AskDefine | Define railcar

Dictionary Definition

railcar n : a wheeled vehicle adapted to the rails of railroad; "three cars had jumped the rails" [syn: car, railway car, railroad car]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A self-propelled railroad vehicle for passengers.
  2. Any railway carriage or wagon, a railroad car.

See also

Extensive Definition

A railcar (not to be confused with a railway car) is a self-propelled railway vehicle designed to transport passengers. The term "railcar" is usually used in reference to a train consisting of a single coach (carriage, car), with a driver's cab at one or both ends. Some railways, e.g. the Great Western Railway, used the term Railmotor; others use railbus. If it is able to pull a full train, it is rather called a motor coach or a motor car.
In its simplest form it may be little more than a motorized version of a railway handcar.
The term is sometimes also used as an alternative name for the small types of multiple unit which consist of more than one coach. The term is used more generally now in Ireland to refer to any diesel multiple unit (DMU).


Railcars are economic to run for light passenger loads because of their small size, and in many countries are often used to run passenger services on minor railway lines, such as rural railway lines where passenger traffic is sparse, and where the use of a longer train would not be cost effective. A famous example of this in the United States was the Galloping Goose railcars of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, whose introduction allowed the discontinuance of steam passenger service on the line and prolonged its life considerably.
Railcars have also been employed on premier services. In New Zealand, although railcars were primarily used on regional services, the Blue Streak and Silver Fern railcars were used on the North Island Main Trunk between Wellington and Auckland and offered a higher standard of service than previous carriage trains.

Propulsion systems


See also: Railmotor, for the steam-powered vehicles used by British railways
William Bridges Adams built steam railcars at Bow, London in the 1840s. Many British railway companies tried steam railcars but they were not very successful and were often replaced by push-pull trains. Sentinel Wagon Works was one British builder of steam railcars.
In Belgium, M. A. Cabany of Mechelen designed steam railcars. His first was built in 1877 and exhibited at a Paris exhibition. This may have been the Exposition Universelle (1878). The steam boiler was supplied by the Boussu Works and there was accommodation for First, Second and Third-class passengers and their luggage. There was also a locker for dogs underneath! Fifteen were built and they worked mainly in the Hainaut and Antwerp districts.


While early railcars were propelled by steam, gasoline, and diesel, modern railcars are usually propelled by a diesel engine mounted underneath the floor of the coach. Diesel railcars may have mechanical (fluid coupling and gearbox), hydraulic (torque converter) or diesel-electric hybrid transmission.


All-electric railcars don't produce greenhouse gases at the point of use, but generating the electricity used to power them produces greenhouse gases at the power station.


Experiments with battery-electric railcars were conducted from around 1890 in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. In the USA, railcars of the Edison-Beach type, with nickel-iron batteries were used from 1911. An Edison Railcar was used in New Zealand from 1926 to 1934, see NZR RM class (Edison battery-electric). The Drumm nickel-zinc battery was used on four 2-car sets between 1932 and 1946 on the Harcourt Street Line in Ireland and British Railways used lead-acid batteries in a railcar in 1958. Between 1955 and 1995 DB railways successfully operated 232 DB Class ETA 150 railcars utilising lead-acid batteries.
As with any other battery electric vehicle, the drawback is the limited range (this can be solved using overhead wires to recharge for use in places where there are not wires), weight, and/or expense of the battery.

Overhead wires

Multiple units

Sometimes when there are enough passengers to justify it, railcars can be joined together. Usually these form multiple units with one driver controlling all engines, however it has previously been the practice for a railcar to tow a carriage or second railcar which does not provide any power. It is possible for several railcars to run together, each with its own driver (a practice of the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee). The reason for this was to keep costs down, since small railcars were not always fitted with multiple unit control.
There are also articulated railcars, with bogies under the point between the carriages rather than two pivoting bogies under each carriage (see Jacobs bogie).


A variation of railcar is a railbus, a very lightweight type of railcar designed for use specifically on little-used railway lines, and as the name suggests share many aspects of their construction with a bus, usually having a bus, or modified bus body, and having four wheels on a fixed base, instead of on bogies.
Railbuses were used commonly in countries such as Germany, and a type of railbus known as a Pacer is still commonly used in the United Kingdom. New Zealand Railcars class RM, the NZR RM class (Leyland diesel) and the unique Wairarapa railcars which were specially designed to operate over the Rimutaka Incline between Wellington and the Wairarapa region more closely resembled railbuses. In Australia, where they were often called Rail Motors, railcars were often used for passenger services on lightly-used lines. In France they are called an Autorail. Once very common their use died out as local lines were closed. However, a new model has been introduced for lesser used lines.
After the cessation of mainline passenger service on BC Rail in Canada, BC Rail started operating a pair of railbuses to some settlements not easily accessible otherwise.
In Russia, Metrowagonmash () of Mytishchi manufactures railbus RA-1 with a Mercedes engine. As of the summer 2006, the Gorky Railroad planned to start using them on the commuter line between Nizhny Novgorod and Bor.
Rail bus runs in Kalka-Shimla Railway route in India. Another railbus was in service in Shimoga-Talguppa route, but the same was closed in June, 07 for gauge conversion from narrow gauge to broad gauge under Project Unigauge.

Parry People Movers

A UK company currently promoting the rail bus concept is Parry People Movers. Locomotive power is from the energy stored in a flywheel. Prototypes have an on board diesel motor to bring the flywheel up to speed. In practice, this could be an electric motor that need only connect to the power supply at stopping points. Alternatively, a motor at the stopping points could wind up the flywheel of each car as it stops.

Road-rail vehicles

The term railbus also refers to a dual-mode bus that can run on streets with rubber tires and on tracks with retractable HyRail train wheels.
Railbus is also a term that refers to a bus that replaces or supplements rail services on low-patronage railway lines or a bus that terminates at a railway station (also called a train bus). This process is sometimes called bustitution.


railcar in German: Schienenbus
railcar in French: Autorail
railcar in Croatian: Motorni vlak
railcar in Italian: Railbus
railcar in Dutch: Motorrijtuig
railcar in Polish: Szynobus
railcar in Russian: Автомотриса
railcar in Swedish: Rälsbuss
railcar in Ukrainian: Автомотриса
railcar in Japanese: 気動車
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