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Rail Terminology

Rail Bridge in Hoquiam - Grays Harbor County

Active Warning Device
Flashing lights and/or gates used at grade crossings.

Advance Warning Signals
A sign used along a roadway to warn that a roadway-rail grade crossing is ahead.

At-Grade Crossing
The surface where the rail and a roadway (or pathway) cross at the same level.

Ballast
Material selected for placement on the roadbed for the purpose of holding the track in place.

BTU (British Thermal Unit)
The quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

Bypass
A track that goes around other rail facilities (bypasses them). A bypass may be as simple as a track that goes around a small yard, or may be as significant as a complete route revision.

Capital Costs
Non-recurring costs required to construct (or improve) the rail line. Capital costs include the purchase of vehicles, track improvements, station rehabilitation, and design and administrative costs associated with these improvements.

Centralized Traffic Control
A computerized system that uses remote controls to change signals and switches along a designated portion of railroad track.

Chokepoint
An area along the railroad track that is often congested, making it difficult for trains to pass uninterrupted.

Commuter Rail
Service between a central city and its suburbs, running on a railroad right of way. Examples include Sound Transit's commuter rail system in Puget Sound, Metrolink in Los Angeles, California, and British Columbia's West Coast Express.

Consist
The number of vehicles forming a train.

Continuous Welded Rail
Rails welded together in lengths of 400 feet or more.

Crossover (and Power Crossover)
A set of turnouts connecting multiple tracks. A crossover allows a train to move from one track to another. A power crossover is controlled by Centralized Traffic Control.

Deficiencies
Areas along the track that cannot handle expected increased train frequencies.

Derail (and Power Derail)
A device on the tracks used to remove a non-moving train from the tracks in case of an emergency. A power derail is operated by Centralized Traffic Control.

Dispatcher
The individual who plans and controls the movement of trains.

Double Track
Two sets of main line track located side by side, most often used for travel in opposite directions, like roadways.

Exclusive Right of Way
A right of way that is to be used only for the rail line (either freight, passenger or both). It is usually completely grade-separated from other types of vehicles and pedestrians.

Flashing Light Signals
Used with the crossbuck signs at railroad crossings. When the lights are flashing, the motorist or pedestrian must stop.

Frequency
A term used to describe the level of rail service. For intercity rail, frequent service means that trains serve a particular station at least every four hours.

Gates
Used with flashing signals at certain crossings to warn that a train is approaching.

Geometrics
An engineering term that refers to the design of the tracks.

Grade Crossing
The area where the track crosses a roadway or pathway.

Grade-Separated
Crossing lines of traffic that are vertically separated from each other (i.e., a roadway that goes over a railroad track).

High-Speed Rail
Trains like the famed Japanese Bullet Train, well known in European and Asian countries. These trains travel at speeds greater than 125 mph on exclusive right of way and are economically feasible only in the world's densely populated areas.

Intercity (Passenger) Rail
Service connecting central city to central city on a railroad right of way in densely traveled corridors. Amtrak's metroliner service between Washington, D.C. and Boston is a well-known example of higher-speed intercity rail. Locally, the Amtrak Cascades connecting Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle is an example of intercity passenger rail.

Intermodal
The use of different types of transportation modes to move freight shipments and people, i.e., ships, trains, buses, and trucks.

Light Rail
Carries a light volume of traffic. "Light" refers to the number of riders that the train can carry, not the weight. Light rail may share right of way on a roadway or operate on exclusive right of way and can have multi-car trains or single cars. Trolley cars and Portland, Oregon's MAX system are examples of light rail.

Lock Switch (and Electric Lock Switch)
Operated by Centralized Traffic Control to regulate when trains can enter on or off the tracks.

Locomotive
A powered piece of equipment that travels on rails and moves railroad cars.

Long Distance (Long-Haul) Train
A passenger train that serves major transportation centers within and beyond those of a corridor train. An example is Amtrak's Coast Starlight that travels between Los Angeles and Seattle.

Main line
A railroad's primary track that usually extends great distances. It usually carries both freight and passenger trains.

Operational Costs (Operating Costs)
Recurring costs of operating passenger service. These costs include wages, maintenance of facilities and equipment, fuel, supplies, employee benefits, insurance, taxes, marketing, and other administrative costs.

Passive Warning Device
Signs or markers used at all grade crossings.

Patronage
The number of people carried by the passenger train during a specified period.

Pavement Markings
Painted on the pavement in advance of a railroad highway crossing, to warn the motorist or pedestrian of the rail crossing.

Positive Train Separation
A new railroad communication system, using high tech equipment to monitor train locations.

Rail Yard
A system of tracks within defined limits, designed for storing, cleaning and assembling (to each other) rail cars.

Railroad Crossbuck
A type of sign found at all public railroad crossings. This sign should be treated as a yield sign.

Railroad Tie
The part of the track, often wood or concrete, where the rails are spiked or otherwise fastened.

Rapid (or Heavy) Rail
An electric railway that carries a large volume of people on exclusive right of way. Subways, like San Francisco's BART or Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail, are examples of rapid (or heavy) rail.

Reliability
A service measure in transit planning, if a train or bus arrives within 10 minutes of its scheduled time, it is considered reliable. Reliability can be impacted by congestion on the tracks, delays at stations, and equipment malfunction.

Ridership
The number of people carried by the passenger train during a specified period.

Right of Way
The horizontal and vertical space occupied by the rail service. In Washington state, BNSF Railway owns the right of way. Amtrak, WSDOT and Sound Transit run their trains on BNSF's right of way through operating agreements.

Rolling Stock
Train vehicles.

Shipper
The person or firm from whom a shipment originates.

Siding
An auxiliary track located next to a main line that allows a train to move out of the way of an oncoming train. Sidings are also used to store trains or to add or subtract rail cars.

Switch
A set of levers and gears that guides a train over a turnout or crossover. The levers and gears are moved manually or electronically.

Travel Time
The elapsed time between a trip's beginning and end. It includes travel, transfers and waiting time.

Turnout
A set of tracks that connect the main line to a siding or rail yard. A turnout allows the train to move on or off the main line.