Monday, July 6, 2015

Handbrakes and Brakemen Running Boards

When I noticed that a 1948 C&O caboose had a ladder to the roof and a running board across the top, I wondered when the brake wheel moved from near the top of a car to near the bottom. And that lead to researching handbrakes in general.

Shorpy, 1890s
At the top of the boxcar in front you can see the wheel for the handbrake and the end of a running board. If you access the link, you can see on the right side of the boxcar in the background a ladder up the side as well as its brake wheel. You can also see the polling pockets on the foreground boxcar. When railroading began, to stop a train the engineer would use the whistle to sound a "stop" signal and brakemen would use the running board to go from car to car to turn the brake wheels. There was also a whistle single to indicate they should release the brakes. The following two photos illustrate the running boards and some more brake wheels. Can you imagine the job of a brakeman on a cold, snowy night on top of moving cars that are lurching back and forth?

Shorpy, 1905
Shorpy, 1943
Shorpy, 1899
The length and speed of a train was not limited by the power of the locomotive, it was limited by the amount of time it took the brakemen to move from car to car to turn the wheels. I have noticed that the American, or 4-4-0, design was used for decades, then the size of steam locomotives steadily increased. It took the development of air brakes, and probably also steel, to allow the length, weight, and speed of trains to grow.

These boxcars that were converted to carry prisoners-of-war up north during the civil war have brake wheels on the top. In fact, some of them are rather high so the poor brakeman doesn't have to lean over as far while turning the wheel. You may have to access the links to get enough resolution to see the wheels.

Shorpy, 1860s
Shorpy, 1860s
Westinghouse Air Brake was founded in 1869, but the first design used the train line air pressure to apply the brakes. A break in the train line did not allow brakes to be applied. In 1872, Westinghouse introduced an air reservoir tank and the triple valve. For diagrams of a triple valve, see page 12 in Train Securement. A break in the train hose applied the brakes and was called an automatic brake. That is, it was a "fail safe" design. (Wikipedia1, Wabtec)

Portable two-way radios had to be developed to make running boards obsolete.
Jeffrey Wincek posted
Railroading when it was cool.
Don McLean Been there and did that.We never had radios and all signals were given by hand and the guy on top of the cars relayed them to the engineman.There used to be two men in the cab of the locomotive.The second man was called the fireman.I guess a draw back to steam when he would keep the fire going to keep the steam up.They used coal and then went to buncer "c" oil.Then came the diesel and the fireman was eventually fased out.He was kept on as a more or less safety feature. When Walkie Talkies came into play and the signals were relayed directly to the engineman ,the man on the roof of the cars and the fireman were no longer necessary.We used kerosene lanterns at night.
JR Sampson About 1960-61 from the looks of the cars on the autorack.
Don McLean It was in the early sixties that the radios came into operation.They made a brakeman's job a lot safer and a bit easier.It put three men on the ground.
JR Sampson Don McLean I was passing signals from cartops and over in the farmers field still in the late 70s.
Kenny Backes they'd fire your ass if they ever caught you passing signals from on top a box car even when I hired out in the 70's.
Michael Schmidt Kenny Backes We did in the yards on the Milwaukee Road. Did it till they outlawed the running boards.
Arthur Houston RR when roof walks were in use were the most dangerous place in the world to work. Casualties would go past a 1000 a year.
Richard Long Never had the opportunity of riding on top of the cars. But was able to enjoy dropping cars and kicking cars plus getting on and off moving equipment.
Don McLean Before the radios when we came out of a siding we had to line the switch back and run to catch the caboose.If the engineman underestimated his train the conductor had to put it into emergency or you got left behind. Started of working with no CTC.Ran on train orders only.You had to know your Rule book then.
Tom Lyman "Going High" we did it well into the 70's in all kind of weather snow, rain, daylight, dark, walked from car to car as needed.
Andrew Van Wagnen My dad said that some times the only time feet hit the ground was beans, coffee and going home.
Tim Jantzen Those were not 'the good ol days' Most of you are too young to remember railroad men couldn't even get life insurance. Falling off the roofs were common and so were fatalities. It might look cool to run across the roof but it's anything but. The tail end crew breathed in asbestos and who knows what else. Hours were awful and so was the pay. Enjoy what you got because a lot of people died before safety even became a word. Before the 80's most conductors died before they even collected their first retirement check because of cancer and hoggers were deaf.
Kenny Backes truer words havent been spoken on here....good ole asbestos brake shoes.
Ralph Herman Hired out mid 60s retired in 08 we passed signals from the top of cars. There was running boards on the top eventually were removed , most boxcars had high hand brakes than .
Robert Carlyle Lewis In the days before portable radios this was a common way to pass signals when working on curves. Someone would be on the ladder next to the locomotive and pass the signals to the engineer. You just didn’t want to ride the end of the last car since slack and/or a hard joint could knock you off.
Wayne Ladd Back when brakemen were actually brakemen!
Michael Schmidt I hated fixing the running boards. I loved it when we started cutting them off all the box cars for safety and repair reasons..
Dave Stelly I have walked a mile on the top of grain hopper cars. Easy. Yes it was moving about 20.

Stuart Chirls shared
With the triple valve, the train line is normally at full pressure and each car's air reservoir tank is at full pressure. Brakes are applied by reducing the pressure in the air line. When reading stories told by engineers, I'll see phrases like "a 10-pound reduction" to set the train's brakes. That is, they release air to set the brakes. That train line reduction creates a pressure differential between the train line and the tank. The triple valve senses that difference and allows enough air to flow to the brake cylinders to apply a pressure equivalent to the reduction. Thus a break in the train line dumps all of the air and the triple valve applies the full pressure of the reservoir tank against the brakes. This is why the wheels stop turning and flat spots are ground into the wheels during an emergency stop. That damage to every freight car is one reason why an engineer won't go into emergency stop if it sees a car on the tracks. But the main reason is because it won't be able to stop before it reaches the car.

To release the brakes, air is pumped back into the airline so that the pressure differential is reduced to zero and the reservoir tank is refilled to its full pressure.

A weakness with air brakes is that in mountains that have long downhill grades, all of the pressure stored in the reservoir tanks can be depleted and you have no braking power left. This, of course, causes a runaway train. Specifically, if you apply a big reduction for a steep grade, you have to back off the reduction for a shallow grade or else you will bring the train to a stop on the shallow grade. So for a shallow grade, you pump more air into the train line, but not enough to release the brakes and start filling the reservoir tank. But when you come to another steep grade, you release more air from the train line, which uses more air from the tank. Repeated cycling between light and heavy breaking without ever doing a full release of the brakes causes air to be repeatedly removed from the tanks without ever adding air to it. Thus you run out of reserve air pressure and have a runaway. Mountain railroading still required a brakeman for about every ten cars. At the top of the mountain, the engineer would tell the brakemen how much brake pressure to apply to the pads with the hand brakes. This would be enough pressure to keep the train safe on shallow grades so that the air brakes could be released and air added to the tanks. And it reduces the air reduction needed for the steep grades. At the bottom of the mountain, the brakemen would then release the hand brakes before the train headed up the next mountain. I believe the train would come to a complete stop at the top of the mountain for the brakemen to apply the breaks. I'm not sure if it stopped in the valley for the release of the brakes.

When diesel locomotives became prevalent, dynamic braking became an option. Using the dynamic brakes instead of air brakes in mountains eliminated the need for brakemen to adjust the hand brakes on the road. The only time hand brakes need to be applied is when the train is parked or when cars have been spotted. And that can be done by the regular crew. A parked train needs to have at least some hand brakes applied to hold the train because the air will eventually leak out of the train line.

Cropped from a LoC photo of the Detroit Ferry
[Look at the forest of handbrake wheels. this would be early 20th Century because the ferry was launched in 1904 and the flatcar carried steam-powered tractors.]

Freight operations on the Indiana Harbor Belt railroad between Chicago, Illinois and Hammond, Indiana. Part of the train inspection consists of releasing the hand brakes


Freight operations on the Indiana Harbor Belt railroad between Chicago, Illinois and Hammond, Indiana. The train goes off to the icehouse as the caboose is cut off and goes down a siding to the yard office


Freight operations on the Indiana Harbor Belt railroad between Chicago, Illinois and Hammond, Indiana. The conductor uses hand brakes on the caboose to stop it as it coasts down a siding

In 1887, Westinghouse invented the quick action triple value.  (Wikipedia2) "The emergency portion of each triple valve is activated by the extremely rapid rate of reduction of train line pressure. Due to the length of trains and the small diameter of the train line, the rate of reduction is high near the front of the train (in the case of an engine operator-initiated emergency application) or near the break in the train line (in the case of the train line coming apart). Farther away from the source of the emergency application, the rate of reduction can be reduced to the point where triple valves will not detect the application as an emergency reduction. To prevent this, each triple valve's emergency portion contains an auxiliary vent port, which, when activated by an emergency application, also locally vents the train line's pressure directly to atmosphere. This serves to propagate the emergency application rapidly along the entire length of the train." (Wikipedia3)

Shorpy, circa 1900
Passenger cars converted to air brakes rather quickly. But these gondola cars pictured in 1900 show that freight cars were slower to convert. Maybe these cars are not used for interchange service but just locally to shuttle ore from the dock to the mill. I'm going to have to learn more about how to do history research to determine how quickly freight trains transitioned to air brakes. This is the type of conversion that, unless all of the cars in the train are equipped with a brake line, the air brakes will have problems. In another 1900 photo, it appears there is an air line hanging at the end of a boxcar.

Shorpy, 1900

Box car in the middle background.
Shorpy, 1904
The C&A boxcars in the foreground indicate that air brakes were probably retrofitted in old boxcars. I believe the turnbuckle bracing on the bottom indicates these cars have a wood frame. And the inside length of only 35 feet is another indicator that these cars might be too old to have been built with air brakes. Yet you can clearly see brake line hoses hanging at the end.
Shorpy, 1943
By World War II, we see evidence that probably all freight cars have air brakes. Notice the air hose hanging by each coupler. But the cars still have ladders that go to the roof, running boards, and high brake wheels.
Shorpy, 1943
The boxcar on the left illustrates a couple of evolutions. One that we also see in the above picture is that the ladder is moved from the side to the end. I have no idea why this change is considered an improvement. The newer change is that the brake wheel is placed high on the end rather than sticking above the top of the car. A comment by Bob Chaparro explains the reason for this change: "The basis for this was the 1937 requirement for geared (“power”) handbrakes required on all newly-built or newly-rebuilt cars. No more "stem winder" shaft and brake wheel arrangements. The geared hand brakes were a definite improvement."

20141011 0257
Modern freight cars now have the wheel close to the bottom of the car so that a crew member doesn't have to climb up on the car to set or release the handbrake. I do take pictures of the freight cars of mixed trains. But I have learned that the brake wheel does not appear in most of them. Fortunately, a sequence of pictures I took to learn about auto-focus delays does show a couple of brake wheels. (The train in the background is moving at track speed behind the two tank cars that are part of a parked train at Belmont Station in Downers Grove, IL.) On the left car you can see the chain that goes from the wheel to the brake shoes. Handbrakes are still needed because they need to be set to hold parked cars since the air stored in the car's pressure tank will eventually leak out. So a crew member still walks down the train setting brakes, but on the ground instead of on the top of the cars and not while the train is moving.
In this picture of a boxcar, in addition to the low-level brake wheel, you can see the ladders no longer go up to the roof. They are just high enough to let a crew member ride the car during switching maneuvers.

So in addition to the research topic of how quickly did cars transition to air brakes there is the topic of when did brake wheels transition to ground-level from the running board level? Marty Bernard has a 1965 picture of a CB&Q local train in Downers Grove, IL. Note that the brake wheel on the covered hopper behind the engine is in the intermediate position of being on the end but near the top. (Update: Bob Chaparro's comment answers the question concerning the transition: "1966 - Federal ban on running boards for new cars delivered after October 1 for all cars that did not require roof access plus requirement for four-rung ladders and low-mounted brake wheels.
1983 - Running boards outlawed on all boxcars and refrigerator cars as of December 31.")

Update: at 14:34 in a video, a crew member sets the handbrake on the tool car for an undercutter. Note that it is an old box car converted to this use so the brake wheel is still near the roof.

A Facebook response to a comment I made about running boards:
Tom Galloway I rode with my uncle on the Tucson Division of the Southern Pacific in 1966. As Flagman, his job, was to walk the train, from the head end back, making sure 1) that all the handbrakes were released and 2) that the proper number of retainers were set in the proper position as we left the yard....

Vern Widgield posted
Vern's comment:
Milw - StLouisPark - Unknown date -- Milw 584 (SDL39) Westbound road train pumping up the air on the pick up just made at Bass Lake Yard -- Iinteresting that the photo was taken to show the train, but now the elevator in the background gets the interest.

The photographer was focused on the train, the poster was focused on the elevator, but I focused on the brakeman on top of the boxcar. My comment:
It also catches someone using the walkway on a boxcar. Since the SDL39 was built 1969-72, that probably means the walkways were still available into the 1970s. [3-25-2018: I fixed the comment to use "running board" instead of "walkway."]
I got the SDL39 info from,

Carl Venzke posted
March 1943. Sibley, Missouri. Passing one of the diesel passenger locomotives of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.
David W. Towne This article actually features the same photo:

Dennis DeBruler Not only running boards, but a brake wheel still high in the air. [comment in posting is fixed]

Carl Venzke posted
Four trains abreast-- enormous traffic on the Penn. R'y, west of Altoona, Pa. c 1907 - print from stereo card - Library of Congress
Bob Poortinga This looks like Horseshoe Curve. You can see the grade across the valley on the left.
Mike Moore Looks like MOW cleaning up the rock slide out of the ditch.
Bill Stephens Wasn't 1907 a year with a financial panic? Maybe just before it hit??
[Note the two men under the signal bridge standing on top of the far train.]
Quentin Mong And how about the men on top of a freight car....Today & OHSA...
Don't think so...

Wayne Horvath Before air brakes, brakemen "rode the tops" and moved from car to car to set brakes when called for. Roofwalks continued to be built into box cars long after air brakes became general.
Quentin Mong Wayne Horvath Wayne...Yes, I am fully aware of that situation. I just mentioned it comparing to regulations in place today. That must have been one of the most dangerous jobs on the railroad....with conditions such as weather...communication...night running, and trying to determine where and when to set brakes, and how many....Can't imagine how that worked well enough (plus, how many were killed trying to do it..!! Brakemen must have been killed and in some cases, fallen off the "cars" and where...Communication being what it was 100 years plus, ago...What an extreme improvement Westinghouse braking must have made as it become the standard..!!
Wayne Horvath Another hazard was link-and-pin couplers. The cars in the picture were equipped with Janney couplers, which didn't require brakemen to go between the cars and align the link to make a coupling. Railroading was indeed dangerous prior to 1910 or so, after which air brakes, automatic couplers, block signals, hours-of-service laws. standardized MCB hardware, guarded switch-frogs, all contributed to reducing accidents and give railroaders a real prospect of working until pension-age, without losing any fingers or other appendages.
Ken Jamin Quentin Mong Actually, OSHA doesn't regulate RR operations. But, as far as the danger to RR employees in those days, that is why the "Brotherhoods" were organized. They did not have collective bargaining power, but the dues went into a fund to benefit widows and orphans of employees killed on duty and no one would insure RR employees because of the extreme danger.

Kyle Merkel posted (source)

Kyle indicated this derailment occurred in Antioch, Nov. 1962 at Ada St. I commented:
You don't see such good views of the end of boxcars very often. This shows that in the early 1960s, the handbrake wheel was still accessible from a walkway on top. [comment fixed]
Carl Venzke posted
March 1943. Summit, California (vicinity). Passing an eastbound passenger train, the Chief, while coming down the mountain on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad between Barstow and San Bernar.
Peter Dudley Tunnel ahead! That brakeman will need to lie flat on the boxcar roof, very shortly. Lionel started making three-rail O gauge "automatic brakeman" Wabash boxcars during the 1950s (a mechanical track trip, attached to a "tell-tale" signal, caused the standing brakeman to dive for the roof, just before the car went through a low bridge or entered a tunnel).
Terry Hodges posted
Early 20th Century view of N&W yards. Bluefield, WV. Source unknown.
[Alternating between gondolas and boxcars has to make the brakeman mad. And it will be harder to walk the train when the gondolas return as empties.]
Edward Jarolin shared
A westbound Santa Fe freight passes train #20, the eastbound "Chief" led by 4-8-4 #3770, along Cajon Pass near Summit, California during March of 1943. Note the brakemen riding the car roofs and the headlight shroud on the Northern, the latter a precaution to help protect trains at night in the event the Japanese bombed the West Coast. Photo by Jack Delano.
Cort Rydberg I think we quit putting running boards on top of boxcars on January 1, 1966 and then sometime later started removing all running boards from boxcars. Hopper cars still have them because workers have to get on top to open the hatches. A lot of guys were hurt and killed getting on top of boxcars.
Cort Rydberg My Grand dad who started as a Carman on the U.P. shop in Omaha in 1915 said they used to carry a guy out of that place on a strecher every day, he said they started the safety programs when they had to pay for guys getting hurt and killed.

Tom Lyman shared a photo
Let's throw back #tbt to March 1943 as photographer Jack Delano rides a freight train over Cajon Pass. This photograph, taken from the coupola of the caboose at Summit, California, shows a brakeman walking along the tops of freight cars to set retainers for the descent down the pass. On the opposing track, ATSF 4-8-4 number 3770 (of the 3765-Class) hauls the Chief towards La Junta, where the train would be handed off to one of the 3460-Class 4-6-4s.
The 3770 was built in 1938 as part of an 11 locomotive order from Baldwin. It was designed to haul heavy passenger trains over the extreme grades of the ATSF between La Junta and Los Angeles. This locomotive generated just shy of 4,500 drawbar horsepower at 60 mph.

Regarding a similar 4-8-4 on the Santa Fe, author S. Kip Farrington, Jr. stated: "It's the truth - they were the nearest to human of any [locomotive] I have ever ridden, except that no human could stand up under the punishment they took."
Rick Wright I read that in the days before the Westinghouse air brake, brakemen walked along the top of the cars to set or release handbrakes to control train speed. Average life expectancy of a brakeman back then was 3 days. Bradley Haselton The swingman... They settled for the equivalent of 50 loads summit to cajon (25 miles) and call it hill pay...Andy Zody Now that is railroading! Looks like fog down the hill as the train heads west and begins a 3.3% descent into the San Bernardino Valley. Even Chard wasn't working in the depot at this point. Love the snow capped San Gabriel's in the foreground!Tim Jantzen The good ol days were anything but. Setting retainers day/night, winter/summer was a dangerous job. So dangerous in fact, railwaymen couldn't get life insurance.
Edward Jarolin shared
A Santa Fe brakeman opens the retainer valve atop a boxcar moving downgrade over Cajon Pass near Summit, California during March of 1943. Jack Delano photo.
[There were some comments about the retainer valve, but I did not understand them.]
Brian Wunderlick posted
March 1943. Summit, California. "Brakeman opening the retainer valve on a car on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Barstow and San Bernardino. From here to San Bernardino is one long downgrade of more than 2,700 feet." Photo by Jack Delano, Office of War Information

A good view of the running board and handbrake wheels on some refrigerator cars.
Brian Wunderlick posted

Jerry Jackson commented:
1954 Westinghouse Air Brake Co. Documentary. It is not about air brakes. I couldn't force myself to watch tho whole thing.

Don Gerdts posted a photo showing two brakemen riding boxcars down a hump and other men throwing turnouts. (Click the Facebook photo to get a higher resolution photo.)

Carl Venzke posted
Southern Pacific yard.
Location: not sure, anyone care to guess?
Date taken: 1942
Photographer: Peter Stackpole
Bruce Gilfillan Taylor Yard
Danny Kelley Can appreciate this in real life. Rode Cass Railroad last year each car had a brakemen and one was a girl and believe me they were working those brakes hard coming back down especially, constantly watching the axle on both sides and each car working together. It's not an easy job.
Cort Rydberg A lot of guys got hurt bad setting and releasing those high hand brakes, Jerry Weber fell and got busted up bad and died one year later.
Skip Luke This appears to be a "rider hump" yard ...... Before car retarders, each car or cut rolling down off the hump had a switchman working the brakes ......
Toby Antinore That's the way they used "ride over the hump" before retarders were installed in hump yards. They also would run on that running board on top of the car on freights to help put backs on the cars to help slow/stop the train.
[The brakeman up front is hard to miss. I didn't notice the brakeman on the next car down the track until I looked later. ]

Frank Walko posted three photos with the comment:
More "insurance photos" only labeling was "October 1929"
Joe Dockrill shared
Imagine running across these setting brakes
Bless George Westinghouse and his air brake system
Vince Davis Joe, I'd almost doubt that most of these young'uns would realize how brakes worked before WABCO...
Dennis DeBruler The boxcars with running boards I can imagine. But I always wondered how they did it with gondola cars. Or tank cars because I don't remember seeing running boards on them.
1, cropped

2, cropped
Not sure why, but the vintage autos and field of corn shocks in the far right fascinate me.

3, cropped
Francis Otterbein posted
Photographer unknown Southern Pacific Railroad Men on top of boxcar learning hand signals Los Angeles, California, 1940s. (Jeff Koeller Collection). Image courtesy W. W. Norton

Carl Venzke posted
Sandusky, Ohio. Loading coal into a lake freighter at the Pennsylvania Railroad Number One dock - Jack Delano photo May 1943
Dennis DeBruler 1943 seems rather late for a brake wheel still above the roof line.

LM Ricardo posted four photos with the caption: "Those old days."
Chris Philo Is homeboy barefoot?
Al Snyder It does kinda look like it.

Mike Breski Gary Sinise's grandfather Title: Daniel Senise releasing a pin on a moving car at work in an Indiana Harbor Belt Line railroad yard
Creator(s): Delano, Jack, photographer
Date Created/Published: 1943 Feb.

Myron Moyano Either turning the retainer up or down.
Jimmy Samm Not that
Dennis DeBruler Then what is he doing? Obviously I'm not the only one that doesn't understand what is happening if he is not changing the retainer.

Photo from LC-USF33-016114-M2 from LOT 1073, Jul 1941
Freight cars in yards, Chicago, Illinois
[Note all of the handbrake wheels.]

Ross S. Dando posted two photos with the comment: "Does anyone know if the 40’ PS-1’s ever got Gypsum style roof walks or were they all Apex? Any help would be appreciated."
Rob Adams Ross; According to research compiled by Ed Hawkins, The Rock Island 40' PS-1 box cars received a mix of Apex, U.S. Gypsum and Morton running boards. I'll email you a document with the details by series. Best regards, Rob Adams.

MWRD posted two photos with the comment:
A photo from August 2, 1899, shows a new railroad embankment in right foreground with the original embankment to left with train passing. The exact location is unknown, but it’s from a series of photos taken near Lemont, Illinois, along the nearly completed Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Included is an enlarged view showing (presumably) a brakeman on top of the rail cars.



  1. The industry term is “running boards”, not “roof walk”. "Roof walk" is nowhere to be found in car builder publications.

  2. What was said: "The newer change is that the brake wheel is placed high on the end rather than sticking above the top of the car. I assume that was a compromise between setting the brakes from a walkway and setting them from the ground. As with most compromises, it is bad for each."
    The basis for this was the 1937 requirement for geared (“power”) handbrakes required on all newly-built or newly-rebuilt cars. No more "stem winder" shaft and brake wheel arrangements. The geared hand brakes were a definite improvement, not a compromise.

  3. Question: "...when did brake wheels transition to ground-level from the walkway level?
    Answer: 1966 - Federal ban on running boards for new cars delivered after October 1 for all cars that did not require roof access plus requirement for four-rung ladders and low-mounted brake wheels.
    1983 - Running boards outlawed on all boxcars and refrigerator cars as of December 31.

  4. Very well written article mate. The use and modernization of handbrakes is explained very well. Keep it up.