Railroad Slang Terms & Their Meanings!

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Well-Known Member
How about listing the various RR Slang terms, their meanings & how they came to be used ;)

Many of the terms we use today originated from the railroads and I thought it might be interesting to list as many as we could think of, what do you say?
If we each post we can keep adding to our own original listing, it should be interesting!

Many new additions have been added so look the list over.

Angle Cock - An appliance used for the purpose of opening or closing brake pipe on ends of cars, rear ends of tenders, and front ends of switch engines so equipped. Provision is made for supporting hose at proper angle.

Old-style equipment operated by muscular effort

'Asleep at the switch' probably used to indicate someone who failed to change the switch as needed or in advance.

Fireman (because his head was near the door of firebox when shoveling coal)

A railroad eating house.

'Beanery Queen' [ Flo ]
Railroad eating house waitress

'Blanket Stiff'
A hobo who totes a blanket and uses it wherever night finds him.

'Bindle Stiff' - Also known as a Bindle Stiff. is a corruption of "bundle")

'Blind baggage'
Hobo riding head end of baggage car next to tender, where no door is placed; commonly called riding the blinds

Old-time engine built by Manchester Locomotive Works. Mr. Aretas Blood being the builder's name

'Blow smoke'

The valve by which air is bled from the auxiliary air tank reservoir on a car.

'Blue Goose'
A hy-rail car used by management to get out of the office and look important.

'Bo chaser'
freight brakeman or railroad policeman

'Bradley Bar'
A device shaped like a hockey stick used to straighten hand holds on freight cars.

'Brass Pounder'
Telegraph Operator

A demerit for violation of rules, traced back to George R. Brown, general superintendent of the Fall Brook Railway (now part of the New York Central) in 1885. He thought the then current practice of suspending men for breaking rules was unfair to their families and substituted a system of demerit marks. Too many demerits in a given period resulted in dismissal. The Brown system, with many variations, has since been widely adopted by the railroad industry. A superintendent's private car is called brownie box or brownie wagon

I guess that's where the term Brownie Points comes from and I always thoght that was something good in a way? Now I know!

'Buzzards roost'
Yard office

Caboose Hop
Early term for a train composed only of an engine and caboose

Steam locomotive

'Camel back'
Slang: an older rerailing device, also called a rerailing "frog". Used in pairs, one on each side to lift the wheel flanges of a derailed car and allow them to slide back onto the rail.

'Chinamans Chance' comes from the building of the railroad over the Sierra's and how they used to lower down a "volunteer" to set the dynamite to blast the side of the mountain, and hopefully bring him back up in time.

'Car knocker, wheel knocker, car toad, car tonk' - Car inspector
The 'Car knockers have set the Flags,' The consist is right with the check off sheet. I not real sure about this?

Old steam locomotive, small

(as a noun, pronounced CON-sist) The make-up of a freight train by types of cars and their contents.

'Coon It'
To walk across the tops of freight cars.

Company doctor

'Crummy, Hack or Shak' - The Caboose in past years.
'The Old Man's in the Crummy Up on His Thrown,' The conductor is in the caboose and sitting up in the Couploa.

Cut Lever
The hand operated lever applied to all cars and locomotives, which was used to lift the coupler pin and release the knuckle in order to couple or uncouple cars and locomotives.

Date Nail
A small nail used by railroads from late 1800's to present used to mark the year a tie was placed in roadbed. Nails are distinctive in that each has the last two digits of placement year stamped in head. Usually found within six inches of tie end, but some are located mid tie to allow easier inspection. Rarer nails value in 100's of dollar range to collectors, I have a couple of them. Trussrod

Defined by Webster as "one who persistently fails to pay his debts or way." The word was coined in the late 1800's when railroad workers noticed that loaded freight cars made a different beat over the track-joints than cars that weren't carrying a load. The empty cars made a "dead beat" which meant they weren't paying their way. By the beginning of the 20th century "deadbeat" came to encompassed people who failed to carry their share of the load also.

'Dead Man'
A buried timber, log or beam designed as an anchorage to which a guy wire or cable is fastened to support a structure, as a wood or steel column, derrick or mast.

Dead Man's Throttle
Throttle that requires pressure of operator's hand or foot to prevent power shut-off and application of brakes. An engine so equipped would stop instantly if the operator fell dead. Also called dead man's button

In the days before air brakes, the duties of the brakemen included stopping the train. The brakeman would have to go to the top deck of the car - thus decorate - and wind the stem winder.

A device used in unison with a clawbar to pull spikes from the wing rails of a frog and also from the guard rail.

A brakeman or switch-tender - someone who throws switches.

Rail motorcar used by section men, linemen, etc. Also called ding dong

Late Saturday-night passenger train

Passenger conductor's hat checks

Passenger conductor

'Dutch drop, drop' - To pull a car up to speed, then pin off, pull power ahead into clear, then line switch allowing the car to roll into the clear on its own momentum. (MSTS: I have successfully completed this move, but it takes a lot of practice!) [Not my statement Trussrod]

Eagle Eye
Locomotive engineer

Easy Sign
A hand signal indicating the train is to move slowly


Fire Boy
Locomotive Fireman

Fire Box
The "stove" where the wood, coal, oil, etc., was burned to make steam to propel the engine.

Measurement. A quarter of a barrel.

Length of iron, applied to either side of rail web, used to connect sections of rail together.

Gay Cat
A hobo willing to work

'Give me a brake!" This probably came from the days of the engineer signaling to brakemen riding on car roofs to apply hand brakes.
Whistle signal (-) One short.

Gravy Train
A gravy train was railroad slang for an easy run that paid very good. Circa 1920

Grease Monkey
An employee who is responsible for greasing frogs, switches and interlocking track equipment. Also a car oiler.

Hot Box
A hot box is an overheated wheel journal. The journal is located in a box which protrudes slightly from the wheel assembly. The box, which normally has a cover over it, is filled with "waste", which is oil-soaked to keep the journal cool. An overheated journal is a serious situation, because a hot axle can fail, and break. Hotboxes often caught fire, and smoked or sparked.
Hot Box Dick

Jerkwater Town
A small town with few facilities, identified on the railroad by the existence of a water plug only.

Johnson Bar
Valve gear adjustment lever.

Join the Birdies, To jump from a locomotive cab before a collision.

A suitcase or trunk

(Steam) engine (amer. slang).

Telegraph instrument
Telegraph instrument

Lamb's Tongue
A fifty cent tip

'Light at the end of the tunnel' Could be used to indicate an end to a bad thing or the approach of an oncoming train.

'Milk run' From long ago when farmers would leave cans of milk for the train track to be picked up for delivery.

'You can hear a Pin Drop' comes from the old link and pin coupler days, when all was quiet at the rail yard.

'Rail worker' - Gandy dancer or snipe

'Railroaded' as in getting unfair treatment. From a time when courts were in the pocket of the railroads.

'Red Ball'
A fast freight train.

'Red Eye'
A red signal or horizontal semaphore arm requiring the train to stop and proceed with caution.

'Red light district.' RR construction crews would hang their red lantern outside a tent whilst conducting business with women of easy virtue.

'Ridin' th' Rods'
An old-time hobo practice, now virtually obsolete. The hobo would place a board or boards across truss rods under a car and ride on it. This was very dangerous even in pleasant weather, and the possibility was ever present that you might doze, get careless, become too cramped, or lose your nerve-and roll under the wheels.
I imagine this practice took place when no Box cars were available?

We got 'Wind Pumping Back to the Shack' The Air Brake Lines are pressurized all the way to the Caboose.
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HOG—Any large locomotive, usually freight. An engineer may be called a hogger, hoghead, hogmaster, hoggineer, hog jockey, hog eye, grunt, pig-mauler, etc. Some few engineers object to such designations as disrespectful, which they rarely are. For meaning of hog law see dogcatchers. Hoghead is said to have originated on the Denver & Rio Grande in 1887, being used to label a brakeman's caricature of an engineer


Well-Known Member
Say Rex,
That's great, I forgot about Hoghead and not sure if I new about the others.

Boxcar Tourist - Hobo, brings the Roger Miller song, 'King of the Road' to mind and also the movie
A#1 with Lea Marvin and Earnist Borgnine!

In fact that brings up another old saying, 'Riding the Rails' when the Hobo's would put boards between the tussrods for a place to lay while riding th rails if box
cars weren't abailable I imgine? I guess that was more correctly, 'Riding the Rods'!
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Fleeing from Al
How about "That'll do"? It took me a while listening to the railroads on a scanner before I realized that was the brakeman's way of telling the engineer he had backed far enough to couple on to the car.
HIGHBALL—Signal made by waving hand or lamp in a high, wide semicircle, meaning "Come ahead" or "Leave town" or "Pick up full speed." Verb highball or phrase 'ball the jack means to make a fast run. Word highball originated from old-time ball signal on post, raised aloft by pulley when track was clear. A very few of these are still in service, in New England and elsewhere

PULL THE CALF'S TAIL—Yank the whistle cord

RUSTLING THE BUMS—Searching a freight train for hobos. In bygone days it was common practice for trainmen to collect money from freight-riding 'bos, often at the rate of a dollar a division

SAW BY—Slow complicated operation whereby one train passes another on a single-track railroad when the other is on a siding too short to hold the entire train. Saw by is applied to any move through switches or through connecting switches that is necessitated by one train passing another

SHOO-FLY—Temporary track, usually built around a flooded area, a wreck, or other obstacle; sometimes built merely to facilitate a rerailing

SWELLHEAD—Conductor or locomotive engineer

TIN LIZARD—Streamlined train

WEED BENDER—Railroaders' derisive term for cowboy, other such terms being hay shaker, clover picker, and plow jockey. Commonest term for cowboy is cowpuncher, which is of railroad origin. Cowboys riding stock trains prod the cattle

ZOO KEEPER—Gate tender at passenger station
How about "That'll do"? It took me a while listening to the railroads on a scanner before I realized that was the brakeman's way of telling the engineer he had backed far enough to couple on to the car.
Actually, "That'll Do". is the term when the conductor or other trainman wants the engineer to stop the train.


BN Modeller
How about "By the time", meaning by the time you stop we'll be good, used by the spotter when backing.
Another is "Have an eye", as in have an eye out for danger.
"Devil's Strip" or "Devils Walk" meaning the space between double track.
"Hot rail" is when the adjacent track is live or has an oncoming train.
"Cold side" is the field side of a double track when de-training, "hot side" is the opposite..
Just some I remember from working with Loram.


Fleeing from Al
Actually, "That'll Do". is the term when the conductor or other trainman wants the engineer to stop the train.
That's not how I commonly hear it. I hear "three cars", two cars", "one car", "that'll do". Seems pretty obvious the engineer is moving the train to couple on to another car or cut of cars. Obviously, the trainman wants the engineer to stop the train but I've only heard it in connection with coupling moves.


BN Modeller
That's not how I commonly hear it. I hear "three cars", two cars", "one car", "that'll do". Seems pretty obvious the engineer is moving the train to couple on to another car or cut of cars. Obviously, the trainman wants the engineer to stop the train but I've only heard it in connection with coupling moves.
Jim, that reminds me of pushing or ridiing a cut of cars.
The switchman or "switchee" calls out "clear 10 cars" then I'd repeat over the radio "10 cars". You'd then proceed 5 cars lengths (1/2 the distance called out) untill the switchee called out again "clear 10 cars" then repaet.
If the switchee then called out "clear 8,7,6 or whatever #cars" you'd start applying brake. "clear 10 cars... clear 5 cars... 3 cars... one car... by the time!"
Now if he (or she) were to call out "clear 10 cars" and you didn't hear from him again within 1/2 the distance of travel (about 5 cars) you'd apply the brake assuming he'd either fallen off (which has happened), or his radio had died.
Under NO circumstance were you to move the train without knowing where he was as he's the boss when riding up front.
I use these terms when switching the club layout blind.


Fleeing from Al
Rico, could be, maybe it's used differently in different parts of the country. I hear this traffic all the time at the CSX yard in Montgomery and it's when the engineer is pushing a cut of cars (so he can't see where the next car is), and the trainman on the ground gives him how many car lengths he has to go before he's coupled up to the additional cars.

I heard something last night I've never heard before. There were repeated transmissions of "Operator B is down" that wne on for about two minutes. I never heard a respnse but it sounded like a man down alarm. We had those on our sheriff's department portable radios. You could press the orange emergency button if you needed help and it sent a coded signal to dispatch. It also automatically sent out a man down alarm if you were prone for more than 30 seconds. I don't know if the railroads have adopted a similar system but ti sound like what I was used to hearing from our alarms.


Well-Known Member
Per the movie Emperor of the North these were the terms used: >
I've added a few too as I found a great Hobo Slang site OHNS [ORIGINAL- HOBO- NICKEL- SOCIETY]

>Bo for Hobo;

>Bum for a NoCount;

Hobo special - a freight train of empty cars;

>Hogger for a Steam Loco Engineer;
Hogger (or hog mauler or hoghead) - a steam engineer;

Holding the lady (or her) down - riding the rods under a train car - the Trussrods;

Jack - a generic term for any hobo or man;

Side-door pullman - a boxcar;

>Stew Bum for HoBo too;
Stewbum for druken Hobo;

>Yegg - a roving criminal, A#1's refference to Hee-Haw Mike;

For a whole string of terms go to: http://www.hobonickels.org/alpert04.htm#S
Really a neat site!
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BN Modeller
Bare table - a train of empty flats or well cars.
I once saw a mile long bare table running across North Dakota.
I do that at the club sometimes, for unknown raisins it drives some people nuts!
That's not how I commonly hear it. I hear "three cars", two cars", "one car", "that'll do". Seems pretty obvious the engineer is moving the train to couple on to another car or cut of cars. Obviously, the trainman wants the engineer to stop the train but I've only heard it in connection with coupling moves.
You are correct. the couple years I was a brakeman thats exactly how we did it. Of course different lines could have other rules as well.

NH Mike

CEO & Wheel Cleaner
Gandy Dancer - a trackworker

Snake Head - end of a rail broken free of the spikes and joiner plate and sticking up above the mating rail.

Running Light - an engine movement with no train behind it other than in a yard or during switching jobs.
Focusing on a steam locomotive, I've heard most and sometimes used some the following:

When someone is really mad and showing it, he is "blowing off steam" or "popping off."

When someone is working hard and it's progressing real well, he has "a full head of steam."

When someone is bragging he's "blowing his whistle" or "tooting his horn (diesel)."

When someone is moving fast he's "really smoking."

When someone is working hard but not progressing, he's "spinning his wheels."



Craftsman at heart
"the CN blow"

I don't know if is a term used by local railroaders but I remember hearing it used when I was a kid.

It means blowing ones nose by plugging one of your nostrils with one's thumb and force out whatever is in there with all your might all over the place usually just missing your shoulder or chest.
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