Freight Car Friday – Serving the Customer

19 07 2013

For the past two weeks, we’ve looked into the behind-the-scenes aspects of moving freight cars on the railroad. Let’s pull away from this big perspective for a bit and see where it all comes together. After all the paperwork has been filed, it is up to the train crew to get the car to / from the customer. This is the side of railroad operations we’re more familiar with, the part that is easier to observe and recreate, and yet still there is a lot that can be overlooked.

Making a Set Out / Pick Up


After all the paper work is finished, it is up to the train crew to make sure the right car gets to the customer quickly and safely.

Let’s take a virtual ride along with a train crew as they exchange a loaded car for an empty one at an industry. The names of the workers, cars, buildings and railroads may change, but these steps are all the same.

Our local freight train arrives on the mainline and stops behind the switch. The crew must leave enough space here between the train and the switch to accommodate the number of cars being picked up. They have a single boxcar to set off on the siding and a single empty to pick up. (Note that the steps would be the same if it was one or fifty-one cars.)

hand brake

Model railroaders don’t usually worry about hand brakes, but they are a critical safety device on the prototype.

Once the brakes are set, the brakeman (or conductor today if only a two-man crew is on the job) walks back from the locomotive to the car behind the one that will be set off. With the airbrakes applied on the train, the brakeman will secure the handbrake on the first car which will remain on the train. If the train is on a grade, additional brakes may be set.

Then the angle cock is closed on the rear of the car to be set out and the coupler pin is lifted. Note that in some cases, both angle cocks at the couplers to be separated would be closed once the brakes were set. This is called “bottling the air” and avoids time spent rebuilding air pressure on the cars left here on the main. While generally ok for short durations, the air in the train will eventually bleed out so railroads have guidelines for when the practice may be used. The handbrake is an added protection here.

The brakeman signals the engineer to pull ahead and as the cars uncouple he steps up on the stirrup to ride ahead to the switch.


At most sidings, switches are still thrown by hand. Working the local at night makes the job even more challenging.

Once the train has cleared the switch, the engineer brings it to a stop so the brakeman can line it for the siding. Using his switch key, the switchstand is unlocked and then thrown for the siding.  Once the switch is thrown, most railroads require the switch to be relocked – even if the train is only making a quick move. If the siding is protected by a gate or derail, these too must be unlocked and opened before the train can reverse.

The brakeman can then signal (by hand or radio) the train to begin making its reverse move into the siding. If it is a lengthy ride to the waiting car, he may get back on the rear car of the train for a ride.


Couplers and air hoses are repeatedly handled during switching.

The brakeman will signal the train to stop a few feet before reaching the car. Before coupling, he must check to make sure that the car is in fact clear and ready to ship. This would include securing the doors, closing the angle cock on the air hose at the far end of the car, completing a quick visual inspection for any obvious mechanical problems, and of course ensuring that nobody is still working on the car.

After that, the coupler of the last car in the train (which is still open) and the car on the siding (which should be closed) are lined laterally. (Real couplers aren’t self-centering like our models.) The brakeman signals the engineer to back up for the couple. Once the pin drops, he’ll usually signal the engineer to pull head slightly to “stretch” the coupler and ensure it is closed.

Then the engineer can again set the brakes and the brakeman can attach the air hose between the cars. The angle cock on the train is opened allowing air into the car being picked up. As the brakes on the new car are charged, the brakeman can release the handbrake on the added car. Although not always used, if there are any wheel chocks beneath the car to prevent it from rolling, these too can be pulled now.


All of this action often has to take place around other trains. Here a local spots cars in Hershey, PA while a through freight rushes by on the mainline. It is up to the dispatcher to let both trains know about each other so that workers aren’t caught by surprise. The engineer of the passing train will usually “make a little noise” as he approaches to warn the brakeman on the ground.

Once all the brakes are released, the brakeman climbs aboard the last car and signals the engineer to pull forward again back onto the mainline. Once past the switch, the brakeman climbs down and aligns the switch for the mainline again. Climbing back aboard, he’ll ride the car to a safe stop a few feet short of the rest of the train.

Now as before on the siding, the brakeman must get down, open and align the rear coupler, and signal the engineer back for a couple. The air hoses are attached, the air cut in and the brakes set. The pick-up is complete. Walking one car length ahead, the process is now repeated for the set-out.

Once the car is on the siding, it’s handbrake is tied down tightly, and the angle cock is left open. (This will “dump” the air on the car and set the brakes.) The handbrake will keep it from rolling once the air has bled off. As the train clears the siding, gates, derails and switchlocks are all put back in place.

The train is coupled and air pressure built up. The handbrakes on any of the cars which were set here on the main must also be released. The engineer performs a quick air test to ensure pressure is maintained and brakes are working through the whole train, and the conductor contacts the dispatcher to update on progress and get permission if necessary to proceed to the next siding.

Bringing It Down To Scale


Industries can add a lot more than just visual interest to your model railroad.

As you can see, even a “simple” exchange like this can take several minutes. Add in factors like the length of the siding, number of cars, weather and mechanical challenges and the process may take even longer. A local freight working a bunch of local industries could spend an entire shift covering just a few miles. And all of this has to be coordinated around other train movements meaning even more time is often spent waiting for clearance to do the work.

Your Lionel train doesn’t have working air brakes to worry about, and you probably haven’t put locks on your switches but you can play the part of the train crew nonetheless. As you’re running your trains, think about what the train crew does. Put yourself in their shoes. Take the time to stop your train completely. Use the whistle and bell to help signal your moves. Most importantly, slow down and enjoy the process! You might be surprised how much fun all of this work can be. Next week we’ll take our cars back to the yard for some more action.



One response

21 07 2013
Freddy Wade

Caboose is a Dutch word for a ship galley, a fitting name for the railroad refuge for the train crew. The caboose was occupied typically by three men, the conductor, a brakeman and a flagman. It was an office for the conductor, a place where he could watch the train and take care of waybills and other paper work related to the train’s load. After air brakes were invented, the brakeman could monitor the brake gauges from the caboose. It was also used for storage areas for flags, flares, and lanterns plus carried extra cans of oil for lanterns and some spare parts such as air hoses.

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