indicates to an engineer when it is safe to proceed into the section.
centralized traffic control (CTC) – A traffic control system that directs train movement through the remote control of switches and signals from a central control panel. The trains operate on the authority of signal indications instead of the authority of a timetable or train orders.
couple – Join two railroad cars together.
coupling (or coupler) – The device that fastens cars and locomotives together.
crossing – A special piece of track that permits two tracks to cross one another, but does not allow trains to move from one track to the other. Highways and roads intersect railroad tracks at grade crossings.
cupola – A small structure built on top of a roof. Many cabooses were built with cupolas to allow crew members to observe conditions of the train.
engine-wiper (occupation) – Cleaned the engine and assisted the engineer as directed.
firebox – The area where the fuel is burned, producing heat to boil the water in a steam engine’s boiler.
fishplates – Also called fish joints, fishbars or joint bars. A metal bar bolted to the ends of two rails to join them together in a track. The name derives from fish, a wooden bar with a curved profile used to strengthen a ship's mast.
flashing rear-end device (FRED) – An electronic device mounted on the end of freight trains, which monitors functions such as brake line pressure and accidental separation. It transmits the data via a link to the Head-of-Train Device (HTD) in the locomotive, known colloquially among railroaders as a Wilma.
gauge – The distance between the two rails forming a railroad track, measured from the inner side of the rail.
Harvey House – A chain of restaurants and hotels along the route of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway developed by Fred Harvey starting in 1876. At its peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses, all of which catered to wealthy and middle-class visitors alike. They continued to be built and operated into the 1960s.
iron laying – Refers to laying track when the track was made of iron, pre-1880s.
Janney – The knuckle coupler invented by Major Eli Janney, a confederate army veteran. This semi-automatic device locks upon the cars closing together without the rail worker getting between the cars. This replaces the "link and pin" coupler, which resulted in approximately 38% of all railworker accidents.
jitney – Generally used to refer to a small, inexpensive bus service that carries passengers over a regular route on a flexible schedule. The term was also used for small trains that ran on a fixed route with a flexible schedule and relatively cheap fare.
joints – The location where two pieces of rail come together.
joint ties – Ties that support the rail joint, i.e. where two pieces of rail come together.
main line – Principal line or lines of a railroad.
meet – When two trains approach from opposite directions and pass, one using a siding.
Pullman – George Pullman established a company in 1862 to build sleeping cars, which featured carpeting, draperies, upholstered chairs, libraries and card tables and an unparalleled level of customer service. While most famous for its sleepers, the Pullman Car Company also built parlor cars and diners.
roadbed – The foundation layer of earth on which the track is built.
roundhouse – A circular building for housing and repairing locomotives as well as turning engines around.
side track – To switch a train to a siding.
siding – Auxiliary track, connected to the main track, normally used to allow other trains to pass.
signal – A visual sign used to tell the train engineer how to proceed, such as speed, direction or train route. There are many types of signals. Most fit into three broad categories: hand signals; a fixed, lighted signal beside the track; or indicator lights in the cab.
switch – (noun) A connection between two lines of track with movable rails to divert rolling stock from one track to another; (verb) To sort cars by destination on more than one track. Electrical switches are also called toggles; track switches are also called turnouts.
switcher – Also called yard engine. A locomotive designed specifically for yard service, which calls for good visibility from the cab and pulling power rather than speed.
tie – Also called crossties. The ties are usually made of wood or concrete, rest in a bed of gravel ballast and support the railroad tracks.
timetable – The basic authority for train movements and the first level of regulation for all trains. Timetables set the timing and priority for trains, i.e. the timetable dictates the departure times and then, if times cannot be adhered to, which train should move first and which should wait for others.
train order – An instruction passed to the train crew which tells them they may pass onto the specified section and proceed along it until its end or a loop or siding is reached. Once there, the train order will indicate whether they must wait for a new order or wait until a train running in the opposite direction has passed before they can proceed further. Train orders have formed the basis for train movement control in North America since the 1850s.
“whistle-stop” tours – A brief personal appearance, especially by a political candidate, usually on the rear platform of a train during the course of a tour.
yard – A system or grouping of tracks connected to, but not part of, a main line; used for switching or storing cars, or making up trains.
yard engine – Also called switcher. An engine assigned to yard service.