What is the difference between a train and a locomotive?

Are you a beginner model railroader? Or are you buying something for a model railroader for the first time?

What is the difference between a train and a locomotive?

While getting started with model railroading or buying someone a gift is straightforward, there’s lots to consider to ensure you buy the right thing. So while there’s plenty to learn about different model railroad scales, sometimes your questions might be even more fundamental than that.

In this guide, we’ll answer a simple question: what’s the difference between a train and a locomotive?

So, what’s the difference between a train and a locomotive?

It isn’t just a matter of choice of words, although you’ll often find the two used interchangeably.

Put simply; a locomotive is what provides power to allow the train to move. If a locomotive is pulling cargo hoppers or passenger cars, it then becomes a train.

So, the next time you’re out trainspotting, or you hear someone say “look at that train,” when it’s just a locomotive not pulling (or pushing) anything, you’ll easily be able to explain the difference!

What are the different types of locomotives and how do they work?

There are various ways to classify locomotives. For example, it is common to classify them by how they work or their location within a train. Traditionally, locomotives would always be at the front of a train and pull carriages.

However, in recent years, especially as the technology used in their operations has become more advanced, “push-pull” locomotives have become increasingly common. This is why you often see trains with locomotives at both the front and the back. And while you’d typically assume the locomotive at the front is doing all the work, it’s often getting assistance from the one at the back.

In fact, many trains now have locomotives in the middle, too, creating what’s called a distributed power unit.

How do locomotives get their power?

When people talk about different types of locomotives, this is often the question they’re really asking. Organizing locomotives per their power source is probably the most common means of classifying them.

Steam locomotives

Steam locomotives are predominantly seen today on tourist and heritage railways. Still, from the early 19th century to the start of World War II, they were typically the only locomotives seen on railroads in the United States and worldwide. While these locomotives were steam powered, the steam came from the burning of a fuel source. This was typically coal, but some trains also used wood and oil.

Gas turbine locomotives

Gas turbine locomotives are pretty rare, and those in operation generally run with a turbine that creates electricity that generates the power to pull the train. While gas turbine locomotives have been around since the 1860s, they’ve often proven inefficient and expensive to run. Given the history of many railroads and their financial struggles, it’s unsurprising that such characteristics meant these trains didn’t become widely used. There’s nothing to stop you from adding one to your collection, though!

Diesel locomotives

Diesel locomotives are what came along to replace steam locomotives, with most railroads making the switch from the late 1930s onwards. Today, diesel locomotives are the dominant model on our railroads, but interestingly, there is usually no connection between the diesel engine and the wheels. This is because the diesel engine drives a generator or alternator, producing electricity that powers the locomotive’s traction motors and makes it move. Locomotives that operate this way are sometimes known as diesel-electric locomotives.

Electric locomotives

Electric locomotives came into operation at a similar time to diesel ones, and many railroads are gradually moving to use such models. As well as being cleaner from an environmental perspective, they’re also cheaper to build, run, and maintain, which should help railroads keep their costs down. Electric locomotives can work in many ways; most common are overhead lines, some railroads have a third rail that provides the power, and some trains run with an onboard battery.

How to choose locomotives for your model train collection

So, now you know what a locomotive is, it’s time to buy one!

Whether you’re buying for yourself or another model railroader, there are a few ways to approach your purchase.

If you – or the person you’re buying for – are starting entirely from scratch, consider buying a train set. This is a great way to get started with a collection, and you get a locomotive and generally at least two carriages, too, so you know you’ll have a train!

Another option is to search for locomotives from a specific railroad. From our main locomotives page, use the navigation on the left to choose the railroad you want to model and check out the available locomotives.

Finally, you might decide to model a specific era. If you go down this route, shopping the early, pioneer, and golden eras will bring you to steam locomotives. Transition era locomotives will mostly be diesel models, while modern era locomotives will be diesel and electric, or even gas turbine.

And if you still don’t know where to begin, choose your favorite looking locomotive and go from there!

Don’t forget to show off your new locomotive!

We love seeing railroaders’ creations, so remember to tag us on Instagram when you upload pictures of your new locomotive powering around your layout. And if you’ve added carriages to make a train, tell us what they’re doing, too!

Happy railroading!