What's the difference between rail and railway?

Hold your horses - I know I can consult a dictionary on this one, and I have, but it's still not clear to me which of the two I should use in combinations. That is, if taken alone, rail is a means of transport, and railway - the tracks plus the infrastructure. More or less.

However, I get confused when it comes to combinations like rail infrastructure OR railway infrastructure? Rail transport OR railway transport? I'm looking for a simple rule of thumb here, because so far I have relied on Google hits.

  • Rail tends to be used with by. By sea, by air, by rail. – Phil Sweet Aug 17 '16 at 14:50

It's partly geography, partly technology, partly era.

Historically, In the US, if the trains were pulled by steam or diesel locomotives, the enterprise was called a railroad. On the other hand most of the now defunct electric interurbans connecting cities were typically called "railways". That's a good rule of thumb, though there were exceptions. Though it's trains were pulled by steam and diesel locomotives, the Northern Pacific, which connected Minneapolis / St. Paul with the Pacific Northwest, used "railway" in its corporate name, while two of the last interurbans to operate, the Chicago, North Shore, and Milwaukee Railroad, and the Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend Railroad, used the name "Railroad" in their corporate names.

In the UK, most enterprises operating freight and passenger transport by rail used the name, and were referred to as "railways" to the extent that it's likely that a written article using the word "railway" was written in the UK, or by an author writing for a UK audience. The periodicals Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman are published in the US for a US audience; Railway Modeller is published in the UK for a UK audience.

Present practice in the US would have little differentiation between "rail", "railroad", and "railway". "Railroad" would have a slight connotation of a locomotive powered freight or passenger train. Rail, especially if preceded by the word "light", would tend to refer to systems for passenger transport using cars with integral power units (that is, there is no identifiable locomotive). "Railway" could be substituted for either one of them.

  • Even in the UK, we have to use the verb 'railroad'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 '14 at 7:44
  • I answered the noun / noun phrase sense of the original poster. – brasshat Jun 12 '14 at 7:48
  • I wasn't saying you didn't. I wasn't even going to mention your broadening to include the noun 'railroad', as your article is so interesting and informative. My favourite railway books are on railroads. I intend to travel on the Durango and Silverton next year. The Seaboard Air Line Railroad was legendary. The Allegheny was a monster. The spark-distillate locos groundbreaking. Big Boy literally so. But they were invented over here. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 12 '14 at 8:04

As attributive nouns, There's not usually much difference in meaning:

the rail / railway network

railway / rail transport

though rail is very likely the more common variant nowadays according to these Google Ngrams (which results agree with my own perceptions).

As mass / nearly mass nouns, the definite article is never used with 'rail':

the coming of the railway/s

the coming of rail

though again, the terms are 'largely synonymous', with the shorter variant of even the rather dated expression given above gaining popularity in recent years.

Of course, the words as originally (and for some time later) used were not interchangeable: rails were joined with fishplates, and railways built to compete with canals. Even today, 'Rail was built ...' doesn't sound acceptable.


The term "railroad" is exclusively American, but "railway" is sometimes used in the USA for what is termed light rail in the UK, often a combination of tram-type transport and railway (as in the Bay Area Rapid Transit System). Rapid Transit is another term not used in the UK. "Metro" and "metro rail" is another term used in U.S. English. Josephine Bacon (writer, translator and interpreter for seven years for British Rail).

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