Air Brakes

By Brent Burger; posted December 1, 2004

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With the recent discussion about trains and air brakes, I thought I'd offer this photo showing how it was done in the days before air brakes, and for some railroads, till the end. This photo was taken on the morning of 28 August, 1968, near Sublette, Colorado on the last scheduled westbound movement on the Rio Grande narrow gauge before abandonment. Note the brakeman walking the catwalk .... (the wet and slippery catwalk!) ... as he goes from car to car on the moving train, adjusting the braking resistance to match the upcoming grade. This was unbelievably dangerous work, and there are many documented stories of trains arriving at the station, sans brakeman. The next spring his body would be found poking out of the melting snow. Air brakes safe? Sure, ... but who wouldn't love to ride over the continental divide on top of a swaying train, being showered with red-hot coal cinders ?