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A male conductor smiling down from the window of a steam locomotive.

Within just a few minutes of visiting the Strasburg Rail Road, your ears will be buzzing with all sorts of terms you may not have heard before. Or maybe you have heard them before, but you’re not entirely sure what they mean.

We’re here to help you have a better understanding of common railroad terminology so you feel prepared for your journey on the rails. Below, we’ve compiled a list of common railroad terms and definitions for you to take note of before your trip to our short line.

Steam Locomotive

The locomotive is the essential part of a steam train. It’s the railroad vehicle that provides the force to move the train.

A steam locomotive works by burning a combustible material (such as wood, coal, or oil) to heat water stored in the locomotive’s boiler and create steam. Once the water becomes gaseous, its pressure is used to propel the locomotive and any attached cars.

Parts of a Steam Train:

To get a better understanding of how a steam locomotive works, here are some of the major components.

  • Firebox: Where fuel is burned to generate heat.
  • Boiler: Hot gases produced in the firebox heat up water stored in the boiler through a rack of tubes.
  • Steam Dome: Steam collects in this dome at the top of the boiler.
  • Pistons: Propel the wheels using the force of high-pressure steam.
  • Smokebox: Hot exhaust collects in the smokebox to exit the locomotive
  • Stack: Spent steam from the smokebox exits the locomotive via the stack.
  • Cab: Where the train crew operates the locomotive.
  • Sand Dome: Contains sand that is deposited onto the rails in front of the driving wheels for traction.

A steam locomotive sitting on a train track.


Hostling is the process of moving a locomotive to a ready track and preparing it for mechanical servicing. The “hostler” prepares the locomotive for operational service by ensuring adequate steam pressure and essential lubrication.


A train engineer is responsible for driving the locomotive to its destination and adhering to the travel schedule. The engineer also monitors the steam pressure, fuel, and water in the locomotive.


A conductor coordinates the daily activity of the train crew and passengers. They don’t operate the locomotive.

Locomotive Wheels

There are three types of wheels that support a locomotive: Driving wheels, leading wheels, and trailing wheels. Let’s look at the key differences between them.

  • Driving Wheels: The driving wheels support the weight of the locomotive and move it forward. They are powered by force generated from the steam engines.
  • Leading Wheels: The leading wheels are located in front of the driving wheels and are used to help the locomotive negotiate curves and support the front of the boiler.
  • Trailing Wheels: The trailing wheels are those located behind the driving wheels that support the crew cab and locomotive firebox.

Wheel Arrangement

A wheel arrangement, also referred to as a wheel configuration, is the system for classifying how the wheels are arranged under a locomotive. Depending on the country and type of locomotive, there are different notations to describe wheel arrangement.

The Whyte notation is most commonly used for steam locomotive wheel arrangement. This system counts the number of leading wheels, then the number of driving wheels, and finally the number of trailing wheels, and separates them by dashes.

For example, a steam locomotive with four leading wheels in front, then six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels would have a wheel arrangement that’s classified as 4-6-2 in Whyte notation.

Close-up of three large driving wheels under a steam locomotive.

Short Line Railroad

A short line railroad is a small railroad operation that runs over a relatively short distance. Most short line railroads serve a specific purpose within communities and industrial centers.

The Strasburg Rail Road is the oldest continuously operating short line railroad in the United States. It connects the community of Strasburg across a 4.5-mile single stretch of track that ends at Amtrak’s main line.


Although all riders enjoy the sound of the train whistle going off while they ride, it actually serves a much more important purpose than entertainment.

The whistle on a steam locomotive is actually a signaling device that is used to warn individuals nearby that the train is approaching and communicate with rail workers. While there used to be many whistle signals used, there are only three that you’re likely to hear today:

  1. Two long, one short, and one long whistle: This is a grade-crossing signal to warn employees or others on the tracks.
  2. Two (or three) short whistles: This indicates that the engineer will be moving the train forward (or backward) momentarily.
  3. One long blast: This signal is used when a train is approaching a station on a track that’s next to a platform.


A pilot, also known as a cowcatcher, is a device that’s attached to the front of a locomotive to push obstacles off the track that could otherwise damage or derail the train. It also helps remove snow from the rails in colder climates.

Freight Train

A freight train, or cargo train, is used to transport goods or animals from place to place rather than human passengers. Shipping by train is often the most eco-friendly and affordable solution, especially for long distances.

Freight trains can have up to six or seven locomotives, depending on the shipment size.

Passenger Train

A passenger train is a train that people use for traveling from one destination to another along a railroad line. Passenger trains typically have 1-2 locomotives.

Exterior of a restored wooden passenger train car.

Types of Train Cars

There are many different types of train cars, both for passengers and freight service. Here are six of the most common types of train cars and their definitions to help you tell the difference.


A passenger car is used to transport people. These cars can be outfitted and configured in various ways, depending on the duration of the journey. For example, some can be designed for dining or sleeping accommodations.


A boxcar is a type of freight car that’s enclosed on all sides and features sliding doors. They can carry a variety of freight (most commonly boxed goods).


Flatcars are open, flatbed freight cars that are used to carry large, bulky freight that doesn’t fit in an enclosed freight car (such as large machinery or timber).

Hopper Car

Hopper cars are freight cars that transport loose or fine-grained bulk items such as coal, ore, sugar, and grains. Doors at the bottom of the car are opened to dump the cargo.

Gondola cars are similar to hopper cars in that they haul the same kind of materials, but they don’t have doors at the bottom. Some gondolas are designed with the ability to lean to the side to dump the loose cargo.

Stock Car

Stock cars are used to transport livestock. They’re specifically designed to keep the animals safe and with adequate food and water for the duration of the trip.


The caboose is the final car on a freight train. It provides shelter for the crew members during the trip. Before the advancement of more advanced safety technology, the caboose was also used for observing problems at the rear of the train.

Now that you have a better understanding of common railroad terms and definitions, you’re ready to ride the rails! Book your ticket today for an unforgettable steam train experience at America’s oldest operating short line–the Strasburg Rail Road.