Metrolink No. 657, a Hyundai Rotem cab car with full upper cab.

Shown here at Santa Clarita, CA, July 14, 2018. Photo by John Cornett.

(Copyright © 2024 John Cornett, All Rights Reserved.)



A control car or cab car is a non-powered rail vehicle from which a train can be operated. As dedicated vehicles or regular passenger cars, they have one or two driver compartments with all the controls and gauges required to remotely operate the locomotive, including exterior locomotive equipment such as horns, bells, ploughs, and lights. They also have communications and safety systems such as GSM-R. Control cars enable push-pull operation when located on the end of a train opposite its locomotive by allowing the train to reverse direction at a terminus without moving the locomotive or turning the train around.

Control cars can carry passengers, baggage, and mail, and may, when used together with diesel locomotives, contain an engine-generator set to provide head-end power (HEP). They can also be used with a power car or a railcar.

European railways have used control cars since the 1920s; they first appeared in the United States in the 1960s.

Control cars communicate with the locomotive via cables that are jumped between cars. North America and Ireland use a standard AAR 27-wire multiple unit cable, while other countries use cables with up to 61 wires. A more recent method is to control the train through a Time-Division Multiplexed (TDM) connection, which usually works with two protected wires.


An NCTD Coaster Bombardier Bi-Level cab car at the Santa Fe Depot.

Note that bells and lights are on the car, which are not present on other cars.

(WriterArtistCoder, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


North America

In North America, cab cars are used primarily for commuter rail and, less frequently, for longer distance trains. There are both single and bilevel models; styling ranges from blunt ends to newer, more aerodynamic, streamlined cabs. They may be very similar to regular coaches, to the point of including a gangway between cars so that they could be used in the middle of a passenger train like a regular coach if necessary.

The Chicago and North Western Railway had 42 control cabs built by Pullman-Standard in 1960, which eliminated the need for its trains or locomotives to be turned around. It was an outgrowth of multiple-unit operation that was already common on diesel locomotives of the time. The Canadian transit agency Exo uses control cars on all its trains, except its electric multiple units, which run as double-ended semi-permanently coupled three-car rakes. Amtrak also has a number of ex-Budd Metroliner cab cars, which are used primarily for push pull services on the Keystone Service and New Haven–Springfield Shuttle. The Long Island Rail Road uses cab cars on its C3 double deck coaches.

During the mid-1990s, as push-pull operations became more common in the United States, cab-cars came under criticism for providing less protection to engine crews during level crossing accidents. This has been addressed by providing additional reinforcing in cab cars. This criticism became stronger after the 2005 Glendale train crash, in which a Metrolink collided with a Jeep Grand Cherokee at a level crossing in California. The train was traveling with its cab car in the front, and the train jackknifed. Eleven people were killed in the accident, and about 180 were injured. Ten years later, in early 2015, another collision occurred in Oxnard, California, involving one of Metrolink's improved "Rotem" cab cars at the front of the train hitting a truck at a crossing. The truck driver left his vehicle before the impact, but the collision resulted in multiple car derailments and further cars jackknifing causing widespread injury.


A GO Transit train with a cab car enters Union Station in Toronto.

(Cr4410, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Amtrak NPCU No. 90225 (former F40PH No. 225) on the San Joaquin at Martinez in November 2013.

(Mistyben at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Converted locomotives

From the 1970s until 1999, the Long Island Rail Road used a number of older locomotives converted to "power packs". The original prime movers were replaced with 600 horsepower (450 kW) engines/generators solely for supplying HEP with the engineer's control stand left intact. Locomotives converted included Alco FA-1s and FA-2s, EMD F7s, and one F9. One FA was further converted into a power car for the C1 bi-level cars in 1991. The railroad has since switched to classic cab cars with a DE30AC/DM30AC locomotive on some trains. Longer trains require two engines, one on each end.

Until the 1980s, Ontario's GO Transit had a similar Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) program for EMD FP7s. They were frequently used with GP40-2Ws and GP40M-2s, which lacked HEP to power trains. They also found use with HEP-equipped GP40TCs and F40PHs, and were sometimes leased to other railroads. They were eventually retired in 1995 upon the arrival of the EMD F59PHs and subsequently scrapped, except for one F7A and one F7B, which were sold to Tri-Rail and the Ontario Northland Railway, respectively.

MARC had a former F7 unit, No. 7100, also converted into an APCU, or All-Purpose Control Unit, which occasionally substituted for a cab car. It was rebuilt with a HEP generator, newer cab controls, and fitted with a Nathan Airchime K5LA. It was used up until the late 2000s, and was donated to the B&O Railroad Museum in 2010.

Amtrak developed their Non-powered Control Unit (NPCU) by removing the prime mover, main alternator, and traction motors from surplus EMD F40PH locomotives. The control stand was left in place, as were equipment allowing horn, bell, and headlight operation. A floor and roll-up side-doors were then installed to allow for baggage service, leading to the nickname "cab-baggage cars" or "cabbages".

Six NPCUs rebuilt for Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest do not have the roll-up side doors, because the Talgo sets on which they operate have a baggage car as part of the trainset, though No. 90230 and No. 90250 were later fitted with these doors.

Four NPCUs are used on the Downeaster. These units have Downeaster logos applied to the front and the sides of the units.

Three NPCUs are designated for use on Amtrak California services. They are painted in a paint scheme similar to the old with blue-and-teal striped livery used by Caltrain between 1985 and 1997.

In 2011, Amtrak F40PH 406 was converted to an NPCU to enable push-pull operation of Amtrak's 40th-anniversary exhibit train; in addition a HEP generator was installed to supply auxiliary electricity. Unlike other NPCUs, the 406 retains its original number (instead of being renumbered to 90406) and resembles an operational F40PH externally.

In 2017, NCDOT started a Cab Control Unit (CCU) program using ex-GO F59PHs. These are used on the Piedmont.

In 2023, Amtrak began testing a former HHP-8 locomotive as a cab car with the aim of supplementing or replacing the existing ex-Metroliner cab cars until the Airo fleet arrives.


Control Car Examples


A typical built Mafersa cab car with a P40DC at Old Saybrook. (Interstate Railfan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Pacific Surfliner cab car in 2018. (Glenn Beltz from Goleta, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


NJ Transit Comet V at Dunellen. (Adam E. Moreira, CC BY-SA 3.0 US <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Amtrak 9645 at Lancaster station in August 2017. (にび三郎, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

LIRR 600, an Alco FA-2 converted into a "power pack". (Tim Darnell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Long Island Rail Road Control Cab that was rebuilt from Milwaukee Road F9 No. 126A and now classed as an F9m. The unit now contains a Detroit Diesel V-12, which runs the generator that supplies hotel power to the train. The unit is incapable of moving on its own. September 20, 1979. Photo by John J. Scala. (Audio-Visual Designs, Earlton, NY, Public domain, via W. Lenheim Collection)


One of the two Amtrak Downeaster NPCUs in Brunswick, Maine.

(Bubblecuffer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)