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Model Railways: The Trains

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The shield of the Sport and Leisure faculty of the h2g2 University.
Model Railways:
Introduction | Glossary
Scales and Gauges | Baseboard Locations | The Trains
Themes | Layout | Scenery
Photograph of a model railway.

The various parts of the trains on a model railway are divided into running and rolling stock and further broken down by their actual use. With almost two hundred years of train development and differing needs and customs around the world, the following list is by no means meant to be complete, but it is intended to give the novice railway tycoon a brief introduction to their new profession.

One of the most noticeable differences between the British 'railway' and an American 'railroad' is the designation of the rolling stock. In the UK they are divided into coaches, carriages, wagons, trucks and vans, but in the US they are all merely classified as 'cars'.

Although this Entry may seem to focus on full size railways, each of the items mentioned is available as a model in at least one scale, or existing models can be easily converted by the dedicated hobbyist.

It is a good idea to be consistent in your choice of trains, to match your theme and the scenery. Although you can purchase a model of Stephenson's Rocket and have it pulling Eurostar carriages, it would not look right. Most famous steam engines such as The Flying Scotsman, City of Truro, Green Arrow, Evening Star or Mallard are available in a number of sizes, while many other engine types, whether steam, diesel or electric are available to purchase, along with a wide variety of carriages and trucks.

Running Stock

The running stock includes 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. This is a brief summary of most the common types of running stock, sorted by their source of power.

  • Hand Cart - A light platform mounted on railway wheels. In the early days they were powered by two men pushing a large, horizontal lever and they were light enough that they could be carried away from the rails when a train approached. They were primarily used by the track crews to look for potential problems. Today they have been replaced by small motorised vehicles.

  • Wood Burning Steam Locomotive - One of the earliest types of locomotive, these were common in the first half of the 19th Century in countries where timber was abundant. One of the most striking features of these engines is the large funnel-shaped smoke stack required to give the fire a proper draught. In Britain and much of Europe, where wood was relatively scarce, coke (a type of refined coal) was used instead.

  • Coal Burning Steam Locomotive - Coal provided more heat and reduced the likelihood of stray fires caused by burning embers escaping with the exhaust smoke.

  • Oil Burning Steam Locomotives - Some steam locomotives were converted by replacing the (wood or coal burning) fire-box with an oil ring that greatly simplified the firing process. Most of these were created just as diesel powered locomotives were coming into prominence.

  • Mains Electric Locomotives - Although the most modern choice for power, the electric powered train dates back to the late 19th Century. There are two types. Conventional above-ground trains generally have a large 'pantograph' antenna, which conducts electricity from an array of overhead wires, with the second part of the circuit being formed by the track. Most underground (tube or subway) trains, and some above-ground trains1, are powered by a 'third rail' mounted next to the main track.

  • Diesel Powered Locomotives - Some diesel locomotives use their engine to directly transfer the power to the wheels through a system of transmissions and gears, similar to a common lorry – but much larger. These are usually found in light passenger service.

  • Diesel-Electric Locomotives - These locomotives also use large diesel engines, but instead of linking to the wheels themselves, they are mounted to dynamos that produce electricity that then powers electric motors that are linked to the drive wheels.

  • Dummy Power Units - In the 'Real World' of the railway two or more locomotives are often linked together to provide power for a single train. The joint operation requires great skill, or the use of computers today. Many model suppliers offer 'dummy locomotives' that are really only rolling stock with a 'locomotive' body mounted on it, so your train can reflect this practice without expensive electronics.

Rolling Stock - Freight Service

Photograph of a model railway.

The freight service remains the most profitable area of railway operations. Huge loads of heavy items can be transported by a railway more efficiently than any other form of transportation, except possibly by ship. As the railway and ships operate in totally different environments, they have a symbiotic relationship - a model seaport could be included on the side of a layout and have trains running to and from it.

The early freight units had only a single axle at each end with a single pair of wheels; today almost all have a 'bogie'2. It is a common practice for model companies to add the term 'bogie' to the label on the box to clarify the exact product offered.

  • Flat Wagon - This is probably the most basic piece of stock on any railway. It is just a flat platform mounted on railway wheels with a coupler at each end. They carry any solid object that can be lashed down, like machinery and lumber.

  • Open Wagon - If you add short sides to a flat wagon it will be transformed to an open wagon. They can carry bulk goods that can't easily be tied down, such as scrap metal. They have to be loaded and unloaded from the open top. In the US they are referred to as 'Gondola Cars'.

  • Bulk Carriers or Hopper Wagons - Similar to the open wagon, these units have doors on the bottom that can be opened to quickly unload them. Open top wagons are used for durable items such as coal and iron ore. Closed top versions are available for products that could be damaged by rain or snow, such as chemicals and pharmaceutical products. They are called 'Hopper Cars' in the US.

  • Tanker Wagon - Designed to carry either bulk liquid or gas, these large 'tankers on rails' are often the cause of most concern if there is an incident in the real world, such as a derailment, as explosive or hazardous material may be released, causing an evacuation of the area.

  • Goods Van - also known as a 'Goods Wagon', or sometimes 'Box Wagon'. These are fully enclosed and are accessed by a door in the centre of each side. They can carry a variety of boxed items, not unlike a moving van. During the Great Depression in the US these were the preferred accommodation for people 'riding the rails' without a ticket, commonly known as hobos. In the United States the vans are simply known as 'Box Cars'

  • Refrigerator Wagon - Similar to goods vans, they include their own refrigeration units and are used to carry perishable items like milk and meat. They are known in the US as a 'Reefer Car'

  • Livestock Wagons - These are also similar to a goods van, but the sides are constructed from boards with a large gap between them to allow fresh air to reach the animals. Horse boxes and cattle wagons (for prized animals) are normally carried as part of the regular passenger service, or form their own special train.

    It is an unfortunate chapter of history that many people were transported in livestock wagons to the detention camps in Nazi Germany and Poland during the Second World War.

  • Car Transport Carrier - These railway units are designed to transport automobiles, either new or belonging to passengers. The American equivalent of 'Car Carrier Car' sounds a bit redundant.

  • Piggy Back Wagon - Similar to flat cars, they are designed to carry self-contained boxes that can be transferred from a train to a lorry or an ocean-going ship, without ever disturbing its contents. You can load a container in almost any part of the world and ship it, with its contents, to almost any other part of the world. The container will arrive without ever having been opened, except possibly by a customs inspector. In the US they are known as 'Container Cars'.

  • Caboose - Traditionally the last car in an American freight train; the caboose offers not only easy access to an additional braking position, but sleeping quarters for the off-duty crew and a small office space for the conductor's paperwork. The caboose is sometime carried in the centre of a long train so an observer can watch for problems such as smoke from an overheated wheel bearing.

  • Brake Van - Similar to the American caboose, the primary function of the British brake van is to provide additional control of the train.

Passenger Service

Railway passenger service was the most popular form of long distance travel prior to the Second World War. After the war commercial aviation took control of much of this market. Commuter rail services near large cities, Metropolitan light rail and long distance discount services such as Eurail remain popular.

Passenger coaches are available in a wide array of styles. From the early 19th Century wooden coaches and the 'Art Deco – Stream-Line Modern' trains of the 1930s to the modern 'Bullet Train', the choices are almost endless. We shall only attempt to identify a few here.

Running Stock that Also Serves the Function of Rolling Stock

Many passenger coaches in commuter service are self contained units with the controls and drive engines mounted in the coach itself.

  • The 'Budd' Car - Probably one of the first self-contained units, the American 'Budd' Car3 is a direct drive diesel unit containing both the engines and passenger seating space in a single unit.

  • Diesel Multiple Units - These units have a conventional diesel engine cab attached to a passenger coach area in a single unit. A variety of conventional carriages are often added, with another power unit, facing in the opposite direction, at the far end. When it becomes necessary for the train to change direction, control is simply switched from one end of the train to the other.

  • Electric Multiple Units - This is the universal type of unit used on the Tube and other underground railways. A series of carriages, each with self contained power, are formed into a train. When the train reaches the last station on a run the engine driver simply moves from one end of the train to the other and transfers control to their new position.

Passenger Rolling Stock

Here are a selection of the most common passenger coaches; there are many other types that are available.

  • Compartment Passenger Coaches - These coaches have small compartments for about six passengers each. They are accessed by individual doors; the passengers must remain inside their compartment until the station platform is reached. The design of these coaches was based on the horse-drawn coaches that they replaced.

  • Open Passenger Coaches - These are the basic coaches that offer only seating for the passengers. They have been in use, in one form or another, from the earliest days of the railway. They have a vestibule at each end and a central aisle to access the rows of bench seats.

  • Corridor Passenger Coaches - These coaches have small compartments along one side of the train with a corridor on the the opposite side. Most compartments are intended for ten passengers - five people on each side. The common 'One Hundred Passenger Carriage' in Britain has ten compartments.

    Some 'Corridor Coaches' have doors along their full length allowing passengers to enter their compartment directly from the platform, while others must be accessed by the vestibule at each end of the coach. The corridor allows access to each compartment while the train is in motion.

  • Baggage Coaches - Similar to Goods Vans, these coaches carry the excess baggage of the passengers that will not be needed until they reach their destination.

  • Combination Coaches - These coaches are divided into a section for the passengers, and a separate area for their excess baggage.

    In the UK similar carriages are known as 'Brake Coaches' or 'Guards Vans'. As well as the passenger area and baggage space, they are also fitted with a manual brake and accommodate a guard to operate the brake. Each section of the train that may be separated from the others will have its own Brake Coach. The manual brake will be set to keep the section secure until it has been attached to another train.

  • Dining Coaches - This is a special class of carriage that contains not only a dining room, but also a full kitchen and waiting staff. Meals are usually prepared and served to the passengers, for a fee, several times a day.

  • Sleeper Coaches - These usually supply each pair of passengers a private compartment in the daytime that can be converted by a steward into a pair of bunk beds for the night. The most common sleeper coaches in the US are the 'Pullman Cars' created in the 1860s by George Pullman. It used to be a custom to call all stewards 'George' in his honour (this was probably a bit racist in the southern US).

    Other more basic sleeper carriages have a row of bunk beds along each side of the corridor, each with its own privacy curtain.

  • Mail Coach - A specialised carriage, not normally available to regular passengers, these coaches were a 'Post Office on Wheels'. While the train travelled from station to station, mail clerks sorted the mail into bags that would be left for delivery at the upcoming stations. They were usually attached to a passenger train because they needed to run on a dependable time schedule.

    One of the features offered by Hornby (a large UK model manufacturer) was a mail coach that could 'automatically' pick up and drop of bags of mail.

  • Vista Dome Coaches - These coaches offer an upper deck with a large glass enclosure. They offer an excellent viewing position, especially when travelling through mountains where much of the scenery is above track level.

  • Observation Coaches - Intended to be the last unit of a passenger train, the rear vestibule is replaced by wrap-around windows, allowing an excellent view of the landscape behind the train.

Special Trains

There are also several special classes of trains that have earned their own worldwide reputation. As with any international discussion there are bound to be those who disagree with these selections. Even if these trains are not offered as a stock kit, many modellers will modify existing units by adding custom artwork and details.

  • The Orient Express - Arguably the most famous train in Western culture, this train started running between Paris and Istanbul in 1883 and continued in various forms until 2009. The claim to fame of this service was not speed, but luxury. The passengers enjoyed fine French cuisine and personal service across the width of Europe. The sleeping and dining cars were renowned for their accommodation.

  • Rovos Rail – Pride of Africa - This train offers a luxurious view of the exotic landscape of South Africa. Some available journeys extend well north into the heart of the veldt.

  • The Royal Scotsman - With accommodations restored to Edwardian style, this train4 offers several excursions including one that has stops in Scotland, England and Wales.

  • Circus Trains - The largest and most famous circus trains are probably the the two (red and blue) that belong to 'The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus'. These trains carry the hundreds of people, dozens of animals, tents and other equipment required for their performances. At each city or town the train is unloaded and the performers and animals form a large parade through the streets to the site of the show. This not only brings attention to the event, but is the most efficient way to move everything from the marshalling yard.


We hope this has given you a few ideas for the theme of your model railway and a better understanding of the various types and variety of products available.

1Notably trains in the Isle of Wight, South East England and the areas beyond the underground railway in Washington, DC.2A chassis with four wheels on two axles. When mounted at each end of modern rolling stock, these assist in navigating corners and points and also improve suspension. Known in the US as a 'truck'.3Built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between 1944 and 1962.4A modern luxury service in the UK inspired by the 'Flying Scotsman' we have mentioned previously.

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