The destination for history

The railway language


Over two centuries of history Britain’s railways not only evolved physically but also produced a rich and colourful informal language, widely used in everyday train running and still lingering on, despite the increasing sophistication of more recent years.

The very track itself is still the ‘permanent way’; the term first used to distinguish it from the contractors’ temporary lines used in the construction process. The early policemen who first controlled train movement bequeathed to later generations of signalmen the appellation ‘bobbies’. ‘The bobby has dyked the biscuits to let the Parly pass,’ just meant that the signalman had cleared the train carrying Huntley & Palmers biscuits from the main line to let a stopping passenger train have priority. The term ‘Parly’ derived from Parliamentary legislation requiring railways to run a least one stopping service on each line daily.

Unsurprisingly the richest field for informal names was that of the locomotives, names mostly reflecting physical features so that one class of engines on the North Eastern Railway got called ‘Skittle Alleys’ because of their unusual length and some Great Eastern Railway tank engines got called ‘Gobblers’ because of their high coal consumption. ‘Cockneys’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘Buckjumpers’, ‘Baby Bongos’ and ‘Combine Harvesters’ are just a few of the many other examples. Electric trains, at first at any rate, were all ‘Sparkers’ and diesels all ‘Growlers’.

While railway publicity men delighted in giving impressive names to prestige express services, ‘The Cornish Riviera’ for example, the staff and users had their own ideas, resulting in several coastal branches being ‘Crab and Winkle’ lines, while a rather circular route in Norfolk was ‘Round the World’. The branch line train to Marlow was ‘The Marlow Donkey’. 

A parallel group of informal names emanated from company initials so that the Somerset & Dorset system was known to its detractors as ‘The Slow & Dirty’, but to others as ‘Swift & Delightful’ while LNER was abused to become the ‘Late & Never Early Railway’. The Great Western Railway was ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’ to its staff but ‘The Great Way Round’ to others because its first link with the far West was via Bristol rather than direct. The Great Eastern was always ‘The Swedie’ because of its agricultural homeland but why the Cheltenham-Andover line was labelled ‘The Diddly Dyke’ is less clear.

Day-to-day activities made another large contribution to the informal language. For example, enginemen travelling as passengers, always right at the front, were ‘on the cushions’. A derailment was always ‘off the road’ and a van attached to the rear of a train was always ‘a swinger’. A locomotive not in steam was ‘dead’ while two locomotives on the front meant a train was ‘double headed’. If their load meant labouring hard the engines were described as ‘on the collar’. Like ‘bait’ for a meal on duty, this term was a throwback to the stage coach era. 

Many other informal terms reflected both the wide range of different railway activities and the wry humour of its staff and users, far too many to detail here but making a real contribution not only to the great fellowship within the industry but also to the practicalities of its day to day operation.

By Geoff Body

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