Riding the rails has captured the imagination of writers for over a century. Trains have been featured in all genres of fiction from romance to sci-fi.
Here’s how to describe a train in writing:
Describe the sight, sound, and motion of trains by focusing on key details like the locomotive style, speed, interior details, and smoking steam from the stack. Use vivid sensory language to transport readers aboard the rail journey.
In this guide, you’ll learn how to describe all aspects of trains from their traits and purposes to stations and ideas for train scenes.
10 Key Train Traits to Describe
There are 10 traits you need to know to master writing train descriptions:
- Locomotive style
The locomotive style refers to the design and visual appearance of the engine powering the train.
Pay attention to key features that distinguish one style from another, like the shape of the front grille on a diesel or the large boiler on a steam engine.
Mention details like the number of wheels, decorative embellishments, and the general silhouette or profile of the locomotive.
The colors used to paint the train exterior play a key role in description.
Note the dominant hues used on the engine, cars and any striping or lettering.
Black, gray, maroon, forest green and navy blue are common. Is it a vibrant, glossy color or more muted and weathered?
The general size and length of the train determines how many cars it contains.
An intercity passenger train may be quite long with many attached cars while a subway is much shorter.
Use terms like massive, hulking, and colossal for large trains vs. tiny or small for shorter ones.
Mention any multi-level cars as well.
Identify the train’s primary function to transport passengers or freight/cargo.
Commuter trains take riders on daily trips while freight trains haul predominantly goods and materials across long distances.
Knowing the purpose provides context.
The age and era of a train help establish the time period.
An antique steam locomotive from the 19th century invokes vintage images while a bullet train feels ultramodern.
Use descriptors that indicate the general age — old, historic, futuristic, modern, etc.
The speed a train is moving is crucial to convey, as it feels far different watching a slow coal train vs. a high speed express.
Use words like crawling, moderate, fast, swift, speeding or racing to indicate speed.
Mention how quickly the scenery whips past.
Trains make distinctive sounds from the engine, horn, wheels on tracks and other mechanisms.
Describe the volume – quiet, soft, loud, deafening – and quality of the sounds like screeching brakes or clickety-clack wheels.
Steam locomotives emit copious smoke from the stack which creates a dramatic visual.
Note the volume – billowing, puffing, wafting – color and scent. Smoke evokes key sensory details.
The number, styles and purposes of the attached railcars provide helpful context.
Short commuter trains may have just a few while cross-country ones have many passenger, dining, sleeper and freight cars.
Identify any that stand out.
Knowing where a train is headed, even if just the general direction, adds intrigue and purpose.
Is it chugging toward a big city or traveling through open countryside?
This ties into the overall context.
Types of Trains
There are many types of trains that operate for different purposes.
Here are some of the most common:
- Passenger trains – Used to transport people between stations. These include high-speed bullet trains, intercity trains, commuter trains and subways.
- Freight trains – Haul cargo in closed cars or open tops. Examples are unit trains, mixed freight and intermodal trains.
- Light rail – Urban passenger trains operating on mainline railroad tracks. They are smaller and lighter than heavy rail.
- High-speed rail – Intercity passenger trains that operate at speeds over 200 km/h (120 mph).
- Steam locomotives – Antique trains powered by steam engines burning coal, wood or oil. They have mostly been replaced by diesel and electric trains.
How to Describe a Train for Kids
When depicting trains for children, focus on key details that will spark their imagination:
- Bright, vibrant colors on the engine and cars
- Interesting shapes like steam billowing from the stack
- Happy faces or names given to the trains
- The sounds – whistles blowing, wheels clacking
- Child-friendly destinations like the zoo, circus or beach
- Riders waving from the windows
- Special cars like an observation deck or caboose
- Animal characters as conductors or engineers
- Trains that can talk and show personality
Use kid-friendly, sensory language around sights, sounds, smells and motion.
Describe colors, shapes, noises and actions in an upbeat way. Bring the train to life as a friendly character for a delightful ride.
Here is a video to help you learn how to describe trains:
30 Words to Describe Trains
All these tips are good, but what about the actual language of trains?
Don’t worry – here is a list of words you can use when describing trains:
30 Phrases to Describe Trains
Here are some phrases you can use to talk about trains:
- Iron horse
- Locomotive giant
- Carriages clattered along
- Whistle splitting the air
- Smoke billowing
- Engine roaring
- Cars rumbling along
- Train slithered along
- Serpentine machine
- Thunder down the tracks
- Caterpillar of cars
- Black iron beast
- Shriek of metal
- Blur of machinery
- Steel wheels grinding
- Slate gray cars
- Snake of steel
- Echoing horn blast
- Ghostly owl lights
- Pistons pumping mightily
- Wheels clacking rhythmically
- Coach lights flickering
- Steam whistling from vents
- Gears churning noisily
- Engine car belching smoke
- Railcars clacking together
- Steel rails humming
- Whistle piercing the air
- Passengers murmuring inside
- Conductor yelling, “All aboard!”
How to Describe a Train Station in Writing
Train stations serve as bustling hubs for arrivals, departures and daily commutes.
When describing a station, consider these key elements:
- Architecture – The style and materials such as Victorian, Art Deco, brick, marble, etc.
- Size – The general scale from a small rural stop to a massive hub station.
- Platforms – The number, length and features like benches, overhangs or digital signs.
- Tracks – How many railroad tracks run through the station? Are they elevated or at ground level?
- Transportation modes – Are trains, buses, taxis and other transit integrated here?
- Interior details – What does the inside look like? Highlight ticketing areas, waiting rooms, shops.
- Lighting – Overhead lighting, natural light from windows, ambient glow of trains.
- Crowds – The volume of people, queues, announcements and overall energy.
- Sounds – The echoes of footsteps, murmuring voices, train arrivals/departures.
- Smells – Odors from food stalls, coffee shops, engine exhaust or crowds.
- Purpose – Is it a commuter, passenger or mixed-use station?
Example Train Descriptions
Here are three sample train descriptions in different fiction genres:
The antique steam train clicked and puffed as it pulled out of the station, tendrils of white smoke coiling from its black stack.
The setting sun gleamed on its scarlet boiler as the mammoth iron horse powered down the tracks with the faint scent of coal trailing behind. Emily pressed her nose to the window, admiring the faded golden carriages rolling past quaint countryside toward their destination.
The silent silver bullet train glided swiftly into the station, its metallic sides shimmering under the harsh white lights.
With a barely audible hiss, the glossy doors slid open and passengers disembarked, the train’s electric engine humming. Jane strode quickly through the grim crowd, heading toward the hulking machine that would transport her 200 mph to the next dreary mega-city.
The ancient train rumbled through the misty high mountain pass, its gears grinding and smokestack belching acrid plumes. The black iron wheels screeched against the tracks as the beastly locomotive pulled its rattling cargo cars.
Inside, the air was musty and eerily quiet, the wooden seats weathered from ages of use.
Alana peered out the grimy window at the spectral pine forest sliding past, wondering what magical secrets this transport might hold.
20 Unique Ideas for Using Trains in Your Story
Here are 20 interesting ideas for incorporating trains into short stories or novels:
- An antique steam train time travels to the Wild West
- A magical train picks up lost kids and takes them on adventures
- Clues about a mystery are found on a cross-country train trip
- Ghosts haunt the cars of an old train graveyard
- A futuristic bullet train on Mars helps colonists escape danger
- An enchanted train can fly as well as ride the rails
- A runaway train hurtles out of control toward doom
- An eccentric group of characters meet on an overnight train
- A talking train engine guides riders through fantastical lands
- A young stowaway finds dangers and wonders while riding the rails
- A scientist transforms into animals after a freak lab accident on a train
- A portal in a train station opens to a magical kingdom
- A quarantined train holds a deadly outbreak threatening humanity
- Famous historical figures interact on an express train through time
- A post-apocalyptic survivor finds the last working locomotive
- A train heist happens as villains attempt a daring robbery
- An animal circus troupe rides the rails from show to show
- A miniature train in a model exhibit comes to life at night
- A mechanical train-robot helps fight off an alien attack
- A child befriends the ghost of an old train conductor
Final Thoughts: How to Describe a Train in Writing
Describing trains requires focusing on key details – from the locomotive style and sound, to the speed, purpose and era – that bring these powerful machines to life on the page.
All aboard for more tips on creative writing and blogging as we travel together on this railroad of words!
Be sure to check out the other helpful articles on my website to further polish your storytelling skills.
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