Brakes + Air: When + Where?

Or, “Sometimes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”…

When I added the brake wheel and air hose operations aids to my layout fascia, I had a reasonably good understanding of when these items would be used while switching cars. But then as I started to actually use these aids, questions arose – mostly around the order in which a crew would do things involving hand brakes, air brakes, and couplers.

So, I decided to pick the brains of a few pros I know – railroaders, current and retired, who are also model railway enthusiasts and therefore would understand what I’m trying to do.

I set up a switching sequence in St. Williams that I feel covers most situations on the layout – including set offs, lifts, and the re-spotting of cars that need to be moved to perform the other work. I then switched the sequence, taking photos and making notes about when I thought handbrakes would be set or released, glad hands would be connected, train air line valves would be opened, brake tests conducted, cut levers pulled, couplers checked for alignment, etc.

I then shared this with my railroading friends and sought their feedback.

The result of those conversations can be found in the sequence of captioned photos, below (click on each image for a larger view, if necessary):

Brakes and Air - 01 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-01.jpg

Brakes and Air - 02 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-02.jpg

Brakes and Air - 03 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-03.jpg

Brakes and Air - 04 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-04.jpg

Brakes and Air - 05 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-05.jpg

Brakes and Air - 06 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-06.jpg

Brakes and Air - 07 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-07.jpg

Brakes and Air - 08 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-08.jpg

Brakes and Air - 09 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-09.jpg

Brakes and Air - 10 photo Brakes-Air-Sequence-10.jpg

It turns out I had a good (if basic) understanding of the proper sequence for switching, although I’d missed some significant things such as the need to bleed air from the brake system when spotting cars.

My sequence assumes a two-person crew – an engineer and a conductor/brakeman (which is what I’ll be using on the layout). In the 1950s, there would be two brakemen on the ground to speed up the switching but as one of my pros put it, “I think I heard the other guy say he was going to the general store for some supplies.” I expect that’s what happened.

I also found out that my approach is what one would call “by the book”. Interestingly, the source who spent much of his time on mainline assignments concurred with my approach… while my pro who worked way freights and switch jobs offered a different, faster approach. Here’s an excerpt, with my edits for clarity in square brackets:

Engine and car goes [into the spur] and couples up [to the tank car and boxcar] and pulls out to the switch and the boxcar [being lifted] is kicked onto the train. One brakeman at switch and other pulling the pin.

If the brakeman are experienced, the two cars [the tank car being re-spotted and the hopper car being spotted] would be kicked into the spur track and tail end brakeman would ride the cars back and tie them down on spot. All this done without air in cars.

You learn to spot the cars on the first kick or the hogger and conductor will chew you out. Before I got set up we did this a lot… the jobs you work regularly you could do this with your eyes closed.

Most sidings had a grade so one would know which way the cars roll… if they roll out [of the spur], the tail end man would release the brakes and the cars would roll out to the engine at the switch.

My way freight expert noted, however, that “by the book” is a more attainable approach on model railroads, because our cars don’t have the mass to for kicking cars or to take advantage of the slight grades one might find on a spur. Still, very interesting stuff. Not only has my understanding of switching improved, but so has my appreciation for the talents of train crews.

While full names will not be revealed shared to protect the reputations of my sources, my thanks to G, J and D for their input!

8 thoughts on “Brakes + Air: When + Where?

  1. Very informative sequence. For decades we would have just rolled up, backed in to do the pickup, done the spots and flown out of town. This shows how much we missed in the process.


    • Thanks Mike. That’s why I thought I would share it here.

      This is not at all like the “set the throttle to a slowish speed then flick the direction switch back and forth when you’re over the magnet to uncouple” style of operating I first learned, all those years ago – shortly after I graduated from the “how fast does it go?” and “Gomez Addams” schools of operation.

      It’s great to be here.

  2. I just read your comments and viewed your photos. We operate a little like that, but we do not stop before banging into a car that is set out to open the knuckle and make sure they are aligned. I’m going to go out to my layout now and try your sequennce out. We are also going to be at Dave Adams layout tomorrow for our semi monthly session and I will bring these ideas up to the guys.

    • Hi Mike:
      Try to add the stop. In order to couple, a cut lever needs to be pulled to open a knuckle. I suppose that could be done on the fly – but much safer for the brakeman to stop the train. It also gives the brakeman a chance to ensure the couplers are lined up (no centering springs on the prototype!)
      On a layout, I would make a brief stop about an inch away from the car to be picked up.
      Let me know how it works out!

        • Hi Darel:
          Thanks for the nice words – glad you’re enjoying it.
          Yes, it’s an important story: Thanks for posting that on your blog. It sounds like the couplers were not properly aligned and he was trying to do that by giving one of them a shove with his foot. A nasty bit of business for sure.
          All of the brakemen on my layout use a large uncoupling tool to align the couplers. A cocktail skewer would also work, of course. That said, I will have to remind them to NOT use their feet!

  3. Trevor;
    l’ve been working my test layout in this manner while coming up with a design for my new layout. A simple inglenook, using the ‘corrected’ procedures I found 20 minutes gone by in a flash.

    And it was the best experience I’d had up to that point too since I programmed the physics into the loco. You really have to think about what you are doing, before you do it. Just adds so much more to the operating session.

    • Hi Andrew:
      Glad this post was useful to you. It’s eye-opening just how much time is required when one is following prototype procedures – and how it feels like time is flying by.
      Another thing about doing this: For years, I’ve been pursuing what some people call “Finescale Operations” and with each layout that I’ve built, I’ve found I need less complexity in order for the layout to be satisfying. That translates into less money spent on track and equipment, and more time to devote to things like scratch-building structures.

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