Glossary of Model Railroad Jargon

After working on this website for awhile, I realized that many of the terms I was using, although familiar to me after many years as a model railroader, might be unknown to new modellers or others who are reading these pages. Therefore, I've put together this glossary of terms with some brief explanations and links to other pages where the subject is explored in more depth.


An airbrush is a miniature sprayer for model paint. Paint often must be thinned. An airbrush provides control. Often used for weathering model trains (making them look more like the real thing).


Benchwork refers to the framed foundation to support a model railroad. Two common types are open-grid and L-girder. The former is usually butt-jointed and fastened with glue and screws. L-girder often has  1"X3" pine lumber on edge beneath either another 1"X3" piece or a 1"X2" piece of lumber. These act as joists across the basic frame so they are easy to reposition. Plywood is preferred by many modelers both for cost and stability.


Ballast is the layer of crushed rock railroads tamp between the ties to keep the rails aligned and roadbed drained. Woodland Scenics makes crushed rock ballast in various sizes and colours. There are a number of manufacturers. Size of the grains is important and depends on the scale in  which you are modelling.


The wheel assembly beneath a railroad car. In North America, also referred to as "a truck".


An abbreviation for a fast-setting glue called cyanoacrylate adhesive. It's the kind that can glue fingertips together in split seconds! Available in thin, medium and thick. Retarders and accelerators  are also available. This glue is especially good for styrene plastic and for metal. Gorilla Glue is a well-known brand. I use Sinbad, Microbond and BSI (Bob Smith). Some makes comes in thin, medium and thick so you can choose the one that works best for the specific application. Modellers often keep them refrigerated to extend shelf life. Keep containers tightly closed. Air will ruin them. 

Cab control

A method of separating control of trains by using gapped rails in blocks. Usually used with DC (direct current) control where a separate Power Pack controls a train in a selected block. If two trains are in the same block, one Power Pack will be controlling both engines. A common method was to use a DPDT (double-pole, double throw) toggle with a center-off position. This was commonly referred to as the "father and son" method because one train could be controlled in the A or up position and a second train could be controlled in the B or down position. In the center position the track was "dead" because no electricity could reach it.  It was also possible to gap only one rail, either positive or negative. The other side of the toggles could then be used to control lamps. Both rails had to be gapped to isolate a "reverse" section where trains doubled back on themselves.

Command control

This is now commonly known as DCC. Trains are controlled when they receive electronic messages addressed to them through the rails. Decoders in the engines react to the messages that are sent solely to them. Other engines will not respond. This type of control can also be applied to stationary decoders to operate switch machines and other equipment. 


A group of railway cars and engines that make up a train. A consist can be controlled with one throttle when using DCC.


Where two track cross each other, also often referred to as a "diamond" due to the configuration of the rails. Crossings usually happen when two railroads need to go in different directions by crossing each other at grade.


A means of getting trains to cross from one track to a parallel track by placing two turnouts (switches) facing each other.

Cut lever

An uncoupling lever that raises the locking device between railroad cars. 


A type of "hard slippery" plastic often used to fabricate bogeys (trucks) or handrails on model locomotives. Can be difficult to glue although special glues are available. Not to be confused with styrene plastic.


If your railroad is to be run from a central pit, you need to "duck under" the benchwork somewhere in order to reach the operating area. This also occurs if you need to crawl under the benchwork to get to an access hatch to reach some area that is not easily reachable from an aisleway.

Fast clock

A fast clock is designed to run at various time ratios so that model railroaders can mimic the passage of time. For example, a fast clock set at 4:1 will make every 15 minutes of real time equal to the passage of an hour of "scale time". This is often done for operational purposes when trains are being scheduled to run by timetable.  Therefore, a typical 3-hour operations session would cover 12 hours of "scale time". Fast clocks are often used on large personal or club layouts where modellers are trying to be more "prototypical" and run their railroads like real railroads.


A length of track pre-assembled on ties that can be bent to form a curve. It usually comes in 3-foot or 1-meter length.  Flextrack is a common method of laying track quickly in HO and N scales.  It can also be done in G scale with a rail bender tool to curve the rail before slipping it into pre-assembled tie sections.


Building a layout based on an imaginary trackplan and locale that may or may not be based on a prototype. Most often a freelanced layout is one you dream up yourself or adapt from a published plan such as my Utopia Northern


Freemo is a standardized method of interconnecting model railroad modules. This allows modellers to build individual modules that can be taken to train shows or "meets" and connected to other modules to build a large model railroad in practically an infinite number of combinations. Each module can be rotated 180 degrees and can be operated from either side.


The part of a track turnout (switch) where the two tracks diverge. This area can be live or dead electrically depending on how the turnout is made. Fore example, Peco makes both Electrofrog and Insulfrog turnouts. The track section beyond the turnout can be electrically dead when the route is thrown to the other track. This can be handy to isolate an engine. Often the frog are will be made electrically live by using extra contacts on a switch machine or installing a relay. This can help with short wheelbase locomotives that don't span the dead section.


The distance between the rails. Not to be confused with scale.


A flat car with sides used to carry items like scrap, steel, iron and other loose, heavy objects. They can have permanent sides, drop-sides and drop-bottoms depending on their intended use.

A method of gaining separation between lower level benchwork and an upper deck. The track is laid in a rising circle with each level directly above the one below while maintaining the same clearance between tracks. A helix is usually built with one or two tracks side-by-side. Track can exit the helix at intermediate levels through turnouts (switches). To accomplish this a short length of straight track is often inserted at the point where track will diverge. 


A type of scenery base made by dipping pieces of industrial=strength paper towels or brown paper bags in a soupy mixture of plaster, most often hydrocal plaster (see hydrocal).


 A method of gaining separation between lower level benchwork and an upper deck. The track is laid in a rising circle with each level directly above the one below while maintaining the same clearance between tracks. A helix is usually built with one or two tracks side-by-side. Track can exit the helix at intermediate levels through turnouts (switches). To accomplish this a short length of straight track is often inserted at the point where track will diverge. 


A type of insulation board that is made from recycled newsprint. It is sold in 4 X 8-foot sheets that are 1/2-inch thick. Homasote can be difficult to find. It is available from a limited number of lumber yards. Homasote is often used as a subroadbed under track. I have used it for many years. It is messy to cut with a sabre saw because cutting creates a lot of fluffy dust. It can be cut more cleanly with a blade. You can also cut notches every few inches to make it bendable.  The notches can then be filled with plaster.  Some modelers paint the homasote to seal it to prevent warping due to humidity changes. I've never had the problem. I guess it depends where you live. 


A type of open-top freight car used to carry loose material like coal and rock that don't need protection from the elements. The material is removed through funnel-like bins underneath the car. Another type is the covered hopper where material needs to be kept from the elements such as grain or even plastic pellets.


Transportation of material by different forms of transport vehicles such as train to truck or ship to train to truck. This can be in the form of piggyback trailers or stackable containers.


Open source programming that is free on the Internet.  The main components are Decoder Pro for fine-tuning DCC-equipped locomotives and Panel Pro for creating computer panels. A sub-module is Operations that allows you to set up computerized switch lists in real time. See my computer operations page for more details.


Building structures by mingling parts from various kits in a manner that departs from the manufacturers' instructions in order to make a distinctive structure that fits a particular location and doesn't look like everyone else's layout.


A stand-alone layout unit that can be connected to other units. A module may be built to standard dimensions and configurations for interchangeability or it may be built to your own specifications for ease of assembly in your own location. For more information see my modular page.

Live steam

Live steam refers to locomotives that have boilers fired by coal or other fuels and usually applies to engines in larger scales that operate outdoors although there have been some attempts in smaller scales.


Railroad maintenance-of-way equipment such as snowplows, old flat cars for wheels and ties, cranes, and even sleeping cars, kitchens and payroll cars.


Running your railroad more like the prototype in that you must follow a set of rules to run your trains and pick up and set out freight and passenger cars. For more detailed suggestions see my operations methods page.


Refrigerated freight cars used to transport perishable products.


An upright support to raise the subroadbed. It is preferable to make the riser L-shaped so that screws can be inserted from underneath the subroadbed. This makes it easier to change the grade or move the subroadbed should that become necessary (instead of digging through scenery and cork roadbed to locate the screw heads).


Foundation to support track. Often cork or foam. Midwest is a well-known brand of cork roadbed while Woodland Scenics make a foam roadbed. There are also brands where the roadbed is molded with the track and the pieces of track lock together. Outdoor G scale and other larger scale railroads are often supported directly on gravel as prototype railways would do.

Rolling stock

Freight and passenger cars including cabooses (vans) and maintenance-of-way (MOW) equipment.


The size relationship between your models and the real thing, the prototype. For more detailed suggestions  see my Scale and Track page.


To build a model from plans or your own imagination using raw materials like brass, styrene, paper, plaster and wood and few commercially-available parts. This may involve casting your own metal or plaster parts. The idea is not to use a prepackaged kit.


A type of plastic (polystyrene) that is easy to use for building models. Much of the fabrication can be done with a "score and snap" technique. One of the best known manufacturers of styrene shapes is Evergreen Scale Models.  


The term for streetcars and equipment run by electricity. Diesels have traction motors where energy is converted from diesel engines to electricity to power the locomotive. Traction also relates to the ability of locomotives to climb grades. Some models have "traction tires" where a rubber band is on the wheel tread to improve grip. There is also a product called "Bull Snot" that can be painted on a wheel tread to improve grip.


The wheel assembly beneath a railroad car. Also referred to as a bogey.


A track switch to allow trains to take a diverging route. The term came into use to avoid confusion between a track switch and an electrical switch.


The term used in Canada for a caboose.


Showing the effects of time by "dirtying" buildings and rolling stock by applying rust, dirt, dust and other effects, either through washes of paint, inks, or powders and chalk. Weathering takes away the unrealistic shine from buildings and railroad equipment.


Cameras on the Internet take motion picture videos of passing trains. You may be familiar with the crossing at Rochelle, Illinois accessible from the website where you can view BNSF and Union Pacific trains. They also have another webcam of the Norfolk Southern Railway at Roanoke, Virginia. You may not be familiar with this one that was referenced in Model Railroader magazine in December, 1977. I checked the site in January, 2016 and it was still operating. Try it for yourself (I have nothing to do with this Trainorders website.


Software that allows control of DCC-equipped model trains on tablets like the iPad and Android devices such as smart phones and other tablets. An example of model-train-control with WiThrottle can be found on this page about John Houghton's N scale layout.

There are lots of other terms and jargon that you may come across but these are common ones that you will see or hear. Fee free to add more.

Return to my Home Page from "glossary".

Return to top

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below.
Share this page:
Want to link to this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.
Copyright© 2008-2018