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A primer for members of the news media on correct terms for passenger rail

June 14th, 2009

The news media is writing more and more every day about passenger trains in all forms, and usually quickly displays its collective ignorance on proper terminology for all things regarding passenger trains.

Here is what the news media doesn’t know:

  • There are four or more types of passenger trains, all with different uses and functions, even though to the untrained eye they look similar. Subways are trains which travel mostly underground, make frequent stops, and stay within metropolitan areas. Subways are populated by commuters, and are a part of transit systems. Light rail is another form of transit for commuters, with the same parameters as subways, but above ground. Commuter rail is usually above ground, and goes from suburbs to inner cities. Commuter trains often share train stations and terminals with Amtrak trains. The primary passengers on commuter trains are those going to and from work, or going from a bedroom community in a suburb to an inner city location. Rarely do commuter trains travel more than 75 or 100 miles in the most extreme cases. Short distance/regional passenger trains have longer routes than commuter trains, and are operated by Amtrak, which is the trade name for the NRPC, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a semi-public company which is controlled by the United States Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration. Short distance/regional/corridor passenger trains travel an average route of 300 miles or less, and usually operate only during daytime or evening hours before midnight. Long distance/intercity passenger trains travel long distances between cities and states, and are also operated by Amtrak. These trains usually have full service dining cars (restaurants), lounge cars (bars), coaches (cars with seating only), and sleeping cars which have private rooms with seats, beds, and private lavatories. Some short distance and most long distance trains also have baggage cars which carry excess baggage/luggage, and, in some cases, express shipments of small packages.
  • Most commuter trains, short distance trains, and long distance trains all have locomotives and passenger cars. Some commuter trains have self-propelled passenger cars, with no separate locomotives. A locomotive, or engine, as it is commonly referred to, is not considered one of the cars of the train, because it is the motive power, not a trailing car being pulled by a locomotive.
  • The people who operate trains all have separate and distinctive titles. The person who runs the locomotive, or “drives” the train is the locomotive engineer. An engineer is not called a “driver,” the same way you would not call an airline pilot a “driver” of an airplane. On trips of greater than four hours, a second person is in the cab of the locomotive along with the engineer, and this person is called the assistant engineer. The person who is in charge of the operation of the train, when it does or doesn’t move, and carries all legal authority, is the train’s conductor. There are also assistance conductors. The engineer takes instructions from the conductor. On freight trains, the conductor rides in the cab of the locomotive, but on a passenger train, the conductor rides in the passenger area of the train and communicates with the engineer via hand-held radio. There are also a number of onboard service employees working in various places on each train. Coaches have car or coach attendants, which assist passenger boarding or leaving the train (entraining or detraining), and in some instances provide at-seat service. Sleeping cars have sleeping car attendants which assist passengers in every way, from making beds to providing room service to handling luggage. In dining cars, there is a chef, and a dining car steward who is in charge of the diner. There are also dining car service attendants, which is another names for wait staff. Lounge cars have lounge service attendants (bartenders).
  • Local passenger train stations are manned by station agents (the person in charge), ticket agents, and baggage handlers. In some Amtrak stations, there is no full-time staff, and part-time station caretakers open and lock the station facility before trains arrive and after trains depart. These people do not handle money or sell tickets.
  • When a train hits a car or truck where a road or highway crosses a railroad track (the train, by federal law, ALWAYS exclusively has the right of way), that is called a grade crossing accident. These accidents, which can be fatal for automobile and truck drivers and passengers, usually do little damage to the locomotive or rest of the train, unless the train hits a large truck such as a dump truck or 18-wheel truck. In those instances, the impact of the train hitting such a solid object can cause the train to jump the track, which is called a derailment.
  • The speed of each train is dictated by a combinati0n of factors as set by federal law. State and local jurisdictions have no control over the speed of any train at any time. A combination of the condition of the track a train is running on, to what standard that track is maintained, and surrounding environmental conditions dictate how fast a passenger or freight train may travel. As an example, a passenger train running through rural areas or closely protected track may operate as fast as 79 miles per hour (90 miles per hour with certain track safety systems installed), but that same train operating through an urban area or down the middle of a street in a small town may be restricted to 20 miles per hour or less.
  • Currently in the United States, there are conventional speed passenger trains (up to 79 mph), and there are higher speed trains which operate on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston. On a small section of track between New York and Boston, Amtrak’s Acela trains operate at speeds up to 150 mph, but just briefly. Most of the time trains on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor operate at speeds of less than 100 mph.
  • The new high speed trains which the Obama Administration is hoping to put into place in coming years will operate at average speeds up to 150 mph, but many of these trains will first operate at speeds of 90 mph to 110 mph. The difference between the proposed high speed trains and advanced conventional passenger trains is current conventi0nal trains share tracks with slower and longer freight trains (which in the United States are not called “cargo” or “goods” trains, but freight trains). The proposed high speed trains will have dedicated tracks, and, in some instances dedicated rights of way (the entire track structure) for exclusive use. This is a safety issue, because all trains, whether short commuter trains or longer intercity trains, cannot “stop on a dime,” but take yards and yards of tracks to stop. Longer, heavier freight trains often take even longer to stop, sometimes measured in miles.
  • The international standard for high speed passenger trains is 150 mph or faster, sometimes up to 250 mph. There are no trains in the United States or Canada which operate at these speeds.
  • If you have any questions about proper phraseology when writing about passenger trains, please do not hesitate to contact URPA at the contact information on this web site. We will be delighted to assist you to write clearer, and more factual stories about passenger trains.
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