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Model Railways: Glossary

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Model Railways:
Introduction | Glossary
Scales and Gauges | Baseboard Locations | The Trains
Themes | Layout | Scenery
Photograph of a model railway.

When entering the world of model railways, you will encounter various specialist terms. This Entry gathers together many of those terms for ease of reference.

  • Ballast
    Gravel found between the sleepers of a railway to increase stability.

  • Ballasting
    Filling the gaps between a model railway's sleepers with artificial ballast to improve realism.

  • Baseboard
    The board the railway model is fixed to. Also called the Train Board or Train Table.

  • Bogie
    A wheeled chassis found beneath rolling stock, especially long wagons or carriages. Normally found at either end of the carriage, these assist in navigating corners and points and also improve suspension. Known in the US as a truck.

  • Brake Van
    Also called a Guard's Van, the brake van is the rearmost part of a train and is equipped with a brake for the guard to use in order to assist in the stopping of the train. Early trains only had brakes in the locomotive at the front of the train.

  • Caboose
    Similar to a brake van, these were used in America on freight trains. They include sleeping quarters for the crew and an office for the conductor as, in the US, a trip can take a week or more for transcontinental service.

  • Carriage
    The part of a train that passengers travel inside.

  • Check rails
    The short sections of '[' shaped rail next to the normal or 'running' rail, which serve to prevent, or reduce the effects of, derailments at points.

  • Coach
    Another name for carriage.

  • Controller
    A mechanism used to control the models on the railway, at basic level controlling the speed and direction. More advanced models also look after the points and signals, and computer-controlled versions can instruct the engines to undertake a wide variety of tasks.

  • Coupling
    Couplings, or couplers, connect the different items of rolling stock together in order to form a train. Different railway model companies often use different forms of coupling, which can affect model railway compatibility, although it is often possible to change the couplers on any individual item of rolling stock.

  • Cutting
    This is where the track cuts through steep terrain to maintain a smoother gradient, so it is like an open-top tunnel.

  • Double slip
    An x-shaped or diamond crossing, on which it is possible for a train to either pass over or change routes.

  • Engine
    See Locomotive.

  • Fire-box
    Found in steam engines, a fire-box is like a home fireplace, having a grating to support the fire, a flue to remove the gas and hot air and ducts to provide fresh air to keep the fire burning. It is insulated to prevent its melting and to help direct the heat.

  • Fishplate
    The metal bar used to join two rails together, forming a track.

  • Flexitrack
    Long lengths of bendy track that can be adjusted to suit your layout's design.

  • Frog
    The crossing point of two rails on a set of points.

  • Funicular Railway
    A railway on which trains ascend and descend a steep incline in pairs. One ascends while the other descends and, driven by ropes1 or cables, they act to counterbalance each other.

  • Garden Railway
    A model railway that runs exclusively outside, often on a larger gauge than indoor railways.

  • Gauge
    The distance between the two rails a train runs on.

  • Hobby
    A relaxing activity engaged in during a person's spare time, normally not taken seriously. Model railways often begin as a hobby before becoming a calling.

  • Hornby
    The dominant name in British model railways. Train sets are sometimes called 'Hornby railways' in a similar fashion to how every slot-car racetrack is known as 'Scalextric'.

  • Layout
    The design of a model railway.

  • Live Steam
    Model railways that run on steam-power rather than electricity.

  • Locomotive
    The unit that provides the power for the train. The locomotive's role is purely to pull or push the carriages or wagons that make up the train.

  • Lower-quadrant Semaphores
    Semaphores where the arm is horizontal to indicate 'stop', and lowered 45 degrees to indicate 'all clear'. Largely superseded by Upper-quadrant semaphores as accidents had been caused by broken signals dropping to indicate 'all clear' when the signal should have indicated 'stop'.

  • Photograph of a model railway.
  • Marshalling Yard
    An area dedicated to sorting out wagons and carriages in order to form trains. Known as a Switch Yard in the US.

  • Miniature Railway
    A small-scale railway that can carry passengers.

  • Mod-Roc
    A roll of plaster-coated bandage similar to the stuff used for making plaster casts around broken limbs. Modellers use this to sculpt hills, valleys and undulations to give their layout added realism.

  • Model Railway
    A scaled-down version of a real (or fictitious) railway that is too small to transport a person.

  • Pantograph
    A pantograph is a large antenna that conducts the electricity from overhead wires to the motors in a locomotive.

  • Points
    The points are a junction where trains are able to move from one track to another. Known in America as Switches.

  • Point Blades
    The thin section of rail which can be moved to change the selected route on a set of points, held the correct distance apart by a tiebar. Known in America as Switch Rails.

  • Rail
    A railway track or railway line is a smooth, flat metal surface which trains run along. In America, a length of railway line makes up a Railroad, and in the UK the length of railway line is known as a Railway.

  • Ready-to-run
    Abbreviated to RTR, ready-to-run model railways require no assembly before use.

  • Rolling Stock
    See Running Stock.

  • Ruling Gradient
    The steepest incline on the model.

  • Running Stock
    The running stock include all the components of your railway that are capable of self-propulsion; all of the rest that have to be pulled or pushed from place to place are the rolling stock.

  • Setrack
    Rigid, pre-formed pieces of track.

  • Scale
    A model railway's scale is the model's size when compared to the full-sized engine and/or track.

  • Scatter
    A fine coloured powder which is used to represent grass, gravel, sand, cinders on a path, mud, and various other types of ground cover and foliage (with a little ingenuity).

  • Semaphores
    These signals pass messages to train drivers depending on the position of their arms. Many semaphores contain coloured lenses known as spectacles, which change the colour of a light depending on the position of the arm.

  • Shunting
    Known in America as switching, shunting is the act of sorting items of rolling stock. This is usually done with the aim of forming a train of interlocked carriages or wagons heading to the same destination, or to break up a train into individual wagons and carriages on the completion of a journey.

  • Signal Box
    A raised building containing a series of levers which, when manipulated, control the points and signals in a local area. These are built on sites with an excellent view of the railway, so that a signalman can ensure there are no obstructions or other problems on the line.

  • Signals
    Devices used to communicate with an engine driver travelling along the railway line. These usually inform whether or not it is safe to proceed, and come in the form of semaphore or light signals.

  • Sleepers
    The series of horizontal planks at right angles to the rails that the rails rest on.

  • Static Model
    A model purely for decoration that does not move.

  • Street Furniture
    Phone boxes, postboxes and benches. Models of these add extra realism to a model railway.

  • Super-detailing
    Refining a model railway in order to provide an extra degree of realism that captures the attention of onlookers.

  • Tiebar
    The bar that ties the two rails at the points together so that they move at the same time.

  • Tank Engine
    A steam engine that carries its water on board in tanks, rather than pulled behind the engine in a tender. Coal is usually also carried on the engine, in a bunker.

  • Tender
    A special wagon designed to carry a locomotive's fuel and water, and is normally pulled directly behind the engine.

  • Tender Engine
    A locomotive that uses a tender is called a tender engine rather than a tank engine.

  • Track
    See Rail.

  • Train
    A series of wagons or carriages coupled together on a railway form a Train, and are moved along the rail by one or more locomotive.

  • Train Set
    Small, toy trains, possibly battery powered. Also a model railway starter set.

  • Truck
    In the UK a Truck is another word for wagon, but in the US a Truck is used to describe a Bogie.

  • Turntable
    Many older engines, such as tender engines were designed to only pull trains from their rear. The turntable is a large section of track mounted on a revolving platform that allows the locomotive to be turned around in a marshalling yard. Turntables were often used to give access to several bays in a Round House, where engines could be repaired or stored when not in service.

  • Upper-quadrant Semaphores
    In these, the arm is horizontal to indicate 'stop', and raised 45 degrees to indicate 'all clear'. Should the signal be broken, such as due to the pressure of snow, gravity ensures that the semaphore's arm is dropped to indicate 'stop'.

  • Viaduct
    A long bridge consisting of a series of several small spans, often used by railways over rivers and areas of uneven ground.

1'Funicular' means 'by rope'.

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