The Brakeman

Historically, the brakeman held one of the most danger occupations on the freight train, or anywhere on the railroad, being required to walk atop moving freight cars manually applying the brakes. Thankfully, today, with newer technologies the position is much safer albeit the importance of the brakeman has also dwindled because of this. The current position of brakeman with the railroad industry is almost always the lowest on the seniority list, behind conductors and engineers, and is available on shortlines (Class IIIs), regionals (Class IIs), and even Class I railroads. You can also find brakeman positions on tourist railroads/excursion trains although, of course, it usually offers little in the way of steady pay.

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A trio of power, led by Norfolk Southern C40-9W #9253, waits in Harrisburg Yard, Pennsylvania while the conductor aligns switches on February 16, 2008.

Once upon a time when there was no such thing as automatic air brakes on freight trains the brakeman was the crewman responsible for setting a freight car's brakes individually,while the train was at speed, by using the available brake wheel. As you may have guessed this was very dangerous work and what's worse, it had to be done in all types of weather; rain, snow, wind, you name it! With the advent of the automatic airbrake (where the train's brakes were controlled by the engineer and could be instantly applied to all cars once set) the brakeman's role was reduced but not necessarily eliminated.

Today, the job of the brakeman on the railroad is mostly relegated to throwing switches when needed and coupling or uncoupling cuts of freight cars whether being done in yards or out on the main line. As mentioned before, if you have never worked for a railroad or know much about the industry please let me warn you that a career such as a railroad brakeman is not for the faint of heart. Railroading is tough work and takes a dedicated breed not only to handle the physical demands required but also the mental fatigue, as working 12-hour, seven-day-a-week shifts is normal (and overtime is mandatory).

The Tower 55 operator hands up orders to the crew of Amtrak's "Lone Star," led by E9A #367 (a former Union Pacific unit), after it had just departed Fort Worth, bound for Dallas, during October of 1976.

While a more predictable work schedule does come with seniority, don’t expect it to happen within a short period of time. Some railroaders wait 20 years or more to land a “9 to 5” workday, which usually consists of working yard or local jobs. There is a reason why railroaders say that railroading becomes a lifestyle, its not just saying! Having said that, if you are able to hire on with a shortline (Class III) or regional (Class II) railroad the opportunity for a more predictable schedule is very likely although the pay is not quite as good.  As far as I know there are no formal classes taught to learn the position of brakeman, the training is done by the individual railroad which hires you. 

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The CGW mostly stuck with Electro-Motive diesels but occasionally purchased from other builders, such as Baldwin. Seen here is one of its ten DS-4-4-1000 switchers, #41, kicking cars around the yard at Saint Paul, Minnesota on June 2, 1964.

It should also be noted that a form of the brakeman position is also held on passenger trains where they are known as trainman, who's duties mostly consist of assisting the conductor as needed. Again, if you are not even sure if a career in railroading is right for you but would like to learn more about what it takes to work in the industry you might want to consider the book Working on the Railroad from noted author Brian Solomon. Solomon's book details the history of working in the railroad industry and the difficulties and hardship employees faced back then as well as today. After reading this book you should have no doubts about whether working in the industry is something you are truly interested in.

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