Train Brakes: Types, Maintenane, Malfunction, and How They Work

Trains are big and heavy, and they need a way to stop safely. That's where train brakes come in. These special brakes help trains slow down and stop, just like the brakes in a car. In this article, we'll explore these brakes in simple terms.

Why Do Trains Need Brakes?

Trains are much larger and heavier than cars, so stopping them takes a lot of effort. Imagine a train speeding along the tracks. If it suddenly had to stop without brakes, it would be a disaster! That's why brakes are so important.

Train Brakes

Types of Train Brakes

There are a few different types of brakes on a train, and they work together to slow it down and stop it safely.

  1. Air Brakes: Most trains use air brakes. They work like this: when the engineer (the person driving the train) wants to slow down or stop, they release air from the brake system. This causes the brakes to squeeze against the train's wheels, creating friction and slowing the train down.
  2. Electromagnetic Brakes: Some modern trains use electromagnetic brakes. These brakes use magnets to create resistance on the wheels, slowing the train down. They are quieter and require less maintenance than air brakes.
  3. Dynamic Brakes: When a train goes downhill, it can use dynamic brakes to help slow down. These brakes turn the train's motors into generators, which convert some of the train's energy into electricity. This helps slow the train down without using traditional brakes.

How Do Train Brakes Work?

Let's take a closer look at how air brakes, the most common type, work:

Brake Pipe: Each car in a train is connected by a pipe called the brake pipe. When the engineer wants to slow down, they release air pressure in this pipe.

Brake Cylinder: Each car has a brake cylinder, which is connected to the brake pipe. When the air pressure in the brake pipe drops, it causes the brake cylinder to push against the brake shoes, pressing them against the train's wheels.

Friction: When the brake shoes press against the wheels, it creates friction. This friction slows down the train, allowing it to stop safely.

Stopping a Train Takes Time

Trains are massive, and they can't stop as quickly as cars. When the engineer applies the brakes, it takes time for the entire train to come to a halt. So, brakes need to be applied well in advance to ensure a safe stop.

Crashes Because of Train Brakes

Crashes Because of Train Brakes

Crashes involving trains can occur for various reasons, and brakes can be a factor in some of these incidents. Here's an explanation of how train brakes can contribute to crashes:

Brake Malfunctions: Brakes, like any mechanical system, can sometimes malfunction. If the brakes fail to work correctly, the train may not slow down or stop as expected. This can lead to a collision if the train cannot halt in time to avoid an obstacle or another train on the same track.

Inadequate Braking Distance: Trains require a significant distance to come to a complete stop due to their size and weight. If the engineer misjudges the required braking distance or if the brakes are applied too late, the train may not be able to stop in time to prevent a collision.

Slippery Tracks: Weather conditions and track conditions can affect how brakes perform. Slippery tracks, such as those covered in ice, snow, or wet leaves, can reduce the effectiveness of  brakes. In such cases, the train may skid or take longer to stop, increasing the risk of a crash.

Human Error: Human error by the train operator, such as not applying the brakes correctly or missing a signal to stop, can also lead to crashes. Mistakes in brake operation can result in the train not slowing down or stopping as required.

Mechanical Failures: Apart from brake malfunctions, other mechanical failures in the train's braking system, such as issues with brake shoes or brake cylinders, can compromise the train's ability to stop safely.

Collision Avoidance Systems: In some modern trains, collision avoidance systems are designed to prevent crashes by automatically applying the brakes if an imminent collision is detected. However, if these systems fail or are not installed, it can increase the risk of collisions.

Track Design and Maintenance: The condition and layout of the train tracks also play a role. Poorly maintained tracks or design flaws can affect how efficiently train brakes work, potentially leading to crashes.

Cases of Crash Because of Train Brakes Malfunction

There are several example of train crashes because of the brake malfunction. One example is the two Union Pacific trains crashed in Granite Canyon on October 4, 2018.

The crash happened when the brakes on one of the trains didn't work as they should have when it was going down a hill. The NTSB figured out that something was blocking the air in the brake system, making the brakes stop working. 

Also, the device at the end of the train that's supposed to stop it in emergencies didn't work either. So, the train that couldn't stop in time crashed into another train that was standing still, going about 55 mph. 

This caused the front parts of both trains to jump off the tracks. Sadly, the people operating the train that hit the other train didn't make it.

Maintenance and Safety of Train Brakes

Brakes in these railed vehicles are vital for safety, so they need regular maintenance. Mechanics inspect the brakes to make sure they work correctly. They also check the brake shoes and other parts for wear and tear. If something isn't right, it gets fixed right away to keep everyone safe.


Train brakes are a crucial part of train safety. They help these giant machines slow down and stop safely, preventing accidents and keeping passengers and cargo secure. Whether it's air brakes, electromagnetic brakes, or dynamic brakes, they all play a vital role in the world of trains. So, next time you see a train slowing down at a station, you'll know that it's the brakes doing their important job.

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