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What is a Railway Brake?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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A railway brake is a kind of braking system on a rail car. The railway brake has gone through many changes in successive eras of rail transport. Older and more primitive railway brake systems have evolved into more modern apparatuses to handle the higher demands of modern trains.

In the oldest and simplest railway brake systems, the railway brakes were operated by an individual. This person was sometimes called a “brakeman.” The engineer used signals to communicate when the mechanical brakes should be applied.

A clasp brake is an example of one of the simpler kinds of brakes that dominated early rail design. In the clasp brake, the brake shoe is controlled by levers. Some others use a screw type action.

In the development of railway brakes, designers began to use boiler pressure as a braking agent. This eventually led to more sophisticated forms of railway brakes, including continuous railway brake and air braking systems. The continuous braking system first appeared as a “chain brake” where a long chain provided a more comprehensive braking agent. Hydraulic systems also came to be used.

In air braking systems, pressure became the effective braking agent. In some parts of the world, a different system emerged, often called a vacuum system. The vacuum system was in some cases easier to implement, but the air brakes were often considered more effective.

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Newer kinds of railway brakes have supplanted earlier designs. One kind of modern electronic brake is the electromagnetic or EM brake. This brake type uses an electrical signal to implement a mechanical execution of torque for braking. Where other “electropneumatic” systems used to be popular, EM brakes have come to dominate much of the railway braking technology.

Modern railway brakes often utilize the principle of regenerative braking. Regenerative braking is a strategy of diverting the active energy of a vehicle and using it for braking. This ultra-effective braking technology is also much used in other kinds of vehicles. There are many ways to make a braking system regenerative, having to do with converting one kind of energy effectively into another.

When historians look at the evolution of rail technology, they can see how modernization changed the face of transport over the last few centuries. Observing changes in railway brakes is part of this study. Along with personal automotive systems, railway brake systems have been continually updated to supply the braking power needed for more powerful modern vehicles.

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