The Locomotive Engine Quiz



By: Dave Davis

7 Min Quiz

Image: Unsplash by Akshay Nanavati

About This Quiz

They can be used to move freight in bulk or passengers in style, but the story of modern trains is almost as old as the United States itself. As the pioneers moved west, the journey was often dangerous to the point of being deadly. When the trains followed them, however, the passage became much easier and allowed common people from the East Coast to find their fortunes — and have supplies delivered once they got there!

At the front of the train is a beast of a machine: the locomotive. Driven first by steam, and then by diesel fuel, electricity and other means, the locomotive is the prime mover for this type of transportation. Of course, you know a locomotive by sight, but how much do you really know about this workhorse of transportation? 

Although the "iron horse's" use as a primary mode of passenger transportation may have passed, trains still provide a valuable means of moving products and supplies from place to place both in the United States and around the world. Rail transport is one of the most inexpensive ways to move goods from place to place. And, when you consider subways and other commuter lines, trains still provide a valuable means of personal transportation.

This quiz will test your knowledge of locomotive technology, history and the way these massive machines are used to make a difference in our day-to-day lives. While we can't let you play with the whistle, we still think you'll have a lot of fun choo-choo-choosing the correct answers! All aboard! This train is about to leave the station ...

Which of these measurements originated with locomotives?

The term "horsepower" comes from Scottish inventor James Watt, who helped develop what would become the steam locomotive engine in the 1760s. Needing a measurement that would convey how powerful the engine could be, he came up with a unit of power that a single horse working in a mill could generate. We still use the term "horsepower" today.


Why do locomotives and train cars ride on steel wheels?

Steel wheels are better for trains than rubber tires (or other substances) because they generate less rolling friction. The steel wheels don't deform and more energy from the locomotive can be put to use moving the freight instead of having to overcome friction. The drawback is that they don't provide a lot of traction.


One of the most famous commuter railroads, how much horsepower does a typical Amtrak locomotive produce?

Used primarily between large cities in the northeast, although its trains run all across the United States, the electric locomotives generally used by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation — better known as Amtrak — can produce between 6,000 to 7,000 horsepower. This is a tough figure because Amtrak uses a variety of different locomotives, but it's a good average.


What substance do locomotives use to increase traction between the wheels and the rails?

Since steel wheels on steel tracks don't have a lot of traction — something needed for slowing and stopping — locomotives employ a system of compressed air to spray sand between the wheels and the rails to increase their grip. The system is automatic and is used when the wheels slip or the engineer needs to make an emergency stop.


What is the current top speed of a "bullet train"?

The trains of the Shinkansen network of high-speed railway lines in Japan — known in English at the "bullet train" — are breathtakingly fast. The maglev L0 Series line set a world record on April 21, 2015 by hitting 375 mph on the Yamanashi test track.


Dr. Lyle Borst studied the feasibility of running locomotives on what type of fuel/power source in the 1950s?

In the 1950s, Dr. Lyle Borst of the University of Utah was funded by U.S. railroads to study the feasibility of running locomotives using atomic reactors to heat steam to run the engine. The conclusion was not promising; the reactor would need a 200-ton chamber with five-foot-thick steel walls to produce the 6,000 hp needed to run a train.


In what year was the first electric locomotive built?

The first electric locomotive, powered by galvanic cells, was built in 1837 by Scottish chemist Robert Davidson. He went on in 1841 to build a seven-ton locomotive that could haul six tons for 1.5 miles. It was destroyed soon after its testing by railway workers who feared for their jobs.


What fuel source do most modern locomotives use?

Most modern locomotives use diesel fuel to power their engines. Diesel engines are more efficient than gasoline engines and that efficiency is important when moving heavy objects over long distances.


A steam locomotive is an example of what type of engine?

With an external combustion engine, the fuel burns outside the engine. In the case of a steam locomotive, steam is created in the boiler and pressurized to move the engine's pistons inside their cylinders. With an internal combustion engine, the fuel is ignited inside the piston to generate force.


What is the top speed limit of a locomotive in the United States?

Train speed limits are set by the type of track they run upon. There are nine classes of track quality (although there are currently no tracks rated as in Class 9). The top speed for Class 8 is 160 miles per hour.


In which country was the steam locomotive first put to work?

In 1804, Richard Trevithick, a British mining engineer and inventor, built a steam engine that was designed to transport ironworks. Trevithick not only contributed to the transportation industry but to the industrial revolution!


What is a "light" engine?

Although railroads try to minimize their occurrence because they're not earning money, sometimes a locomotive needs to be moved around either to get to where it can be put to use or when it has to be moved for maintenance purposes. A locomotive without a train is known as a "light" engine.


Which of these countries still uses steam trains regularly for transporting freight?

Although they ruled the railways for a century, steam-driven locomotives used for transporting freight are now rarely used. Northern regions of China, however, still make use of this technology. Steam-driven trains are used elsewhere, however, for tourist attractions and nostalgic recreational use.


True or false: Locomotives are always located at the front of the train.

Depending on the load of the train, engines can be put in the front AND the back of the train to help with steep grades or other issues. Engines can also be put in the middle of a train, which is helpful if a train is going to split and go to two different destinations during the journey.


What is the triangular device on the front of old steam locomotives called?

The cowcatcher, sometimes called a pilot, on the front of older steam locomotives was designed to scoop and throw obstructions away from the track to give the train a smoother journey and avoid a derailment. From the name, you can guess what one obstruction might be.


Before steam locomotives, what method was used to propel early trains?

Rail transport dates all the way back to Greece in the 6th century BC, where people and animals pulled trains set in limestone grooves. Other methods in the intervening years, such as the use of rope and gravity, were used in conjunction with animal labor. The introduction of powered engines gave trains new life and functionality, and saved a lot of backbreaking work!


Why can a modern diesel locomotive move as quickly backward as forward?

In a modern diesel-electric locomotive, the diesel-powered engine doesn't actually move the wheels; they are operated by the electric motor that is powered by the diesel engine. Electric motors can be designed to spin as quickly in one direction or the other, and this adds versatility to the locomotive's operation.


What does the Whyte notation describe when it comes to steam locomotives?

Different locomotives have different arrangements of wheels — how many wheels, where the power is distributed, etc. For steam engines, the Whyte notation is used in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. The AAR wheel arrangement classification is used for diesel and electric trains in North America, while in Europe they use the UIC classification.


What type of diesel engine is used in locomotives?

Although two-stroke engines are generally thought of being used in garden equipment and other small-engine uses, it turns out that huge diesel engines are the best fit for locomotives, large ships and electric-generating facilities. This is because two-stroke engines can produce power up to twice as fast as their four-stroke cousins. Always use the right tool for the job!


Where do electric locomotives generally get their power?

Electric locomotives have been in general use since the late 1800s, and are often used in mass transit vehicles and subways. Their power is supplied by a third rail alongside the track or by an overhead wire, called a catenary.


What was the location of the world's first subway powered by electric locomotives?

The world's first subway system to make use of electric locomotives opened in London in 1890. The locomotive pulled carriages with small opaque windows that were nicknamed "Padded Cells."


With classic steam engines, what is the car directly behind the locomotive called?

The tender, located directly behind the locomotive, carries the fuel and water needed for the combustion process that generates the steam used to power the engine.


Where does the famous Orient Express currently run?

Although it has gone to many far-flung destinations since it first was run on June 5, 1883, the current incarnation of the Orient Express travels from Strasbourg to Vienna. The train ran from Paris to Istanbul until 1977. If you'd like to experience that area of the world by train, however, you can still do it; you'll just have to take multiple train lines.


Which of these is Amtrak's longest route, available to passengers daily?

The California Zephyr is a train route operated by Amtrak that runs 2,438 miles between Union Station in Chicago and Emeryville Station in Emeryville, California, with stops along the way. Amtrak trains make the run daily, and carry more than 400,000 passengers a year.


Maglev trains have which advantage over standard trains?

Maglev — or magnetic levitation — trains use magnets to both float above the track and to rocket toward their destination. Because the train doesn't make physical contact with the track, there is no friction (or moving parts at all). The ride, therefore, is quieter, smoother and much faster than a conventional train can achieve.


Approximately how much of the world's cargo travels by rail each year?

A massive amount of cargo is carried by rail across the world — approximately 40%, and that number is rising — because rail transport is less expensive than other forms of hauling for a number of reasons. Trains, by weight, are more fuel efficient than trucks, for example.


What is meant by the term "banking" engine?

A banking engine is used when a train needs a short-term boost in power, such as when it needs to go up a sharp incline or if a particularly heavy train needs some extra "oomph" to get underway.


Most diesel locomotives in use today are ...

The vast majority of diesel locomotives in use today are actually diesel-electric, where the diesel engine powers either an AC alternator-rectifier or a DC generator that, in turn, powers the wheels.


What is the world's record for the longest train ever operated as a single unit?

On June 21, 2001, a train going between Newman and Port Headland in Western Australia (about 170 miles) was connected that spanned 4.57 miles and consisted of 682 loaded iron ore cars. The train, which used eight locomotives arranged at various places in the line, weighed 99,734 tons, making it the heaviest train ever operated, as well.


True or false: The "Hogwarts Express" train seen in the "Harry Potter" films is a real rail line.

The "Hogwarts Express" is actually part of the West Highland Line that connects the ports of Mallaig and Oban in the Scottish Highlands to Glasgow and is operated by the U.K.'s National Rail. The most iconic shot from the films is the train when it is on the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The line is regularly voted as one of the most scenic railway lines in the world.


When was the first commercial locomotive powered by diesel operated?

The first diesel-powered locomotive was operated on the Winterthur–Romanshorn railroad in Switzerland in the summer of 1912. The technology, however, wasn't quite mature enough and the undertaking wasn't a commercial success. The outbreak of World War I further hampered development.


Although they have fallen out of favor, what does "cow-calf" mean when it comes to locomotives?

In a "cow-calf" set up, a locomotive with a driving cab (the "cow) is coupled with one or two locomotives without a cab (the "calves"). This type of arrangement was generally found in the 1930s through the 1950s and was used to build trains or help trains up steeper grades.


The tube that vents smoke on a steam engine is usually called a ...

The chimney is one of the most iconic parts of a classic steam locomotive, with great clouds of exhaust billowing as the train reaches full speed.


In classic locomotive slang, who or what was the "diamond cracker"?

The diamond cracker on a train was another name for the fireman, whose job it was to tend the fire in the boiler by shoveling coal (raw diamonds, if you will) into the boiler's firebox. Firemen also went by the names "smoke agents," "soda jerkers," "bell ringers" and other colorful names.


"Runners," "grunts," "positive blocks" and "Casey Jones" were all names for what in locomotive circles?

Like any profession, railroad workers quickly generated their own jargon to describe the equipment and the roles they dealt with every day. There were plenty of handles for engineers, including "mileage hogs" for engineers who were paid by the mile and "highball artists" for those who liked to run their trains fast.


Explore More Quizzes

About Zoo

Our goal at is to keep you entertained in this crazy life we all live.

We want you to look inward and explore new and interesting things about yourself. We want you to look outward and marvel at the world around you. We want you to laugh at past memories that helped shape the person you’ve become. We want to dream with you about all your future holds. Our hope is our quizzes and articles inspire you to do just that.

Life is a zoo! Embrace it on