Railway turntable

Last updated
Wagon turntable at the National Slate Museum in Wales on 2 ft (610 mm) gauge track Wagon turntable.jpg
Wagon turntable at the National Slate Museum in Wales on 2 ft (610 mm) gauge track
A turntable at the John Street Roundhouse, now part of Roundhouse Park in Toronto, Canada, viewed from the CN Tower in September 2012. Rail turntable viewed from the CN Tower.jpg
A turntable at the John Street Roundhouse, now part of Roundhouse Park in Toronto, Canada, viewed from the CN Tower in September 2012.

In rail terminology, a railway turntable or wheelhouse is a device for turning railway rolling stock, usually locomotives, so that they can be moved back in the direction from which they came. [1] This is especially true in areas where economic considerations or a lack of sufficient space have served to weigh against the construction of a turnaround wye. In the case of steam locomotives, railways needed a way to turn the locomotives around for return trips as their controls were often not configured for extended periods of running in reverse and in many locomotives the top speed was lower in reverse motion. In the case of diesel locomotives, though most can be operated in either direction, they are treated as having "front ends" and "rear ends" (often determined by reference to the location of the crew cab). When operated as a single unit, the railway company often prefers, or requires, that a diesel locomotive is run "front end" first. When operated as part of a multiple unit locomotive consist, the locomotives can be arranged so that the consist can be operated "front end first" no matter which direction the consist is pointed. Turntables were also used to turn observation cars so that their windowed lounge ends faced toward the rear of the train. [2]



A turntable for the Central Railroad of New Jersey, 1961 1961 - Central RR Of New Jersey Roundtable and Locomomotive Yard.jpg
A turntable for the Central Railroad of New Jersey, 1961
Turnplates at the Park Lane goods station of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1831 09 Warehouses etc at the end of the Tunnel towards Wapping, from Bury's Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1831 - artfinder 267568.jpg
Turnplates at the Park Lane goods station of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1831

Early wagonways were industrial railways for transporting goods—initially bulky and heavy items, particularly mined stone, ores and coal—from one point to another, most often to a dockside to be loaded onto ships. [3] These early wagonways used a single point-to-point track, and when operators had to move a truck to another wagonway, they did so by hand. The lack of switching technology seriously limited the weight of any loaded wagon combination. [4]

The first railway switches were in fact wagon turnplates or sliding rails. Turnplates were initially made of two or four pieces of wood, circular in form, that replicated the track running through them. Their diameter matched that of the wagons used on any given wagonway, and they swung around a central pivot. Loaded wagons could be moved onto the turnplate, and rotating the turnplate 90 degrees allowed the loaded wagon to be moved to another piece of wagonway. Thus, wagon weight was limited only by the strength of the wood used in the turnplates or sliding rails. When iron and later steel replaced stone and wood, weight capacity rose again. [3]

However, the problems with turnplates and sliding rails were twofold. First, they were relatively small (often no more than 1 yard (0.91 m) in length), which limited the wagon length that could be turned. Second, their switching capacity could only be accessed when the wagon was on top of them and still, which limited the total capacity of any wagonway. The railway switch, which overcame both of these problems, was patented by Charles Fox in 1832.

As steam locomotives replaced horses as the preferred means of power, they became optimised to run in only one direction for operational ease and to provide some weather protection. [3] The resulting need to turn heavy locomotives required an engineering upgrade to the existing turnplate technology. Like earlier turnplates, most new turntables consisted of a circular pit in which a steel bridge rotated. The bridge was typically supported and balanced by the central pivot, to reduce the total load on the pivot and to allow easy turning. This was most often achieved by a steel rail running around the floor of the pit that supported the ends of the bridge when a locomotive entered or exited. The turntables had a positive locking mechanism to prevent undesired rotation and to align the bridge rails with the exit track. Rotation of the bridge could be accomplished manually (either by brute force or with a windlass system), popularly called an "Armstrong" turntable, [5] [6] by an external power source, or by the braking system of the locomotive itself, though this required a locomotive to be on the table for it to be rotated.

The turntable bridge (the part of the turntable that included the tracks and that swivelled to turn the equipment) could span from 6 to 120 feet (1.8 to 36.6 m), depending on the railway's needs. Larger turntables were installed in maintenance facilities for longer locomotives, while short line and narrow gauge railways typically used smaller turntables. Turntables as small as 6 feet (1.83 m) in diameter have been installed in some industrial facilities where pieces of equipment are small enough to be pushed one at a time by humans or horsepower.


A small turntable at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA. This type of turntable with the central tower and supporting cables is called a "gallows turntable" Turntable at OERM.jpg
A small turntable at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA. This type of turntable with the central tower and supporting cables is called a “gallows turntable”
A larger turntable in front of a roundhouse, 1909 Train roundhose 1909.jpg
A larger turntable in front of a roundhouse, 1909

In engine maintenance facilities, a turntable was usually surrounded, in part or in whole, by a roundhouse. It was more common for the roundhouse to only cover a portion of the land around a turntable but fully circular roundhouses exist, such as these preserved roundhouses:

By country

Function of a railway turntable on Upsala-Lenna Jernväg in Sweden

North America

Due to the asymmetric design of many locomotives, turntables still in use are more common in North America than in Europe, where locomotive design favors configurations with a controller cabin on both ends or in the middle. In San Francisco, USA, the Powell cable car line uses turntables at the end of the routes, since the cable cars have operating controls at only one end of the car. The Long Island Rail Road still has a turntable and roundhouse at the Richmond Hills yard.

Great Britain

In Britain, where steam hauled trains generally have vacuum operated brakes, it was quite common for turntables to be operated by vacuum motors worked from the locomotive's vacuum ejector or pump via a flexible hose or pipe although a few manually and electrically operated examples exist. The major manufacturers were Ransomes and Rapier, Ipswich and Cowans Sheldon, Carlisle. The GWR was the railway company that built several tables for its own use; there is little evidence any other companies did so.


There was a turntable at the Talaguppa end of the Shimoga-Talaguppa railway, [7] and one at Howbagh Railway Station near Jabalpur on the Balaghat-Jabalpur Narrow Gauge Line. [8] Both were used to turn the railbuses serving on these lines. After railbuses were replaced by MEMUs, turntables were dismantled.

In 2012, Mumbai Metro One, the BOT operator of the Mumbai Metro Line 1, announced that it had procured turntables to be used on the Rapid Transit system. [9]

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, most turntables which were used in the steam area have been abandoned. Most were situated at the major railway yards like Kandy, Galle, Nanu Oya, Anuradhapura, Maho, Galoya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Polgahawela Jnc, Badulla, Puttulam, and Bandarawela and depots in Dematagoda 2no. and Maradana. All turntables in Sri Lanka Railways were operated manually. They were used to turn some rolling stock and non-dual cab locomotives. Most turntables were later scrapped, though some have been preserved in museums.


The Israel Railway Museum, Haifa, has a turntable which was made by Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company, Old Park Works, Wednesbury. It was found buried in the grounds of the Israel Defense Forces History Museums, which is on the site of the old Jaffa railway station yard.

Surviving turntables

A4 Pacific No.9 "Union of South Africa" on the Ferryhill turntable, May 2019 Ferryhill turntable, May 2019.jpg
A4 Pacific No.9 "Union of South Africa" on the Ferryhill turntable, May 2019
A small turntable at the Textilmuseum Bocholt Kleine Handbetatigte Drehscheibe im Textilmuseum Bocholt.jpg
A small turntable at the Textilmuseum Bocholt
Railway Museum (Spoorwegenmuseum) in Utrecht 2498 Spoorwegmuseum.jpg
Railway Museum (Spoorwegenmuseum) in Utrecht
Drivers turning cable car on a turntable at San Francisco San Francisco Cable Car Turntable.jpg
Drivers turning cable car on a turntable at San Francisco
Turntable on the Sabah State Railway at Papar Station (Sabah, Malaysia) SabahStateRailway-StationPapar04.jpg
Turntable on the Sabah State Railway at Papar Station (Sabah, Malaysia)

Several working examples remain, many on heritage railways in Great Britain, and also in the United States. Some examples include:

The following are in storage, awaiting installation at UK sites:

New build turntable. Hitachi Rail Europe's rolling stock plant at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham has an 80 tonne locomotive turntable and a bogie test turntable; supplied by Lloyds British Somers Group in 2016.

The former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) in Janesville, Wisconsin. Used now by the regional Wisconsin & Southern


In the United States, when deciding liability for turntable accidents, most state courts followed the precedent set by the United States Supreme Court in Sioux City & Pacific R.R. v. Stout (1873). [11] In that case, a six-year-old child was playing on the unguarded, unfenced turntable when his friends began turning it. While attempting to get off, his foot became stuck and was crushed. The Court held that although the railroad was not bound by the same duty of care to strangers as it was to its passengers, it would be liable for negligence "if from the evidence given it might justly be inferred by the jury that the defendant, in the construction, location, management, or condition of its machine has omitted that care and attention to prevent the occurrence of accidents which prudent and careful men ordinarily bestow." [12]

In the case of Chicago B. & Q.R. Co. v. Krayenbuhl (1902), a four-year-old child was playing on an unlocked, unguarded railroad turntable. Other children set the turntable in motion, and it severed the ankle of the young child. The child's family sued the railroad company on a theory of negligence and won at trial. The Nebraska Supreme Court held that the railroad company may have been liable for negligence after considering the "character and location of the premises, the purpose for which they are used, the probability of injury therefrom, the precautions necessary to prevent such injury, and the relations such precautions bear to the beneficial use of the premises." However, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision based on an improper jury instruction as to the evidence. [13]

Accidents to locomotives sometimes occurred. For example, if the turntable was incorrectly set and a locomotive was accidentally started or failed to stop, it might fall into the turntable pit. [14] [15]

On rare occasions, a turntable would spin too fast during high winds, like what happened in the UK around the early 1900s[ specify ]

Unusual turntables

A heavy German goods locomotive on the turntable at the German Steam Locomotive Museum, Bavaria. The pivot of this turntable is off-center, which prevents the turntable from rotating a full 360 degrees. DRG Class 41 on Neuenmarkt turntable.JPG
A heavy German goods locomotive on the turntable at the German Steam Locomotive Museum, Bavaria. The pivot of this turntable is off-center, which prevents the turntable from rotating a full 360 degrees.
Twin-gauge straight + curved turntable at Petit Train a Vapeur de Forest, Brussels Twin-gauge straight + curved turntable at PTVF, Brussels.jpg
Twin-gauge straight + curved turntable at Petit Train à Vapeur de Forest, Brussels

Multiple turntables

Stations housing large numbers of engines may have more than one turntable:

See also

Related Research Articles

Wagonway Railway using horses to pull goods wagons

Wagonways consisted of the horses, equipment and tracks used for hauling wagons, which preceded steam-powered railways. The terms plateway, tramway and dramway were used. The advantage of wagonways was that far bigger loads could be transported with the same power.

History of rail transport Aspect of history

The history of rail transport began in the prehistoric times. It can be divided into several discrete periods defined by the principal means of track material and motive power used.

Wye (rail)

In railroad structures, and rail terminology, a wye or triangular junction is a triangular joining arrangement of three rail lines with a railroad switch at each corner connecting to each incoming line. A turning wye is a specific case.

Railway roundhouse building used by railways for servicing and storing locomotives

A railway roundhouse is a building with a circular or semicircular shape used by railways for servicing and storing locomotives, and traditionally surrounds, or is adjacent to, a turntable.

North Tyneside Steam Railway

The North Tyneside Steam Railway and Stephenson Steam Railway are visitor attractions in North Tyneside, North East England. The museum and railway workshops share a building on Middle Engine Lane adjacent to the Silverlink Retail Park. The railway is a standard gauge line, running south for 2 miles (3.2 km) from the museum to Percy Main. The railway is operated by the North Tyneside Steam Railway Association (NTSRA). The museum is managed by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums on behalf of North Tyneside Council.

Crane (rail) Type of crane used on a railroad

A railroad crane is a type of crane used on a railroad for one of three primary purposes: freight handling in goods yards, permanent way (PW) maintenance, and accident recovery work. Although the design differs according to the type of work, the basic configuration is similar in all cases: a rotating crane body is mounted on a sturdy chassis fitted with flanged wheels. The body supports the jib and provides all the lifting and operating mechanisms; on larger cranes, an operator's cabin is usually provided. The chassis is fitted with buffing (UK) and/or coupling gear to allow the crane to be moved by a locomotive, although many are also self-propelled to allow limited movement about a work site.

North Carolina Transportation Museum Transport museum in Spencer, North Carolina, United States

The North Carolina Transportation Museum is a museum in Spencer, North Carolina. It is a collection of automobiles, aircraft, and railway vehicles. The museum is located at the former Southern Railway's 1896-era Spencer Shops and devotes much of its space to the state's railroad history. The museum has the largest collection of rail relics in the Carolinas. Its Back Shop building of nearly three stories high is most notable for its size of two football fields long.

Rail transport – means of conveyance of passengers and goods by way of wheeled vehicles running on rail tracks consisting of steel rails installed on sleepers/ties and ballast.

Motive power depot

The motive power depot is the place where locomotives are usually housed, repaired and maintained when not being used. They were originally known as "running sheds", "engine sheds" or, for short, just sheds. Facilities are provided for refuelling and replenishing water, lubricating oil and grease and, for steam engines, disposal of the ash. There are often workshops for day to day repairs and maintenance, although locomotive building and major overhauls are usually carried out in the locomotive works.

Strasburg Rail Road Oldest continuously operating railroad in the western hemisphere, in Pennsylvania, United States

The Strasburg Rail Road is the oldest continuously operating railroad in the western hemisphere and the oldest public utility in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Chartered in 1832, the Strasburg Rail Road Company is today a heritage railroad offering excursion trains hauled by steam locomotives and rarely diesel locomotives on 4.5 mi (7.2 km) of track in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, as well as providing freight service to area shippers. The railroad's headquarters are outside Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

Illinois Railway Museum

The Illinois Railway Museum is the largest railroad museum in the United States. It is located in the Chicagoland metropolitan area at 7000 Olson Road in Union, Illinois, 55 miles (89 km) northwest of downtown Chicago.

The history of rail transport in Great Britain to 1830 covers the period up to the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first intercity passenger railway operated solely by steam locomotives. The earliest form of railways, horse-drawn wagonways, originated in Germany in the 16th century. Soon wagonways were also built in Britain. However, the first use of steam locomotives was in Britain. The invention of wrought iron rails, together with Richard Trevithick's pioneering steam locomotive meant that Britain had the first modern railways in the world.

The Steam Railroading Institute is located at 405 South Washington Street, Owosso, Michigan. It was founded in 1969 as the Michigan State University (MSU) Railroad Club. It became the Michigan State Trust for Railway Preservation, and later adopted its present name.

Georgia State Railroad Museum United States historic place

The Georgia State Railroad Museum is a museum in Savannah, Georgia located at a historic Central of Georgia Railway site. It includes parts of the Central of Georgia Railway: Savannah Shops and Terminal Facilities National Historic Landmark District. The complex is considered the most complete antebellum railroad complex in the United States. The museum, located at 655 Louisville Road, is part of a historic district included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Bavarian Railway Museum

The Bavarian Railway Museum is a railway museum based in the old locomotive sheds at Nördlingen station in Bavaria, Germany. It is home to more than 100 original railway vehicles and has been located in the depot at Nördlingen since 1985.

There were a number of engine sheds and railway works located in York. The large York North engine shed became the National Railway Museum in 1975.

Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot

Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot was a large locomotive depot consisting of two roundhouse buildings and associated facilities constructed by the New South Wales Government Railways adjacent to the marshalling yard on the Main Northern line at Broadmeadow. Construction of the locomotive depot at Broadmeadow commenced in 1923 to replace the existing crowded loco sheds at Woodville Junction at Hamilton, with the depot opening in March 1924. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 2 April 1999.

Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum Railroad museum in Willimantic, Connecticut

The Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum is a railroad museum located on Route 32 in Willimantic, Connecticut. It was founded by members of the Connecticut Eastern Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.


  1. "Locomotive/Railway Turntables". Macton.com. Archived from the original on 2017-04-22. Retrieved 2014-10-20.
  2. The Elements of Railroad Engineering, 5th Edition, 1937, William G. Raymond. Published by John Wiley and Sons, New York
  3. 1 2 3 Alun John Richards (16 March 2011). The Rails and Sails of Welsh Slate. Llygad Gwalch Cyf. ISBN   978-1845241742.
  4. David Oldroyd (13 Nov 2007). Estates, Enterprise and Investment at the Dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Ashgate. ISBN   978-0754634553.
  5. McGuirk, Marty (2002). The Model Railroader's Guide to Locomotive Servicing Terminals (1st ed.). Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Books. p. 41. ISBN   0-89024-414-6 via Google Books. A lever was installed at both ends of the bridge and the table was moved by hand, a method popularly called "Armstrong."
  6. "Turntable". American-Rails.com. Retrieved January 31, 2021.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  7. "A trip on the Shimoga Town - Talguppa MG railbus". Irfca.org. Archived from the original on 2007-12-20. Retrieved 2008-02-21.
  8. "Blog entry on IRI".
  9. Aklekar, Rajendra (16 July 2012). "Metro retro: Forgotten turn-tables back on track". Mumbai. Daily News and Analysis . Retrieved 2012-07-22.
  10. Severn Valley Railway News, Issue 126
  11. Epstein, Richard A. (2008). Cases and Materials on Torts (9th ed.). United States of America: Aspen Publishers. p.  589. ISBN   978-0-7355-6923-2.
  12. Sioux City & Pacific R.R. v. Stout, 84 U.S. 657,661 (1873)
  13. Chicago, B & Q.R. Co. v. Krayenbuhl, 65 Neb. 889, 91 N.W. 880, (Neb., 1902)"
  14. "RailPictures.Net Photo: LN 1250 Louisville & Nashville Steam 2-8-0 at Pensacola, Florida by Collection of Ron Flanary". www.railpictures.net. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  15. "RailPictures.Net Photo: CSXT 806 CSX Transportation (CSXT) EMD SD80MAC at Cumberland, Maryland by Ed Mullan". www.railpictures.net. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  16. "Historique du dépôt de Montluçon du début du XIX siècle à nos jours". www.aaatvmontlucon.fr. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  17. Voies Ferrées, Edition 209, May–June 2015.
  18. Google (2011-02-02). "Railway turntable" (Map). Google Maps . Google. Retrieved 2011-02-02.
  19. Trolleybus Magazine No. 290 (March–April 2010), p. 41. National Trolleybus Association (UK). ISSN 0266-7452.
  20. "Steamtown About".