Do You Know Your ABCs of Railroading?


By: Ian Fortey

6 Min Quiz

Image: Wiki Commons by Timothy Stevens

About This Quiz

The first steam engine dates back to 1804. For more than 200 years, we've had the power to haul things across the country with massive trains. And while everyone has a car these days or can take a flight to get to a destination — or even telecommute where they need to go — the impact trains have had on the world can't be overlooked. The world wouldn't be where it is without trains. Our forefathers' ability to travel across the country to set up new settlements and establish trade across great distances helped us advance significantly. We owe a pretty big debt to trains.

Today we tend to use them mostly in our day-to-day lives to commute to work in big cities. Taking a subway or commuter train is a daily routine for thousands of people. Not to mention the fact that they're still crucial for shipping goods. Most people never give trains a second thought, though, and they're missing out. Trains are fascinating machines with a rich and vital history. They deserve some credit, and if you think you know a bit about the world of trains, now's a great time to show off your stuff by taking the quiz!

What was George Pullman's contribution to railroad history?

George Pullman came up with the idea of a sleeper car after spending an uncomfortable night on a regular train. He created two, but they sold very poorly since no one wanted to waste money on the idea. That was until Mary Todd Lincoln rode in one after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and his train became national news.


What are emeralds in the world of railroading?

Emeralds is a slang term for the green signal lights along the side of the tracks that indicate everything is good to go ahead . The opposite of this, as with traffic signals, are red lights, which can also be called rubies.


When trains are running elephant style, what are they doing?

Elephant style is what you cal it when a line of locomotives are all facing the same way. This mimics the way elephants will move in a herd, all nose to tail in a straight line towards their destination.


What's a car knocker?

Car knockers are the people who repair or inspect railroad cars. The name is a literal thing as a car knocker would check parts of the train by knocking on them to see if they sounded secure. Things are presumably more high tech these days.


Rolling bombs sound dangerous. What are they?

Tanker trucks can carry all kinds of liquids and gases, but if they're carrying a potentially explosive load of some kind, they're known by the nickname of rolling bombs. It's a little grim but appropriate for the situation.


Where is a train when it doesn't have to use its horn before pubic crossings?

Normally a train sounds its horn as it approaches a crossing, but in a Quiet Zone, it does not. This is a designation in a populated area, usually residential, so people aren't disturbed by train traffic. Extra safety precautions have to be taken in these areas.


A small locomotive can be called what?

We tend to give small things rather cutesy nicknames, so maybe it's no surprise that a tiny locomotive is sometimes known as a dinkey. This is used most often for one on a narrow gauge or industrial track.


Trains are obviously pretty heavy. What was the heaviest one ever?

The heaviest train on record was traveling through Australia and weighed over 100,000 tons. It was also 4.5 miles long. It was made up of 682 cars loaded with iron ore and traveled for 170 miles.


What was the name of America's first steam locomotive?

Peter Cooper created America's first steam engine, having a vested interest in selling the land that the tracks would be on. His engine was called Tom Thumb (a replica is shown here) and it lost in a race against a horse its first time out.


Do you know the name of a section of track that has no block signals?

When there are no signals in a section of track, you're officially in dark territory. This is usually only for a short distance, or it could be the result of some kind of a technical problem that's preventing the signals from working properly.


Any idea what a hotshot is?

A hotshot train is one that is fast-moving and being given priority on a track. Generally speaking, it has been on a long journey, and other trains will be routed out of its way so that it can continue as quickly as possible to its destination.


How many injuries per year occur on Japanese bullet trains, on average?

Japan has been running high speed rails, better known in the West as bullet trains, for more than 50 years. In that entire time, there have been no reported passenger injuries or fatalities. Bullet trains have carried more than 5.3 billion passengers in that time.


In what year did Richard Trevithick test the first steam engine?

It was way back in 1804 that Richard Trevithick launched his steam engine for the very first time. The first practical steam engine in the world, it travelled at a paltry 10 miles per hour. But it had to start somewhere!


What's it called when a locomotive is taken to the other end of the train so it can go back the way it just came from?

The run-round (also known as the runaround) is the practice of taking the locomotive to the opposite end of the train and reattaching it so that it can run in the opposite direction. You'd do this when the train reaches the end of the line or its final destination and needs to make the return trip.


What's a Juice Train?

It may not be the most clever name in the world, but a Juice Train is what you call a rain hauling Tropicana juice. Tropicana ships a lot of juice in cars bearing their logo, so it's easy to tell when one is going by.


What was James Watt's contribution to railroading history?

James Watt was a Scottish inventor who improved upon — but did not invent — the steam engine. What he did create was the concept of horsepower after determining how much power a single horse in a mill could produce. Modern science says his numbers were off, but it was a good idea at the time. The SI unit of power known as the watt is named for him.


If you dynamite the train, what are you doing?

When you cause the emergency brake to activate, you're dynamiting the train. This can be on purpose or by accident. In either case, it's a pretty serious situation that could cause some damage.


What's unique about ore trains that travel the coast in Sweden?

Sweden is nothing if not energy efficient. The trains that run up and down the coast actually generate five times as much power as they use. The result of the excess power is that the trains are able to power nearby towns and also the return trip for the next train.


What's the speed record for a bullet train?

Bullet trains typically travel at speeds of 150 mph to 200 mph. The record for a train is 375 miles per hour and was achieved with an SCMaglev train in 2015, but typically 200mph would never be exceeded when passengers are on board.


In what year did the amount of track in America hit its peak?

1916 was a big year for railroads. In 1827, there were only 23 miles of railroad tracks in all of the United States. Less than 100 years later, the railway industry had peaked and there were over 250,000 miles of track around the country.


What did railway representatives do on October 11, 1883?

October 11, 1883, was the date of the General Time Convention. Railway representatives from across the country established the time zones we use today to keep scheduling streamlined. Before them, times could be different, even from one side of a city to another.


Thomas Cook started the world's first travel agency after a train trip. What was his job?

Thomas Cook was a Baptist minister in 1841 when he organized a massive trip for over 500 parishioners to visit London. It was such a success, he started organizing other trips, first in the U.K. and then in the U.S. Thomas Cook and Son, his travel agency, was the first in the world when it opened in 1873.


Do you know what is the longest train ride in North America?

The longest train ride you can take in North America stretches from Toronto to Vancouver in Canada, a distance of 2,775 miles. A round-trip ticket will cost you about $750 USD if you're interested in the journey.


What is Rule G?

Rule G prohibits any railroad employee from being under the influences of drugs or alcohol while on the job. An employee who is under reasonable suspicion has to submit to a drug or breathalyzer test or risk losing their job.


What's the name for a section of track rail that comes loose and curls under the weight of a train?

The stress of a massive train passing over metal rail that is no longer secure will curl the metal like a ribbon. Once it's curled up, it's known as a snake head and needs to be fixed right away.


Which of these is a name for temporary track?

If there is some construction or other type of temporary inconvenience on the line, but trains need to keep running, a shoofly will be set up as a temporary detour around whatever it is. Whether it has any relation to shoofly pie is debatable.


Do you know what's noteworthy about the West Highland Line in Scotland?

The West Highland Line in Scotland passes through so much picturesque countryside that it was used as the Hogwarts Express in the "Harry Potter" movies. It still runs to this day, if you ever want to take the authentic journey.


What do train folks call the logo for the Illinois Central Railroad?

The Illinois Central Railroad logo is a back circle with a small white "i" inside. It earned the nickname of Death Star for the very limited resemblance it has to that iconic space station from the "Star Wars" movies.


What's a ghost locomotive?

A locomotive is called a ghost if it doesn't have a paint job yet. Usually, you'd only see one like this if it's being transported somewhere to get a logo painted on it. In rare cases, it might also be used if there's something wrong with the regular locomotives, so a ghost has to be brought into emergency service.


On April 28, 1869, what happened on the Central Pacific Railway?

On that date, Irish and Chinese workers laid a staggering 10 miles of track in just one day. That amounted to 4.4 million pounds of material, a feat which was never duplicated.


What do you call the lens hood on a railroad signal?

Modern signal lens hoods are informally known as Darth Vaders. The name's pretty easy to figure out when you see them since they're black hoods draped over the signal lens, not unlike Darth Vader's helmet.


The longest train journey in the world can take you from Portugal to where?

At 10, 566 miles or about 17,000 km, the longest train ride in the world can take you from the coastal town of Porto, Portugal, all the way to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Including layovers, some of which are more than half a day, the journey takes 327 hours. It'll cost a few thousand dollars as well. Shown here is the Campanhã railway station in Porto.


Do you know what a torpedo is?

Like their military namesakes, torpedos were explosives. They were affixed to tracks with metal straps and when a train ran over them, they would create a loud bang. These were used as warning devices to alert trains that there would be potential danger ahead.


What does it mean to say "eight and sand" to someone?

Eight and sand is like saying best wishes or good luck to someone on a journey. Notch 8 is the fastest setting on a train, and sand prevented wheel slipping, so you're wishing them a fast journey with no slip ups.


What is a parliamentary train in Britain?

In Britain, a train line cannot be shut down without a lengthy consultation process, including input from the public. To avoid that, some train lines are run as ghost trains, or parliamentary trains, to officially keep them open. That means trains run at the most inconvenient times from unused corners of stations, often with no return trips and never advertised. Passengers could take them, but they probably wouldn't want to.


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