This article is about a self-propelled railway vehicle designed to transport passengers. For unpowered freight cars or passenger cars, see railroad car.
See also: Multiple unit
The Bombardier Talent articulated regional railcar.

A railcar, in British English and Australian English, 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. If it is able to pull a full train, it is rather called a motor coach or a motor car.[1]

In its simplest form it may be little more than a motorised version of a railway handcar, sometimes called a speeder.

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), or in some cases electric multiple unit (EMU).

In North America the term “railcar” has a much broader meaning, and the term is used to refer to any kind of railway carriage, including unpowered goods wagons.[2][3][4]

The Regio-Shuttle RS1 low-floor vehicle is a modern version of a single unit railcar. Several of these can run together; articulated versions are also available.
A 3-car train of 2000 class railcars in suburban Adelaide, Australia


A 1,520 mm (4 ft 11 2732 in) Russian gauge Latvian RVR-made modern railbus AR2-002 in Vilnius, Lithuania

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.

In Australia, the Savannahlander operates a tourist service from the coastal town of Cairns to Forsayth, and Traveltrain operates the Gulflander between Normanton and Croydon in the Gulf Country of northern Queensland.

Historic railcars

Multiple unit and articulated railcar

When there are enough passengers to justify it, single unit powered railcars can be joined in a multiple-unit form, 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).

New-generation DMU and EMU railcars

A diesel Coradia LINT of the Taunusbahn has arrived in Brandoberndorf station and now waits for departure to Bad Homburg

A new breed of modern lightweight aerodynamically designed diesel or electric regional railcars that can operate as single vehicles or in trains (or, in “multiple units”) are becoming very popular in Europe and Japan, replacing the first-generation railbuses and second-generation DMU railcars, usually running on lesser-used main-line railways and in some cases in exclusive lanes in urban areas. Like many high-end DMUs, these vehicles are made of 2 or 3 connected units that are semi-permanently coupled as “married pairs or triplets” and operate as a single unit. Passengers may walk between the married pair units without having to open or pass through doors. Unit capacities range from 70 to over 300 seated passengers. The equipment is highly customisable with a wide variety of engine, transmission, coupler systems, and car lengths.

Institutional/regulatory Issues

Contrary to other parts of the world, in the United States these vehicles generally do not comply with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations and, therefore, can only operate on dedicated rights-of-way with complete separation between railroad activities. This restriction makes it virtually impossible to operate them on existing rail corridors with conventional passenger rail service. Nevertheless, such vehicles may soon operate in the United States as manufacturers such as Siemens, Alstom and ADtranz affirm they may be able to produce FRA-compliant versions of their European equipment.

Existing systems

The light regional railcars are used by a number of railroads in Germany amongst others, and also in the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and soon in Spain.


Models of new generation multiple unit and articulated railcars include:


Main article: Railbus
Petrol railbus at the Eastern Södermanlands Railway, ÖSlJ, a narrow-gauge museum railway in typical time 1890-1910-century environment in Sweden

A variation of railcar is a railbus, a very lightweight type of vehicle 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, Italy, France, United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Sweden.

A type of railbus known as a Pacer is still commonly used in the United Kingdom. New Zealand railcars that more closely resembled railbuses were the Leyland diesel railcars and the Wairarapa railcars that were specially designed to operate over the Rimutaka Incline between Wellington and the Wairarapa region. 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 Railway planned to start using them on the commuter line between Nizhny Novgorod and Bor.[5]

A railbus runs on the Kalka-Shimla Railway route in India. Another railbus was in service on the Shimoga-Talguppa route, but this was closed in June 2007 for gauge conversion from 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) metre gauge to 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge under Project Unigauge.

Road-rail vehicles

Main article: Road-rail vehicle

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.

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. The first production vehicles, designated as British Rail Class 139, have a small onboard LPG 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.

Propulsion systems


LNER Sentinel-Cammell steam railcar
Main article: Steam railcar

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 Waggon 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.


In 1904 the Automotor Journal reported that one railway after another had been realising that motor coaches could be used to handle light traffic on their less important lines.[6] The North-Eastern railways had been experimenting “for some time” in this direction, and Wolseley provided them with a flat-four engine capable of up to 100 bhp (75 kW) for this purpose. The engine drove a main dynamo to power two electric drive motors, and a smaller dynamo to charge accumulators to power the interior lighting and allow electric starting of the engine. The controls for the dynamo allowed the coach to be driven from either end. For further details see 1903 Petrol Electric Autocar.

Another early railcar in the UK was designed by James Sidney Drewry and made by the Drewry Car Co. in 1906. In 1908 the manufacture was contracted out to the Birmingham Small Arms Company.


While early railcars were propelled by steam, petrol, and diesel engines, 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 transmission.


Single electric railcars on mainline electric systems are rare, since electrification normally implies heavy usage where single cars would not be economic. The exceptions to this rule are to be found on tram and interurban systems, the Red Car of the Pacific Electric Railway being an iconic example.


Main article: Accumulator railcar

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. In New Zealand, a battery-electric Edison railcar operated from 1926 to 1934. 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.

An example of a new application for zero emission vehicles for rail environments such as subways is the Cater MetroTrolley which carries ultrasonic flaw detection instrumentation.


A Railcar could also mean a powered draisine

See also




  1. www.parrypeoplemovers.com Light Railcars and Railbuses - Retrieved on 2008-06-09
  2. Brinckman, Jonathan (March 6, 2009). "Railcar orders, jobs in jeopardy". The Oregonian. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  3. "Trinity Eyes Stimulus". The Journal of Commerce. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  4. "Bill address railcar storage". Billings Gazette. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  5. "Railbus RA-1 in Nizhny Novgord", on the site "Public Transportation in Nizhny Novgorod" (Russian)
  6. "Motor Coaches for Railways", The Automotor Journal, January 23, 1904
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