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Back Head

The back of the outside of a locomotive firebox on which many of the controls and gauges are secured.

Back Light

The white light that is visible from the back of a signal lamp.

Back Plate

The inner plate of the back of a steam-locomotive firebox.

Back Slotting

This is where an Outer Distant Signal is slotted by the Stop Signal on the same post as the Inner Distant Signal ahead (in addition to being slotted by the Stop Signal immediately above). This is to prevent the Outer Distant Signal from clearing when the Stop Signal above is cleared for a move up to the Section Signal.


The distance between the backs of the flanges on a railway-vehicle wheel set.

Backing Signal

A subsidiary signal which is used to control shunting movements within station limits in a direction which is wrong for the line in question.


Old railway term for a flexible pipe, usually used for brake pipes between rolling stock, or the water feed from a tower.

Baker Valve Gear

A steam locomotive valve gear similar to Walschaerts valve gear, but one where sliding surfaces are eliminated.

Balance Weight

Weights cast into or secured to the coupled wheels of a steam locomotive to counterbalance the reciprocating and rotational out-of-balance forces.

Ball signal

A long-ago-obsolete type of signal in which a large ball was hauled to the top of a post to indicate that the line was clear.


Hard core used to provide a stable base and good drainage for the track. Typically granite Chipping's between 1-2 inches diameter are used, although other materials are not uncommon.

Baltic Locomotive

Name given to locomotives with a 4-6-4 wheel arrangement.

Banana Van

A goods van incorporating steam heating to promote the ripening of fruit (especially bananas) during transit.


A banking locomotive was often used to assist trains up particularly steep or long banks, or gradients. Many banks had locomotives permanently allocated for this purpose. Trains would stop at the bottom of a bank, and the banker would buffer up to the rear (but not couple on). The train would then ascend the bank with the bankers assistance, and at the top the banker could drop off without the train needing to stop.

Banner Signal

An off-the-ground signal which is in the form of a centrally-pivoted bar backed by a white disc. These signals are usually glass fronted, and illuminated by an internal light. They are often used as repeater signals.

Bardic Lamp

A battery operated lamp with a coloured filter which could be rotated to show white, red, yellow or green aspects, later models had only white, red or green. Bardic was the name of the manufacturing company.


W. J. Bassett-Lowke started making and selling model steam engines in the late 1890's. Based in Northampton they are perhaps best known as model makers, but from 1900 until WWI they imported railways from Europe.

Bay Platform

A subsidiary platform face, the railway track of which is indented into a main platform, and which ends in buffer stops.

Bell Code

The sequence of bells (block bells) used to communicate between signal boxes using a standardised code.

Bell Crank

A pair of cranks, free to rotate on the same spindle, with the crank arms secured approximately at right angles to each other.

Belpaire Firebox

These fireboxes had a bottom narrow enough to fit between the frames of a locomotive. They widened higher up to the width of the barrel, thus providing a larger steam space and greater water surface area in the hottest part of the boiler. They were named after their Belgian inventor, Alfred Belpaire.

Big End

The end of a connecting rod which connects to the crank pin on the driving wheel.

Big Four

Slang term for the four large railway companies which were formed from numerous smaller companies at the 1923 grouping:

Great Western Railway, London Midland and Scottish, London North Eastern Railway and Southern Railway.

Birdcage Brake

Type of Brake coach having a raised lookout for the guard to look along the train above the roofs of the other carriages.

Bissel Bogie

See: Mogul Locomotive.


Exhaust steam is released from the cylinders, via the blast-pipe located inside the smoke-box. Aimed up the chimney, the jet of steam blasting up through the smoke-box draws air through the fire and along the boiler tubes and out the chimney. The blast-pipe size and positioning was crucial to the free steaming of an engine. Too hard a draught would result in excessive fuel usage, with unburned particles being ejected from the chimney; too gentle and the fire would not burn hot enough to maintain the required supply of steam. The blast-pipe also had to be large enough to exhaust steam freely, otherwise back pressure would restrict the free-running of the engine. More modern locomotives often have two blast pipes and chimneys to give a freer exhaust and better steaming.

Block Bell

Bells which are used for communication between signal-boxes.

Block Instrument

An electrically operated indicating device used in a signal-box. The instrument is connected with a similar device in an adjacent signal-box, and can be set to indicate whether or not the block section between the two signal-boxes is occupied by a train.

Block Post

A location under the control of a signalman, which may consist of a station, sidings, or simply a length of track where trains can be held for train-operation purposes.

Block Section

The length of track between the most advanced starting signal controlled by one signal-box and the outermost home signal controlled by the next signal-box. Entrance to this section of track is controlled by a signal which for safety reasons is normally at danger and hence the section remains "blocked" by this signal until a "line-clear" telegraphic-message is obtained from the block post in advance. With automatic signals, a block section is controlled automatically by train detection or remotely by centralised train control.

Block Train

A train, either passenger or goods, which is designed to run into and out of various locations without rearrangement of the rolling stock.

Blocking Back

A signaling term for a shunting movement which requires vehicles to be taken along a running line in the wrong direction to a position in rear of the clearing point.

Blowdown Cock

Used on steam locomotives to blow through the water gauge to ensure that the passages are clear (if they are blocked, a false reading could be given, possibly resulting in a boiler explosion or other damage).


Used to blow steam out of the chimney thus creating a through draft to draw the fire through the boiler tubes. Mainly used when the regulator is shut and when there is no exhaust steam to create the draft. Without a draft, blow-backs into the cab are likely whenever the firebox doors are opened.


Originally the term given to each individual compartment of a carriage, but later referring to the whole of the part above the sole-bar. The term was used since the first railway carriages were assembled by bolting together what were usually manufactured as individual stage-coach bodies onto a single under-frame.


A wheeled undercarriage pivoted below the end of a rail vehicle.


Literally that part of a steam locomotive in which the water is boiled, comprising the boiler barrel and Firebox.

Boiler Barrel

The part of the boiler between the firebox and the smoke-box.


The form of wooden window frame moulding frequently employed on a railway carriage, where the frame overlaps the side of the vehicle as well as the (recessed) glass.


A transverse beam, which transmits the weight of the vehicle body, via springs and swing-links, to the frames of the bogie.

Bolster Wagon

A flat open wagon having horizontal bolsters (relatively narrow boards projecting above the surface of the wagon and running across the width of the vehicle). Thus the load was carried resting only on the bolsters, lifted clear of the base of the wagon. These allowed a rail, for example, to be carried on two "single bolsters" (four wheel wagons with a single bolster each). The bolster allowed freedom for the load to pivot as it went around corners.


A long bolster wagon (60 foot) used by the London North Eastern Railway to transport rail and pre-assembled panels of track, 60ft in length. They were originally called Septuple's. British Rail later built further versions of these wagons, some with flat beds (Borail EC) and others with bolsters (Borail EB). All were 62ft long and had distinctive fish belly solebar construction. A later series were built in 1981/82 with new bogies and air brakes, these are called Mullet's.

Bottom End

In the construction of a railway coach, the timber running across the end of the vehicle under the floor, joining the ends of the two "Bottom Sides".

Bottom Rail

In the construction of a railway coach, the timbers which run horizontally between the vertical pillars behind the lower body panels, about a foot above the bottom side.

Bottom Side Member

In the construction of a railway coach, the timber running along the length of the sides of the vehicle under the floor, immediately above the solebar, and with door-pillars and other vertical members jointed into it.

Bourden Gauge

The type of pressure gauge used on most locomotives. The gauge consists of a coiled hollow tube; which, when pressure is applied to the inside of the tube, tends to straighten out; and, in so doing, operates a system of levers connected to the gauge's indicating needle.

Bow End

A term describing the shape of the ends of those railway carriages which are curved or "bow-shaped" in plan.

Brake Block

Cast iron blocks pressed against the wheel tread during braking. Very early designs used wooden blocks.

Brake Coach

Carriage having a hand-brake for the use of the guard. Usually also has a luggage area, often with a pair (or two pairs) of double doors. (N.B. original spelling was "Break", although universally changed to Brake during the 19th century.)

Brake Gear

Collectively, the mechanical components of the braking mechanism as seen underneath a railway vehicle.

Brake Hanger

A component of a railway vehicle which consists of a vertical bar which is pivoted at its top end; has a brake block attached near its middle; and has a brake operating mechanism connected to its bottom end.

Brake Hoses

Flexible rubber pipes seen at the ends of railway vehicles. When joined to similar pipes on adjacent vehicles, the train's braking system is connected throughout the train.

Brake Rigging

The mechanical linkages between various components of the brake system.

Brake Rodding

The mechanical linkages between various components of the brake system.

Brake Van

A special vehicle which is fitted with brakes which can be applied from inside the vehicle. Can be a smallish van attached to the back end of goods trains to accommodate the guard, or a special coach added to passenger trains (full brake). Is also used to refer to the guards compartment of a brake coach.

Branch Line

A railway route which branches off a main through route at one end, and usually finishes at a terminus at the other end.


A general term describing locomotive bearings which are made from brass or bronze.

Breakdown Train

A train consisting of a crane and other vehicles, which are permanently on hand for use in emergencies.

Brick Arch

An arch of bricks was fitted to most locomotives' fireboxes. Spanning the front half of the firebox just below the tubes it served a number of functions. Its primary function is to throw the flames and products of combustion from the fire to the back of the firebox and to form an area above where combustion take place. In large modern boilers this is often extended by a combustion chamber within the end of the boiler barrel, the tube-plate being set back into the boiler barrel for the purpose. By increasing the distance of the tubes from the fire itself, it protects the ends of the tubes from direct flames. When the fire-door was opened, the brick arch radiated heat and helped to keep an even temperature at the tube plate and reduce unequal expansion and contraction of the tubes which tends to make them leak

Bridge Rail

Refers to the cross sectional shape of the rail. This type of rail was used for Brunel's Broad Gauge track on the Great Western Railway.

British Rail

Formed in 1948 by nationalising the existing `Big Four' railway companies, Great Western Railway, London Midland and Scottish, London North Eastern Railway and Southern Railway. British Rail operated the entire national railway network until privatisation in 1995, since when various sections have been sold to other operators.

Broad Gauge

A railway line laid to a gauge significantly wider than standard gauge. Most significant use was the Great Western Railway which was originally laid to 7 foot gauge and was commonly referred to as Broad Gauge. In 1854 the GWR was re-gauged to the new standard gauge of 4 foot 8 inches. Ireland also uses 5 foot 3 inch gauge.

Buck-Eye Coupling


Sprung protruding devices at the extreme ends of railway vehicles, used to absorb the forces of acceleration and braking between vehicles.

Buffer Beam

Component of a locomotive, carriage or wagon under-frame which goes across the extreme end of the vehicle, and onto which the buffers and draw-gear are mounted. (N.B. the buffer shanks and draw-gear may pass through the head-stock and act, via springs, on other parts of the under-frame structure). Also called the Head-Stock.

Buffer Binding

The state of affairs where a curve is so sharp that one buffer of each of two adjacent vehicles compress together so much that they derail one of the vehicles (see also buffer locking).

Buffer Lamp

A red lamp set on buffer stops.

Buffer Locking

The state of affairs where a curve is so sharp or the change of radius is so sudden that one buffer of each of two adjacent vehicles are displaced so much that they no longer touch; and, when the vehicles straighten up, the buffer heads of one vehicle slip behind those of the next vehicle.

See also: Buffer Binding.

Buffer Stops

Railway-vehicle stopping-devices located at the end of a siding or terminating platform.

Buffet Car

A coach in which light refreshments are sold, but not sit-down meals (see also dining car and kitchen car).

Buffet Coach

A coach in which light refreshments are sold, but not sit-down meals (see also dining car and kitchen car).


A transverse strengthening partition dividing compartments of a railway vehicle.


See: Shinkansen.

Bullhead Rail

Refers to the cross sectional shape of the rail.

Bullied Valve Gear

A steam-locomotive valve gear, which in principle is similar to Walschaerts valve gear, but where the combination lever and eccentric rod are driven by chains from the driving axle. Named after its designer O.V.S.Bullied.


The coal space, usually at the front of the tender; or just behind the cab of tank engines.