What does a Train Brakeman do?

Dan Cavallari

The job of the brakeman has changed significantly over the years. Historically, the brakeman was a person who helped stop the train, since most trains had cars with individual braking systems. The brakeman was responsible for getting to an individual car to apply its brakes manually in order to help stop or slow the train when necessary. Since the inception of automatic braking systems on trains, brakemen have taken on other duties necessary to keep a train running efficiently and safely.

In the 19th Century, brakemen had to activate the brakes on the individual cars in a train.
In the 19th Century, brakemen had to activate the brakes on the individual cars in a train.

While brakemen did move from car to car — a very dangerous activity even in the best conditions — most of the time the brakeman was stationed in the caboose of the train. Brakes could be applied in the caboose, which would aid in slowing the train down. In addition to the braking duties, brakemen were responsible for ensuring that all couplings were connected properly, and they were constantly on the lookout for overheating axles, stowaways, and shifting cargo that could adversely affect the handling of the train. Because brakemen rode in various cars on the train, they faced many dangers, including moving freight, stowaways, and extreme conditions. Brakemen were often exposed to the elements, which led to sickness and even death.

With train braking now automatic, brakemen often perform other duties over the course of a trip.
With train braking now automatic, brakemen often perform other duties over the course of a trip.

A brakeman would communicate with the conductor using hand signals. Because he might be moving from car to car, it was important for the brakeman to make sure the conductor knew immediately if there were any problems. Today, two-way communication devices have largely replaced hand signals, and automatic air brakes prevent brakemen from having to move from car to car. As a result, the job is far safer today than it was in the past.

A brakeman is the train conductor's extra set of eyes, keeping a lookout for issues that may complicate the train's operations.
A brakeman is the train conductor's extra set of eyes, keeping a lookout for issues that may complicate the train's operations.

Today, brakemen have different responsibilities. A brakeman is responsible for taking tickets on passenger trains, and ensuring that all doors are closed properly before the train departs. He is responsible for communicating with passengers, making announcements pertinent to the trip, and assist passengers boarding and unboarding the train. In freight train yards, brakemen will throw hand operated switches that allow different cars to be moved into position and coupled to other cars. A brakeman is responsible for checking the train's braking systems before it gets underway, which includes checking brake pads, air hoses, and gaskets. He is also the conductor's extra set of eyes, keeping a lookout for rail obstructions, problems on the train itself, or other issues that may complicate or endanger the train's operations.

Train brakemen were typically stationed in the caboose.
Train brakemen were typically stationed in the caboose.

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Discussion Comments


I imagine that the job of a train brakeman is still a tough one today. Traveling long distances is never easy, and making sure that so many passengers are safe can be quite the duty.

When I travel by train I always like to have a quick chat with the brakeman just to see how the trip is looking. They are very knowledgeable about their routes and are the person to ask if there may be any delays coming up.

It's a good rule of thumb to always be polite with your ticket taker. You never know when you train will be delayed and you'll need inside info. on how to get home quickly.


There are stories that pop up in the news every now and again that really illustrate how important it is for the train conductor to have a second pair of eyes. The train brakeman has apparently managed to save quite a few lives over the history of the profession.

If you are interested in history, you can find lots of stories from back when being a brakeman was a risky profession. There were tales of brakemen nabbing frightened children from tracks and preventing large scale accidents.

It still makes me feel better today to know that there are more than just one person keeping an eye out on the tracks.


I don't see nearly as many freight trains in operation as I used to. There are some tracks close to our house that are not in use at all any more. When I do see a train go by, I hardly ever see a caboose anymore.

It seems like there would not be nearly as many brakeman jobs as there used to be since the railroad industry has changed so much. We would always look for the man in the caboose and hope he would wave at us.

Once we were stopped in a town in the middle of Nebraska waiting for our car to be worked on and the station was close to some rail road tracks. We were told that a train went through their town every 20 minutes.

Even though there are still a lot of freight trains in use, the job of a brakeman has changed through the years and sounds like it is a much safer job than what it was years ago.


When I was growing up, we lived in an area that had several trains go through town many times a day. I was always fascinated with the caboose and the brakeman.

As a kid I thought it would be such an exciting and adventurous job. When you are young you don't think about how dangerous the job of a brakeman was.

Their job today is just as important for the safety of everyone, but it is also much safer for the brakeman too.


As a history major I love to read stories about train workers and how dangerous the job was. Not only did the brakeman have to move from car to car, he had to do it while the train was in full motion. For anyone that has to walk while in the car of a train, it is the same as walking in a small, fast moving boat, as it is hard to maintain a sense of balance.

Not only did the brakeman have to move safely from car to car, sometimes several dozen times, but they had to manually pull the brakes on the cars and shut down the train, which can involve having to stand near the outside of the train, with risk of falling off or getting run over by the train.

This job has evolved over the years as it was once a very dangerous job for laborers, but now requires more working knowledge of the trains and understanding of the safety aspects concerning train and freight train travel.


@jmc88 - You are correct. The brakeman for freight trains has a lot of responsibility as the train is usually carrying more cars and is much heavier than a passenger train.

Although on a passenger train the brakeman does attend to passengers, it seems to me like this is simply a task that needs to be done and was just added to the duties or the brakeman.

The main job of the brakeman is to ensure safety while on the train and also switch the tracks when needed. On freight trains this is very important to make sure that the freight travels to the correct destination (wrong turns are brutal for trains) and also that they safely get to their destination. The same can be said for brakeman on passenger trains, as they are responsible for the passengers on board.


@titans62 - Considering that the train brakeman acts more like a safety engineer than a laborer I have to imagine that the brakeman on freight trains has a similar job.

The only differences I can see is that the brakeman on a freight train does not have to deal with passengers and is only relegated to inspecting the train and making sure the brakes work right and the cars are attached properly.


So going by this article it seems like the job of a train brakeman has evolved dramatically over the years. In the past the brakeman seemed to have only one job and that was to simply stop the train. However, with the technological advances in trains over the years, as well as the virtual elimination of the caboose, there is no need for one person to stop the train.

It seems as if today the brakeman has much more responsibility and seems more like a safety engineer as opposed to someone who only has one task to do.

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