What Are the Main Responsibilities of a Train Brakeman?

A long time ago, the brakeman’s job was a difficult and dangerous one. They had to defeat death quite often while they were on the job.

Fortunately, the job of the brakeman is no longer perilous. Today, the brakeman needs to inspect the coupling and other train parts. They must also be knowledgeable about railroad equipment and how the train operates.

There have been many improvements concerning the railroad rules over the years. Read this article and discover what the primary responsibilities of a train brakeman entail.

What Does a Train Brakeman Do?

A train brakeman often referred to as a brake operator, regulates railroad track switches and is responsible for the coupling and uncoupling of railroad passenger freight cars. Some brake operators will travel with the trains. Some of the other duties of the brake operator include the following:

  • Inspecting couplings
  • Hand brakes
  • Air hoses
  • Signaling train engineers to stop/start
  • Other parts of the train

There are no formal courses taught on becoming a brakeman. On-the-job training is necessary to become a brake operator. There is a specific skill needed to be able to navigate the job. If you are hired as a brakeman, you will be expected to have knowledge of the following:

  • Railroad equipment
  • Policies/procedures
  • Mechanical work
  • Condition of train cars

Some brake operators also have manual labor they must do on the job. They may need to pick up or carry heavy objects, which means they must be in decent physical condition.

diesel locomotive
Todd & Jack Humphrey

What is the History of the Train Brakeman?

Before rules were enacted, the brakeman would run on top of the passenger cars and set the brakes. Many brakemen would be injured or even die while working their job.

Brake operators were also often expected to work in harsh weather or other hazardous conditions. These dangerous times include the following:

  • Rain
  • Snow
  • Ice
  • Late at night

In the late 19th century, before implementing airbrakes, trains had to be stopped by labor-intensive means. Even when the airbrake was introduced, the brakeman still had to climb on top of the train to set the brakes manually when cars needed to be removed from the train.

The “hickey” was what the brakeman used to tighten the brake. It was a short iron bar that was inserted through the spikes of the wheel brake. The operating of the brakes was often an insurmountable challenge for them.

Sometimes there would be a middle brakeman who would ride out in the open so that they would be at the ready to put on the brakes if needed. Middle brakemen were often employed on long freight trains where freight trains had to be continually released.

The way they applied the brakes was that they would turn a giant wheel situated on the top of each passenger train car. They would need to ride on the roof of the cars and leap from one to the other to hit the brakes or release them.

The conductor would apply the brakes to each car as quickly as possible. Operating the brakes on a moving train in bad weather was often dangerous. The conductor would apply the brakes to each car as quickly as possible. Operating the brakes on a moving train in bad weather was often dangerous.

train brakeman
Bill Johnson

Why Was the Brakeman’s Job So Dangerous?

The train brakeman would work in the worst conditions. It is even worse than the brakeman risked losing their balance if a stuck brake wheel would get free.

The brakeman could fall between the cars and lose their lives. The brakeman’s job was beyond unsafe. The top of the freight car would often freeze with ice in the winter. The brakeman was still expected to do their job and set or release the brakes.

The tracks were not always lined up horizontally, which made matters worse. There would be a rolling action when the cars drove over uneven track areas. It was not until the invention of air brakes that the train brakeman would get some relief.

What Was the O&W Railroad Tunnel?

The O&W railroad tunnel was one of three tunnels near the Shawangunk Mountains. The tunnel was susceptible to the following:

  • Cracks
  • Fractures
  • Rockfalls

All these factors created a need for daily inspection of the tunnel. The steam and smoke expelled from the engine would hang around the inside of the tunnel since there was no way to vent either one.

Even though there were regular track inspections, there were setbacks inside the tunnel caused by rock falls. The brakeman and other train workers sometimes needed to stay behind in the tunnel until the obstruction was cleared.

Sometimes, a slow-moving freight train would need to pass through the tunnel with a pusher engine’s aid. The train may have had to take orders as it went by the High View station. If it was signaled, the train might need to stop.

Before the enclosed cabin for the brakeman was invented, they would ride on metal ladders on the sides of the passenger cars.

Even when they had the enclosed cabins, they would still have to stay open to the elements, and the brakeman could hear the braking signals from the engineer.

Before OSHA, there were no set rules or guidelines to protect these brave train workers.

locomotive brakeman
Bill Johnson

What Were the Other Responsibilities of the Brakeman?

The brakeman was also responsible for coupling and uncoupling the passenger cars. Switching cars was also a dangerous job for them, as the brakeman had to stand between two cars and attach or detach them.

They risked being crushed to death every day, or at the very least losing a finger while getting the essential pin and link system. The O&W Summitville depot and rail yard where they crossed to the O&W Maine Line is an example of a place where they would need to switch cars.

The brakeman would also need to work to collect or deliver local passenger cars. Even after the invention of automatic signals, the brakeman still had to hold up a flag during the day or a red safety lantern at night to signal.

The brakeman risked frostbite or hypothermia to accomplish this arduous task in the winter. The brakeman also had to throw manual switches along the rail line. They would run along the front of the train and open the switch before the engine caught up with them.

At the end of the train, other brakemen also had to risk their lives. They had to jump from the train, close the switch, and then catch up with the train and come back onboard. It was a challenging and often frightening experience for them.

The brakeman often sustained injuries, as they would slip and fall from the train. In some instances, the brakeman risked falling under the train’s wheels and being killed.

train crew
Jeff Hampton

What Was the Riskiest Feat for the Brakeman?

The brakeman would often need to execute a procedure called the “flying switch.” For this task, the brakeman would decouple what was referred to as “orphan cars.” The back part of the train behind the cars to be pushed needed to be decoupled.

The rest of the train would come forward, and once the train came to the switch, the brakeman would decouple these cars. The engineer would speed up toward the cars that required a push, and after the engine and the cars attached behind it rode over the siding switch, the brakeman on the ground would send the orphaned cars into the siding.

All of this had to be accomplished very quickly, as the train would back up and pick up the cars behind the shoved cars. Part of the train would be left behind on a siding without requiring a second engine. The cars would move at a rapid pace.

Because of the dangerous maneuver, there were many lawsuits involving the widows of the brakemen who died attempting to achieve this action. It was also hazardous for pedestrians trying to cross the tracks.

Many pedestrians did not know that the orphan cars followed a short distance behind and were hit as the cars went through the grade crossing. The “flying switch” was subsequently banned in many states.

diesel train
Bill Hooper

New Rules

In the 19th century, new jobs created a need for improved health and safety standards. Our modern governmental interest in the quality of working standards reminds us of the days before these laws were enacted.

In the late 19th century, railroad jobs became much safer, and an innovation-led way to such acts as The Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893 administered by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, which took effect in 1900.

The Interstate Commerce Commission, also known as the ICC,  was created to ensure the following:

  • Fair rates being paid to employees
  • The elimination of race discrimination
  • Control other aspects of common carriers
  • No long haul/short-haul discrimination

Congress passed the law due to public demand that railroad operations were safe and fair for workers. Once this was in place, things started to change. The Interstate Commerce Act addressed the issue of railroad monopolies by making rules that pertained to the operation of the industry.

The most important aspect of the law was that railroads were required to submit annual reports to the ICC. However, there was some confusion with the law, as its rules often contradicted each other. For example, some notions encouraged competition, while others prohibited it.

Some years later, the Interstate Commerce Commission permitted Congress to make laws concerning regulating private corporations involved in interstate commerce. The act was one of America’s most important articles.

train crew brakeman
Bill Hooper

The Importance of Safety Encouraged Change

A federal law was written with the objective to make the air brakes and the mechanical couplers obligatory on all of the train lines in the United States was the Safety Appliance Act. This law is fundamental to train workers, especially the brakeman. The law helped decrease the rate of accidents while working on the train.

The act ensured that railroad companies involved in interstate commerce would have a satisfactory quantity of cars outfitted with the train’s brakes so that the engineer on the train could regulate the train’s speed without needing a brakeman to employ a handbrake to do so.

It also made railroad companies have couplers that could be coupled and uncoupled without needing the brakeman to go in between the ends of the cars.

The Railroad Safety Appliance act also prohibited cars that did not provide secure grab irons and handholds on the end and side of the cars. If railroad companies did not adhere to these rules, they would be fined, for every violation, $100.

Important Safety Measures are Taken

The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 expanded on the original document. There were even more rules put in place to ensure the safety of all railroad workers. Some of the provisions included were the following:

  • All railroads, interstate, and intrastate were covered
  • All sectors of railroad well-being
  • Authority to deliver emergency orders
  • Appropriation of the safety regulations ratified by each state

There were mare cases in which the rules were expanded upon. Each time there were provisions made to the law, it further ensured the health and safety of railroad workers.

What is the Job of the Railroad Brakeman Like Now?

The brakeman’s job in today’s industry is thankfully no longer a dangerous one. However, the brakeman tends to be the lowest on the totem pole. They come behind conductors and engineers.

Depending on the railroad, the brakeman job is available on short lines and sometimes even Class I’s. Unfortunately, the job does not always provide steady pay. Today, the position of brakeman usually only involves throwing switches when necessary and coupling/uncoupling cars.

Working on a railroad is a difficult job. It requires a lot of hard work. For some railroad brakemen, their primary duty is to assist the conductor.

train at sunset
Jeff Hampton


The job of a brakeman was once a dangerous one. It required complex maneuvering that you would think you would only see in the movies.

Fortunately, there are now rules in place that forbid railroad companies to put the lives of their brakeman in danger. However, the role of the brakeman in today’s train industry is not as prevalent as it once was.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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