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What Makes up a Train; How Do They Operate; and Why Are They Dangerous?

What Makes up a Train, How do They Operate, and Why are They Dangerous?

With the exception of commuter trains and Joe Biden when he was in the Senate, very few people spend much time around trains these days. As such, the names of the different people who work on trains, as well as the different parts of a train and cars have become a niche language, unfamiliar to all, but those few who deal with trains on a regular basis.

At Grossman Law Offices, our attorneys litigate train accident cases and we wanted to take the opportunity to explain a little bit about trains to you.

Questions answered on this page:

  • Who are the important people on a train and what is their title?
  • What are some of major parts of a train?
  • How quickly can trains stop?

Who Operates a Train?

While trains can be quite large, it takes surprisingly few people to operate one. It's possible to run a freight train from one city to another with just an engineer, a conductor, and a brakeman.

The Engineer

The engineer drives the train and controls its speed, handling, and braking. An engineer must be certified and in order to remain active and that certification must be renewed every 3 years. In order to safely operate the train, the engineer must know the physical characteristics of the railroad: Where the stations are and the changes to the track - inclines, declines, and curves. He must also be aware of speed limits for different tracks, and he operates the train horn to warn any pedestrians or cars of the train's presence before it enters grade crossings.


On the other hand, the Conductor handles all operational and safety responsibilities not associated with the physical operation of the train. While you may think, all the conductor does is collect tickets, in actuality conductors must perform several duties, including:

  • Making sure cargo is picked up and dropped off at the correct locations.
  • Keeping the train on schedule.
  • Completing any record-keeping.
  • Making sure safety procedures are followed.
  • Controlling the train's movement when it is backing up.
  • Carrying out repairs while the train is in-transit.
  • Coupling or decoupling cars.
  • Collecting tickets and assisting passengers.


The brakeman operates the brakes, right? Wrong. In the old days, that's exactly what the brakeman did, running along the top of the train, and setting off the brakes for each car - a very dangerous job. Today, though, trains have modernized air-pressure brakes, so the brakeman now functions as an assistant conductor, helping with operating switches and coupling and decoupling cars from the train. On passenger cars, the brakeman may also collect tickets.

The Physical Components of a Train

Beyond the workers who operate the train, there are several crucial components whose failure can sometimes lead to an accident. They include:

The Brakes

So, if the brakeman doesn't operate the brakes, then you're probably wondering how a train's brakes function. Train brakes operate using controlled and actuated compressed air. The engine contains an air compressor that supplies air for the brake system of the whole train. A feed valve regulates dispensing air to the brakes in the train through the brake pipe, with the engineer controlling when the brakes are activated. Each car then has its own brake system that remains turned off until the engineer releases the feed valve, sending a jet of air through the train. As this air enters the brake chamber for each individual car, the car's brakes go into action. Using this process, the pneumatic brakes for one locomotive engine are capable of stopping 180 cars.

The engine also has an emergency brake lever that is separate from the normal brake lever. When the engineer activates the emergency brake, it applies significantly more pressure than the standard brakes. While this stops the train faster, it can also damage the wheels or rails and doesn't relent the braking until the emergency brake valve is closed.

However, trains DO NOT stop on dimes - not unless that dime is placed on the tracks a mile away. While a standard passenger car traveling at 55 mph will take 200 feet to stop after the brakes have been applied, the average 8-car passenger train moving at 80 mph will take a mile to come to complete stop, and the average freight train of 90 to 120 cars that's moving at 55 mph will take between one and two miles depending upon the weight of the cargo.

The Engine

The engine, or locomotive, powers the train by pulling the cars from the front. Generally, engines are powered either by some sort of fuel carried on the train. Diesel-powered engines are by far the most popular today, but other engines are still powered by wood, coal, steam, gas, natural gas, and electricity.


The caboose used to be a staple on every train in the 19th and 20th Centuries, but it has become obsolete by technology. The caboose's purpose was to signal the end of the train and serve as a place for the train's crew to gather and rest.

With modern technology, a train's crew is seldom more than a few people. Moreover, the Flashing Rear-End Device (FRED) now signals the end of the train with a mechanism that is just what it sounds like - a blinking light on the rear of the train. Now, having a caboose on a train just adds weight and limits the total amount of paying cargo that can be hauled. Today, cabooses are usually only seen on trains that are hauling hazardous materials or on locals and small trains.

Other Types of Train Cars

There's a wide variety of different types of cars that are hauled by locomotives - too many to list. However, here are some of the more common passenger and freight cars:

  • Passenger cars
    • Standard gauge cars - contain 3-5 seats across the car with an aisle in between.
    • Dining cars - allow people to eat while traveling; contain tables and a small galley.
    • Observation cars - give passengers the chance to view the scenery and sometimes have domes, a glass-enclosed upper level to allow for maximum visibility.
    • Sleeping cars - small bedrooms allowing passengers to sleep.
    • Baggage cars - for long trains going on long trips, it allows all baggage to go in one car.
  • Freight cars
    • Boxcars - box shape, most common train car for carrying standard cargo.
    • Autoracks - transports cars on multi-level tiers.
    • Flatcars - carry things that are long or bulky and won't load into box cars, like lumber or iron.
    • Doublestack cars - transport shipping containers, with one stacked on top of another.
    • Gondolas - move bulk commodities with an open top but closed sides and ends.
    • Hoppers - like gondolas, but they're outfitted with doors on the bottom to easily unload commodities like coal, cement, grain, or ore.
    • Lorries - gondolas with tipping troughs, so they can be used in mines to unload ore.
    • Tank cars - transport liquids or gases.
    • Refrigerator cars - boxcars that are cooled, so they can carry produce.
    • Stock cars - transport livestock.

How Long and Heavy Can Trains Be?

The size of trains is crucially important to their safety. While it may be more efficient to transport goods in one long, massively loaded train, the increases to stopping distance can make such endeavors dangers for both the train crew and any vehicles they may encounter alone the way.

In the United States, there is no legal limit to how long or heavy a train can be. However, there are practical applications that limit train length and size - most notably the brakes. Since one locomotive can only brake 180 cars, that's the maximum length for a train that's being pulled by only one engine - about 2 and quarter miles. However, trains can be driven by multiple engines spread throughout the train, allowing for longer trains.

A Union Pacific test run in January 2010 used nine diesel engines spread throughout the 296 container wagons. This enabled the train to carry 618 double-stacked containers - a length of 3.4 miles - at 70 mph from Texas to California.

Meanwhile, the heaviest normally operating freight train in this country is the 19,000-ton train that pulls iron ore from the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range.

When it comes to passenger trains, there's an extra concern with length - the train has to conform to the length of the platform, so people can load and unload safely. However, selective door opening can allow a long train to unload on a short platform. The longest regularly operating passenger train in the United States is the Auto Train between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida, which has a total of 42 coaches, including 15 passenger cars and 27 auto carriers. Generally, retirees use the passenger train to transport their cars south for the winter.

How a basic understanding trains and terminology helps your train injury case

In our 25 years in business, Grossman Law Offices has always been of the belief that we are junior partners in our clients' personal injury cases. This means that all of the major decisions are made by our clients and we are in business to further our clients' goals. For this reason, it is important that we all speak the same language. If their is legal terminology you don't understand, it is our job to explain things so that we are all on the same page.

In a similar vein, most people are unfamiliar with basic railroad terminology. Part of being on the same page as our clients is speaking the same language. Hopefully, this article was educational and makes it easier for us to converse about your railroad accident injury. If you'd like to know more, then call Grossman Law Offices for a free consultation whenever it's convenient at (855) 326-0000 (toll free). We answer the phone 24/7.

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