European rail concepts

European Rail Concepts


By Ernest H. Robl



Railroads in both the U.S. and Europe fulfill the same basic functions, moving people and freight. How they do it, and, most of all, how they manage operations has evolved differently on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Like many others, I sometimes cringe at the English translations in some of the model manufacturers’ catalogs.  At the same time, I also appreciate how complex the terminology of railroading can be and how difficult it can be to translate the terms used.

The International Railway Union (UIC, with the initials based on its French name), is the major standard setting international trade group for railways around the world, somewhat similar in function to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).  The UIC publishes a six-language dictionary with nothing but railroad and related transportation terminology.  I have an older edition that someone gave me. It runs 1,250 pages of fine print.

Yes, I do consult it from time to time, but I really used it quite a bit a few years ago when I was doing contracted technical writing for a Europe based manufacturer of railroad equipment that was trying to expand its American market.  Some of the background documents were in German and French. Even after reading about railroading in German for many decades, I still had to look up a few obscure terms.

We won’t go into the more obscure terminology, but today, we’ll look at a few German railroading terms that are often misunderstood, mostly because they have no exact English (American) equivalent.



In Austria, Germany and several other European countries, these are the men or women who wear the red caps. No, they are not luggage handlers, although I have heard of misinformed American tourists asking them to assist with their luggage.

A Fahrdienstleiter is not a station manager. However, at very small stations, the job of station manager and Fahrdienstleiter may be combined.

Essentially, they are railroad traffic managers.  They fulfill some of the same functions as American dispatchers, but usually in a more decentralized way.

The Fahrdienstleiter determines what trains use which tracks within a station, and he authorizes trains to depart the station.  In the old days, larger stations had at least two Stellwerke. These are control towers from which switches are thrown and signals are set. The reason for multiple Stellwerke was that, back then, switches and signals were operated by mechanical linkages, imposing limits to the distances over which these linkages would work.

For the larger stations, the Fahrdienstleiter on duty was the one who instructed the staff in the Stellwerke which switches to throw and which signals to set.  In a small station, the Fahrdienstleiter might set the switches and signals himself.

Nowadays, the Fahrdienstleiter for a large station is most likely to sit in front of a computer console, where, with the click of a mouse, he can line up routes and automatically set switches and signals.

The Fahrdienstleiter conducts his activities in an office called “Fahrdienstleitung”. In many stations you will see offices with that designation on the door or window, accessible from both, within the station and the station platform.

On your model railroad layout, you are the Fahrdiestleiter. On the door to the room that houses many of my train items, I have a sign reading “Fahrdienstleitung.”




This term literally translates to “Station Railcar.”  These are freight cars, often older small box cars, which are no longer part of the general freight car pool, but rather assigned to a particular station. They are still serviceable, but, due to their age and construction, they are usually restricted to lower speeds.

They are used primarily as semi-mobile storage facilities. They may hold such materials as bags of sand and de-icing salt for winter storms.

Usually, there is a track siding assigned to permanently park these cars, but, if the supplies they contain are needed somewhere else within the station, a local switch locomotive will end up moving one or more of these cars to that location.

On a model railroad, this concept is a good excuse for having a few older boxcars of late Era III or early Era IV on a layout theme that is otherwise based on Era V-VI equipment.  In the past, I’ve seen a few limited run models specifically produced as and lettered as Bahnhofswagen.

Then, there is a special category, closely related to a Bahnhofswagen, namely the fire department tank cars. No, these are not owned by a fire department. They do belong to the railroad company.

In Austria, I have seen both, black and white painted fire department cars. They are easily recognized by the fact that on both sides of the car, there is a large red disc with the white letter “F” in the center of it.

This designation indicates that the tank car has been equipped with specific fire department hose fittings. It is kept filled with water, at all times.

These cars serve several functions. For any fire, within a rail yard, the local fire department can draw water from these cars. This is extremely helpful if there is an interruption in the local water supply, for any reason.

Many of these cars are kept coupled up to a flatcar, which is spotted at an end-loading ramp.  This provides a quick means for fighting lineside fires in difficult terrain. The local fire truck drives onto the flatcar and is quickly chained down.  A hose is hooked up between the tank car and the fire engine, which can then use its internal pumps to spray the water.  Any available locomotive can take this two-car combo to any location where it is needed.

The only model of a fire fighting water tank car I have seen, is the HO model offered by the Austrian manufacturer Kleinbahn. Even a small pumper, such as one of the Unimog based fire trucks, such as models made by Kibri, would work with one of these cars.




This translates to “Workshop Car”.  While in the U.S., major rail construction or rehabilitation projects have seen the use of so-called camp cars to house personnel close to the work site. These workshop cars are a primarily European development.

In the U.S., camp cars consisted mostly of various decommissioned passenger cars. As of lately, they have consisted mostly of modular housing, permanently mounted on flatcars. Camp cars are quickly falling out of favor in the U.S., as railroad companies find it more efficient to just book blocks of rooms in motels for the project workers. Obviously, motel rooms offer more comfort and better amenities.

Workshop cars are a more European development, largely related to the construction and maintenance of catenary.

Why?  Typically, every location, where catenaries are present or are about to be installed, is somewhat different. In some cases, catenary has to be anchored to existing structures.  In other cases, masts have to be adapted to special terrain situations.

In other words, lots of hardware components have to be custom made on site. Therefore, railroads have built well-equipped mobile workshops for this type of work.  These workshops have drill presses, saws for cutting metal, and lots of workbench space for assembling components.

While these cars often remain at one location for long periods, they can be moved to new locations as needed.

These cars are often based on former passenger or baggage cars which have been extensively modified.   They may also include former railway post office cars.  I just bought a Roco railway post office car which I plan to convert to a Werkstattwagen.


Fahrbare Vorheizeinrichtung (or Vorheizanlage)


This term translates to movable (or self-propelled) pre-heating unit. If these units look suspiciously like older electric locomotives, because that’s what they are – decommissioned older electric locomotives.

In order to understand the need for these units, let us take a look some background.

It takes a while for on-board heat to get passenger cars to a comfortable level during very cold weather. It doesn’t always make sense to have these cars coupled to an expensive locomotive, all the time.

Toward that end, most larger stations and the yards where passenger trains are maintained and cleaned, have access to “ground power.” Cars waiting for their assignment can be plugged into cables provided for that purpose.

But there are times when passenger cars may need to be parked at a location that does not provide ground power.  In this case, a movable pre-heater is moved to that location to feed power to the cars.

In cases where the former electric locomotive had multiple traction motors to power its axles, only one or two of the traction motors may still be intact. The reasons for these locomotives having been retired may have included the lack of spare parts. Even a single traction motor is sufficient to move this unit by itself.

The real value of this unit, at this point, is its transformer, used for converting catenary voltage to the hotel power voltage used by passenger cars.  So, even if its propulsion equipment totally fails, it can still be moved by a local switcher.

One other use for these units is to supply power to workshop cars at locations where it is not convenient for them to tie into the local power grid, but where the tracks do have catenary.



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