Why people who say “train station” sound stupid

Google Ngram "railway station" all English: click to embiggenI cringe when people talk about the “train station”. “It’s ‘railway station’, you morons,” screams my brain. Well as it turns out, they’re actually not stupid — at least not for that reason. It’s just another relatively modern shift in language.

The chart at the top of the post is a Google Ngram search of their entire English corpus since 1820 — the first public steam railway in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 — comparing the usage of “railway station” (blue) versus “railroad station” (red) and “train station” (orange).

You can click through to the full-size chart, or run the search yourself.

As you can see, the most common usage has almost always been “railway station”, with “railroad station” distinctly second-place. A “train station” wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s, but it rose in popularity quite quickly. “Train station” has been the most common usage since the mid-1990s, although it has been declining again since around 2000. I wonder why.

My understanding is that many railway terms derived from the military, because until the railways came along nothing else had been organised on that sort of trans-national and even trans-continental scale except armies. Hence trains have “guards” for their safe operation, and “stations” along the line where staff are stationed to maintain the entire railway system — including fuel, water, trackwork and signalling.

Railway stations are therefore part of a railway’s entire operation, not merely “train stations” for trains to stop at. For me, someone talking about “train stations” is showing their ignorance of how railways work: it’s more than just the trains.

Since I had the Google open in front of me, I thought I’d look at the variations in US versus UK English. It seems that “railroad station” isn’t the dominant American usage that I’d imagined.

Here’s the same search run on the UK English corpus, and again you can click through for the full-size chart or run the search.

Google Ngram "railway station" UK English: click to embiggen

As you can see, the term “railroad station” is virtually unknown in UK English.

It’s interesting to see the overall usage of “railway station” rising and falling with the waxing and waning of the popularity of rail transport overall, with peaks during the great Victorian railway-building era, and then again in the post-World War I boom of the 1920s.

The ugly “train station” only starts to be noticeable in UK English in the late 1980s, reaching a peak around the year 2000 when it even equalled “railway station”, and has declined quite substantially since.

Finally, here’s the same search done using the US English corpora, and again you can click to embiggen the chart or run the search yourself.

Google NGram "railway station" US English: click to embiggen

What surprises me here is that even in US, “railway station” was preferred over “railroad station” all the way up to the end of the 1930s. Indeed, there’s a distinct spike in the usage of “railroad station” during World War II. “Railroad station” remained the preferred usage, but only marginally so, until the mid-1980s, at which point it dropped back to second and then third place — thanks to the emergence of “train station”.

I’m guessing that some national wartime propaganda program must have used “railroad” over “railway”. If so, was the variation in usage a regional thing, stamped out by wartime mass communications?

In the US, the use of “train station” seems to have started gradually in the mid-1940s, rising rapidly in popularity through the 1970s, until by the late 1980s it had far surpassed both “railway station” and “railroad station”. Americans seem to have settled on “train station”.

I wish Google had an Australian English corpus for me to play with.

Now as I write this, I realise that Americans also use “railroad depot” as well as “railroad station”, but I’ll explore that another time. Are there any others I should explore while I’m at it?

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