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Operational – Types of Trains

From a model railroad operation perspective, there are many different types of trains that have different purposes and operate or move in different ways.


Before we review some of the common types of trains (by function), keep in mind that for most modellers, the movement of trains to and from industries, customers and staging yards is the main goal of model railroad operation.

While you may be just running trains for the fun of it, hopefully at some stage of your own model railroad journey, you will probably want to move your trains in a way that is somewhat prototypical (or that at least makes sense)- this opens up a whole new dimension to the hobby.

You can read this Article to get a feel of several ways that model railroaders have devised over the years to accomplish the tasks of moving cars.

..on to the review of common types of trains:

Passenger trains

As the name implies, passenger trains are used to move people – your passengers.

Passenger trains are commonly used for “local passenger lines” (similar to local freights, that stopped in every town), city-city lines or cross-border trains.

Short lines were famous for operating mixed passenger and freight trains.

It has been remarked that many of the original passenger-only trains did not succeed in remaining profitable (many trains had fancy names as marketing gimmicks, but still ended up losing money for the railroad) , but were used as marketing tools for the more profitable freight business.

Local freights

Also called way freights, peddlers and other names.

Typically these trains do most of the pick-ups and drop-offs (set-outs). It usually stops at every town and leaves some cars and picks up others. It is usually subservient to passenger trains, fast freight and through freight trains, which basically means if one of them is coming, the local has to get out of the way.

Through freights

These trains usually travel from one yard to another, dropping off some cars (“propers”) at one yard and carrying “throughs” on to the next yard or destination.

“Hot cars” may be positioned on the head end for quick removal, and usually contain perishables or other important items like auto parts.

Fast freights

These trains usually contain only a few blocks of cars, pre-arranged at the origination point, that are moved to their destinations as soon as possible without being tied up in yard switching any more than absolutely necessary. That way, they can adhere to a much faster timetable than the other freights.

Typically used to move fruit/veggies and other perishables.

If a fast freight arrives in your yard, you want to try to do everything possible to get them on their way as quickly as you can.


This is a freight train that goes out from a yard to a certain destination, then directly returns back to its origin.

Symbol freights

These are usually fast freights that have a fancy name used by the railroad company in marketing.

It sounds better to railroad customers if their goods are being shipped on a train called the Blue Streak, rather than just any old freight.

Mine Runs

Also called shifters

Local freights that serve mine branches, exchanging empties for loaded cars, also carrying LCL (less-than-carload-lot) mine supplies and other freight occasionally.


These are trains, either freight or passenger, that are not listed on the timetable, but are required for extra work. In these situations, the lead locomotive is required to carry a white flag or have classification lights, to let other trains know its status. A scheduled train may also have additional sections running behind it carrying green flags (all but the last section).

You may have 2 or more different types of the above trains involved in model railroad operation on your layout. How these are all orchestrated to move from one place to another to get their work done is the job of the chief dispatcher – a position that may require a little experience by working on smaller railroads, or by working as an apprentice on larger railroads, before moving into the position on a regular basis.


In the April, 2009 issue of Model Railroader, on p.114, Andy Sperandeo wrote a very informative one-page article on “Helper Operations”, in which he talked about the various prototypical ways in which helper engines can be used to get your trains up steep grades.

Double-heading is the simplest of these and of course involves adding an extra 1 or more engines at the front of the train to help pull the train up the grade. This is fine if the train is in a straight line, but if the grade involves going around a curve, you end up with a problem called “stringlining”, where the cars in the middle are pulled back by the weight of the train and pulled forward by the engines and end up being forced off the track.

In that case, you may need to use pusher engines at the rear or in the middle of the train to prevent this.

Pushing against a caboose may be okay if it has a steel frame, but many do not prototypically and you don’t want to put your crew in danger, so you may have to do some switching to get the caboose off then back on again after the climb is finished. You can also use a pusher with the coupler locked open, so that when the grade climb is finished the train simply pulls forward and the pusher falls back without requiring an uncoupling procedure. The pusher then goes back down the grade to return to its base.

For the purpose of this Article, by “Type” we are not referring to the actual train model, but rather the purpose for which it was built or is commonly used.

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