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Tricky toy train terms

By CTT Staff | April 1, 2010

Every hobby has a language all its own. Here are several frequently encountered words and their definitions.

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The toy train hobby, like any other, has its own language. We at Classic Toy Trains try to avoid using confusing jargon wherever possible, but we know there are some terms we use that may confuse new readers. Even if you’ve enjoyed trains for years, you may still run across terms that aren’t clear, or you may know two or three people who all use the same term to mean different things.

Here’s a list of terms along with what we mean when we use them. You can clip it out (or perhaps photocopy it) and save it in your train room, if you’d like. If you have suggestions or others we should publish, send them to us. We’re always willing to learn. And don’t worry — there’s no quiz.

Accessory: an item intended to complement a train set but generally not included with it, such as a switch, a building, or a trackside light. Some accessories, such as billboards, tunnels, and many buildings, are static, while others, such as coal loaders, control towers, or gatemen, have an operating feature.
Advance catalog: a black-and-white catalog printed for use by wholesalers and distributors. It came out early in the year and indicated what most likely would be available for sale. Also known as a dealer catalog.

Alco: the American Locomotive Company, which was created in 1901 from a merger of eight separate firms. Alco manufactured steam locomotives until 1948, and diesels from the 1920s until 1969. Among Alco’s most famous products were most of the New York Central’s Hudsons, the Union Pacific’s Big Boys, and the PA diesel.

Articulated: an articulated locomotive has a jointed frame that is flexible in at least one direction. Not all articulated steam locomotives are Mallets (for example, Challengers and Big Boys are not), and not all articulated locomotives are steamers (a GG1 has an articulated frame).

Bakelite: trade name for a compression-molded plastic powder which, because of its resistance to heat, was used in stoves; Lionel used it for transformer casings, a few switch parts, and rolling stock bodies (notably on the Irvington cars), among other pieces. Bakelite is a good insulator, but holds paint poorly, comes in few colors, and shatters easily.

Baldwin: the Baldwin Locomotive works was the largest American manufacturer of steam locomotives. Founded in the 19th century, it built steam locomotives until 1949. Baldwin began building diesel locomotives in the late 1930s. In 1950, it merged with Lima-Hamilton, successor to the Lima Locomotive works (see Lima), and the combined firm (B-L-H) built large diesel locomotives through 1956. Baldwin built locomotives for most American railroads, but its Santa Fe Hudsons and Northerns are among the most famous, along with its RF-16 “Sharknose” diesels.

Body: the body of a locomotive or car. Also shell. Some toy train hobbyists (following occasional Lionel practice) use the confusing term “cab” instead.

Can motor: a permanent magnet motor enclosed in a metal “can.” A can motor is DC-only unless paired with special circuitry, as is the case in nearly all modern toy trains.

Catalog: the toy train catalog available for general distribution, but also consumer catalog. Be aware that the catalog may list something as having been produced in a particular year that was either not produced that year or not produced at all. Conversely, items exist that never appeared in a catalog. Items were sometimes sold from stock long after their years in the catalog; items were sometimes produced after their years in the catalog. Some manufacturers rarely issued catalogs.

Chassis: frame and mechanism of a locomotive or car; what the body shell sits on.
Chemically blackened: a metal part treated with chemicals to achieve a painted or blackened look. Manufacturers especially use these processes on wheels, trucks, and frames.

Coil coupler: a Lionel coupler (or a copy) that uses a solenoid to open the coupler; the electricity to operate the solenoid comes via a sliding shoe on the truck.

Consist: a string of freight or passengers cars pulled or pushed by a locomotive. This is not the same as a train.

Die-cast: a manufacturing process in which molten material is poured or injected into a metal mold. The molds are always metal in this process, but the material cast maybe metal or plastic. There are other casting processes, such as sandcasting or lost-wax casting, but these are less common in toy trains.

Duplex: a duplex steam locomotive has two pairs of cylinders, mounted on a rigid (not articulated) frame and all using high-pressure steam. The Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio were only two North American railroads to use duplex-drive steamers.

E-unit: the mechanism that provides the reverse sequence on its toy trains; there are two-position (forward-reverse) models and three-position (forward-neutral-reverse) models.

E unit: a General Motors (EMD) six-axle streamlined passenger locomotive of the 1930s-60s.
EMD: abbreviation for Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, manufacturer of prototype locomotives, including the BL, E, F, GP, NW, SD, and SW series.

F unit: an EMD four-axle streamlined freight/passenger diesel of the 1940s and 1950s, made in several variants, including FT, F2, F3, F7, and F9, in both cab (A) and booster (B) models. Except for its unusual grillwork and oddly shaped windshield, Lionel’s F3 is a reasonable approximation of a late-production F3. The AMT/Kusan/Williams shell resembles an F7.

FA: an Alco (American Locomotive Co.) four-axle streamlined freight diesel of the 1940s and 1950s. Lionel’s no. 2023 Union Pacific O diesels, its many successors, the Kusan/K-Line equivalent, and Weaver’s recent Alco are all models of the Alco FA, as is the Aristo-Craft large scale Alco.

Factory prototype/factory sample: Manufacturers produce these pre-production models for executives and employees so they can work out plans to design and decorate the final model. Most prototypes/samples were never intended to leave the company, but over the years many have made their way into the hands of collectors, giving them a glimpse of the production process.

Factory error: usually a train with faulty paint or lettering (decoration), or a part (factory installed) that varies from most examples. They are often worth more than a similar, but correct, item.

Fairbanks-Morse: F-M built diesel locomotives from 1944 to 1963. Among its most widely-known products were the massive H-24-66 Train Masters and the streamlined Consolidation Line (“C-Line”) units.

Frame: the base structure of a locomotive or car, without trucks, motors, etc.

Fundimensions: see MPC

Gauge: the distance between the inner edges of the running rails (see also scale). Standard gauge is 2 1/8 inches, no. 1 gauge (used by large scale trains) is 1 3/4 inches, O gauge is 1 1/4 inches, and S gauge is 7/8 of an inch. O-27 track also has the gauge of 1 1/4, but its rails are smaller than those of traditional Lionel O gauge track. The track gauge a model runs on does not determine its scale.

GE: abbreviation for the General Electric Co., which has built electrical equipment for locomotives since the advent of electric locomotives. GE began selling a line of diesel switchers in the 1930s, and the firm introduced its U25 road locomotives in 1960.

Gift pack: a train set sold without track or transformer. Manufacturers (notably Lionel) marketed gift packs to people who already had those components.

Gilbert: shortened form of the A.C. Gilbert Co., which produced American Flyer trains from 1938 until 1967. The Lionel Corp. purchased the American Flyer trademark and tooling in 1967. Before 1938, William Ogden Coleman produced American Flyer trains.

Heat-stamping: process of lettering using a hot metal dye and a colored tape ribbon. Heat-stamping leaves a slight impression on plastic or metal surfaces.

Hi-rail: broadly speaking, hi-rail refers to modeling prototype railroading accurately using toy trains on a layout with realistic scenery.

Irvington cars: Lionel’s prewar (nos. 2623and 2624) and postwar (nos. 2625, 2627, 2628) 12-wheel semi-scale passenger cars, made of compression-molded Bakelite and styled after typical 1920s-era heavyweight Pullmans. The first was named Irvington, the second Manhattan, and the third (added in 1948) Madison. Lionel did not name the series; collectors have called the series the Irvington and, later, Madison cars.

Large scale: toy trains manufactured since 1970 that use No. 1 gauge track. The trains themselves are scaled (if at all) to different ratios, including 1:22.5 (G scale, originated by LGB and also used by Bachmann).

Lima: the Lima Locomotive Works began building steam locomotives in 1878 and continued to do so until 1949. Lima is best known for its Shay geared locomotives and its Super-Power road locomotives, especially the 2-8-4 Berkshires of the Boston & Albany and the Nickel Plate.

Lionel LLC: the organization that bough Lionel Trains Inc. from Richard Kughn in 1995.

LTI: Lionel Trains Inc. This organization, owned by Richard Kughn, produced Lionel trains from 1986 to 1995.

Magne-Traction: Lionel’s patented system, dating from 1949, for increasing locomotive traction by way of magnetized axles.

Magnetic coupler: a post-1947 Lionel coupler that uses either a movable metal plate or a metal shaft to open the coupler. A magnetic coupler requires an electromagnet to operate.

Mallet: an articulated steam locomotive with multiple sets of drivers (usually two), the first powered by cylinders operating on high-pressure (boiler-pressure) steam and the second with cylinders using the exhaust (low-pressure) steam of the first. Many heavy freight articulateds, including the Norfolk & Western’s Y-series locomotives, were mallets.

Master carton: an exterior carton used to package separate-sale F3 and Alco units, as well as steam engine and tender pairs. A master carton is not the same as a set carton, which housed the contents of a set.

Modern era: refers to toy train manufactured from 1970 through the present.

MPC: Model Products Corp., a subsidiary of General Mills that manufactured Lionel trains from 1970 to 1973. General Mills continued to produce Lionel trains through 1986, but its train-making arm was then known as Fundimensions. Collectors and operators generally treat this as one era and use the names interchangeably.

Operating: an item that works in some manner, usually electrically and via remote control, such as a dump car, log loader, coal loader, or bascule bridge.

Outfit: see train set.

PA: an Alco streamlined six-axle passenger/freight diesel of the 1940s and 1950s. American Flyer’s S gauge Alco is a model of the PA, though it is missing two axles. Lionel, MTH, Right-of-Way, and others have all built O gauge models of the PA, but only recently (see also FA).

Postwar: refers to toy trains manufactured from 1945, the end of World War II, through 1969, the last year of Lionel Corp. production. Often abbreviated (ambiguously) as “PW”.

Prewar: refers to toy trains manufactured from the beginning of the industry at the turn of the century to approximately 1942, when toy train production halted due to federal restrictions on the use of strategic materials. Most trains in this era are referred to as tinplate, for the material from which many of them were made. Often abbreviated (ambiguously) as “PW”.

ProtoSound: an electronic locomotive sound system (developed by QSI) that is installed in many locomotives manufactured by MTH Electric Trains.

Prototype: the real train after which a model is patented.

Pullmor motor: Lionel’s trade name for its three-pole, open-frame universal motors. The word “Pullmor” was originally used by American Flyer for a wheel equipped with a traction tire.

Rail Diesel Car (RDC): a Budd Co.-built stainless-steel diesel-hydraulic self-propelled passenger car, either all-coach (RDC-1), a coach-baggage combination (RDC-2), a baggage-Railway Post Office combination (RDC-4), or all-coach but with no operator’s cab (RDC-9). Lionel, K-Line, Williams, and others have produced model RDCs.

RailKing: MTH’s line of trains designed for track with a minimum radius of about 14 inches (often called “O-31” in modern times)

RailSounds: an electronic locomotive sound system installed in many Lionel locomotives.

Rare: very few toy train items are truly rare. Factory prototypes are, some of the early pre-World War I items are, but virtually any regular-production toy train item is not. It may be scarce, unusual (if a variation), or uncommon, though.

Rectifier: an electrical device that converts AC into DC. Lionel multi-control transformers (with whistle controls) uses rectifiers to produce the DC pulse that initiates whistle/horn operation. This term is also used to refer to some prototype electric locomotives that used rectifiers to convert AC from overhead catenary to DC for their traction motors, such as Virginian locomotives that were the prototype for Lionel’s no. 2329 (and reissues).

Reproduction: a newly manufactured model train that’s closely patterned in style, color, and materials after an older train that is long since out of production. Also referred to as a reissue or (slang) repop.

Restoration: a model train that has been painted and repaired so that it appears as new.

Rolling stock: an assortment of freight and/or passenger cars. Though locomotives also roll, this term usually doesn’t refer to them.

Scale: the size of a model, relative to its prototype. Most North American scale modelers use a proportion of 1:48 for O scale trains. Toy trains for use on O gauge track often are not O scale; usually they are undersized, if they are built to scale at all. O-27 is not a scale (see gauge). S scale is 1:64, and most trains built for use on S gauge track are close to S scale. Large scale trains running on no. 1 gauge track are built to many different scales, including 1:20.3, 1:22.5 (G scale), 1:24, 1:28, 1:29, and 1:32. Standard gauge trains follow no particular scale.

Scale-detailed: in Lionel terminology, a scale-detailed model has most, if not all, of the details of the prototype and has scale proportions but not true scale dimensions.

Semi-scale: in Lionel terminology, almost a true scale model. A semi-scale model does not use all the accent pieces utilized in the scale version (no. 763E or no. 773 Hudsons, for example).

Separate sale: an item sold by a manufacturer outside a set. Many items were available in sets and for separate sale. Some sets, especially during the MPC era, were separate-sale sets, meaning you bought everything piecemeal, but the pieces were intended for use together and marketed as such.

Series: some train sets, especially some MPC-era Lionel sets, are part of a larger series of sets.

Sheet-metal: refers to trains made of formed sheet metal.

Super O: Lionel’s scale-like three-rail track, introduced in 1957.

Tinplate: Originally, this term came from a reference to the tin-plated steel used to construct toy train track and cars. People outside the toy train hobby often use this term to refer to nearly all aspects of toy trains, particularly the metal models made before World War II.

Train: on the prototype, a locomotive (or several, coupled) with or without cars, displaying marker lights.

TrainMaster: Lionel’s electronic model railroad control system, introduced in 1994. Lionel also used the name TRAINmaster for a line of transformers, introduced in 1939.

Train Master: a Fairbanks-Morse H-24-66 diesel-electric road switcher. Lionel introduced a model of this locomotive in 1954; Lionel and others have made dozens of versions since. There was also a “Baby Train Master,” the H-16-66.

Train set: a train sold as such by its manufacturer, with or without track and transformer. Lionel O and Super O sets almost never had a transformer but where train sets, or outfits.

T-Rail: Lionel’s scale-like three-rail track of the late 1930s, also called “Model Maker’s Track.”

Transformer: strictly speaking, an electrical device for raising or lowering AC voltage, but in toy train parlance, an AC power pack for controlling train speed and direction.

Universal motor: an open-frame motor that has a wire-wound armature and a wire-wound field coil in series, allowing it to operate on AC or DC. It is found on toy train locomotives manufactured before the 1970s, and on many higher-priced Lionel locomotives manufactured thereafter.

Variations: slightly different production versions of the same numbered set, locomotive, or piece of rolling stock. Often, the differences are slight and may involve subtle changes in color, lettering, or detailing.

4 thoughts on “Tricky toy train terms

  1. Excellent to have terms on the computer for reference. My only issue with toy train terminology is using "scale" and "gauge" interchangeably. I'm no purist in the hobby, but do value consistency and specificity with terms. This may be from my teaching background of 36 years.

  2. In England UK, we dont use the term Hi-Rail. But after reading American model railway magazines for the last 55 years i got the impression it refered to model rail having a toy train profile, not scale. Slightly at odds with that described here.

  3. I've been a railway modeler most of my life, well for 65 years, and the industry and modlers have always mixed the terms scale and gauge, guess well have to live with it now, and hope the newcommer isnt too confused.

  4. I really like seeing hi rail layouts. I think the term covers too broad a spectrum. I mean no offense whatsoever to anyone who uses the term of their layout but I think there is a difference between realistic scenery and scenery that literally looks shrunk by Wonka Vision, referring of course to Willy Wonka's machine which shrinks candy…or people. Layouts such as Rich Battista's and Norm Charbenaeu (forgive me if spellings are wrong) to name 2 have got to be shrunken or "Wonka Vision Model Railroading". Scenery, detailing, and weathering that is so realistic my first thought is Wonka Vision. Thanks for reading my ramblings, just wanted to introduce a term I use in my head. Doubt it will stick though. Happy modeling!

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