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Brakeman’s Blues

The train song of the day is a Jimmie Rodgers tune called Brakeman’s Blues performed here in fine style by the Punch Brothers.

So, what exactly is a brakeman? The following is excerpted from Wikipedia….

In the US, the brakeman was a member of a railroad train’s crew responsible for assisting with braking a train when the conductor wanted the train to slow down. A brakeman’s duties also included ensuring that the couplings between cars were properly set, lining switches, and signaling to the train operators while performing switching operations. The brakemen rode in the caboose, the last car in the train, which was built specially to allow a crew member to apply the brakes of the caboose quickly and easily, which would help to slow the train. In rare cases, such as descending a long, steep grade, brakemen might be assigned to several cars, and be required to operate the brakes while the train was moving from atop the train. Brakemen were also required to watch the train when it was underway to look for signs of hot box, (a dangerous overheating of axles,) as well as for people trying to ride the train for free, and cargo shifting or falling off.

As rail transport technology has improved, a brakeman’s duties have been reduced and altered to match the updated technology, and the brakeman’s job has become much safer than it was in the early days of railroading. Individually operated car brakes were replaced with automatic air brakes, eliminating the need for the brakeman to walk atop a moving train to set the brakes. Link and pin couplings were replaced with automatic couplings, and hand signals are now supplemented by two-way radio communication.


Freight and yard crews consisting of conductor, engineer, and brakeman usually employ the brakeman in throwing hand operated track switches to line up for switching moves and assisting in cuts and hitches as cars are dropped off and picked up.

In passenger service, the brakeman (called trainman or assistant conductor) collects revenue, may operate door “through switches” for specific platforming needs, makes announcements, and operates trainline door open and close controls when required to assist the conductor. A passenger service trainman is often required to qualify as a conductor after 1 to 2 years experience. The rear end trainman signals to the conductor when all the train’s doors are safely closed, then boards and closes his/her door.

It’s no surprise that the brakeman’s job is a mystery to many. These days, we hardly know anything about trains. Here’s Chuck Mitchell performing Utah Phillip’s Daddy What’s a Train…

I don’t know exactly why I like trains, but maybe it’s imprinted somehow. When I was a kid, me and the Junction boys would go over to the tracks back of Ryding Park and lay slugs on the tracks and wait for the freights to come by and flatten them. It was the end of an era. Across Dundas St. from my dad’s window shop, the Queen City Leatherworks was still operating, but I think things were winding down by that point. Back in the day, my grandpa made gloves for the railwaymen there in the junction. They made gloves downstairs, had a retail storefront on the main floor, and some living space behind the store and upstairs too. It was a pretty self-contained kind of operation. I loved hearing my dad’s stories from those Junction days.

1 Comment so far

  1. When I was growing up we had an abandoned railway track at the end of our road, which led through the woods and fields, that we used as a pathway.

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