Braking advice from a real engineer


New member
I was having trouble with train braking, either I would brake too much and drop to a stop, or not enough and speed past the limit. Finally I asked my friend who was an engineer and this is what he passed on, great information and I hope it helps someone besides me:

Two key points to remember...

1) You can not get in trouble if you run 5 MPH below your maximum allowable speed limit.

2) When using air brakes (air), you only have so much of it. You do not want to piss your air away otherwise you could put your life in jeopardy and be on a run-away train!

On a "Normal Train", a train with the engines just on just the head end, you can stop or slow down three different ways; using throttle modulation, using dynamic brakes (dynamics) (if you have them or if they work), and by air.

The key to running a good and safe train is knowing the territory like the back of your hand; where you are going uphill, downhill, level track, knowing where your permanent speed restrictions are, etc., knowing where your signals are located, etc.

There are times that a good engineer uses the "lay of the land" to help them run their train, which is also very fuel efficient, which the railroads are very big on these days. Back when I hired out, they didn't care unless you were running more engines than you needed or called for.

When running your train you need to always be thinking. You need to know what is ahead of you (what you are approaching in the next few miles), you need to worry about what your headend is doing, and you need to worry about what the rear of your train is doing....All at the same time.

You need to control your slack as slack will "kill you" on a heavy train as that is an easy way to break knuckles or even worse, pull out drawbars.

If you get a knuckle, your conductor is going to hate you. If you get more than one knuckle on the same trip, your conductor will really, really, really, hate you!

If you get a drawbar, railroad management will be all over you like flies on a rib roast and they will analyze your engine tapes (an engine's "black box") to see what you did wrong. If that happens, you better hope you were doing everything by "the book". Sometimes a drawbar can fail, and be pulled out, through no fault of your own. I have a drawbar story for you, but I'll save that for a different day! ;-)

If you are running a heavy train up a hill and knowing that you have to slow down at the bottom of the hill, you use "throttle modulation" to control your speed. Depending on how well your train is handling, you may be able to crest the hill at 30 MPH and allow gravity to pick back up your speed when coming down off the hill.

For example if you are running at 40 MPH and you have to still be running 40 MPH at the bottom of the hill, you have two choices, you either lower your throttle and use throttle modulation as you are going up, causing you to slow down without using any air or dynamics. Or you maintain close to 40 MPH as well as possible and use either dynamics or air or both to control your speed when coming down the hill.

When using air, you normally want to use at least 10 pounds total, before you release the brakes, for good. By doing this you greatly reduce the chances of having "sticking brakes" (brakes that do not release or that do not release fully). Sticking brakes causing friction. Friction causes heat. Heat can cause the wheel to break off, which would cause a derailment.


When using air, you always base the "10 pounds" first off your engine air gauge.

When using air, the "proper way" to use it is to first set a "minimum application" 3-5 pounds and allow some time for the air to setup in all the cars. You will know this by receiving info from your EOT showing you that the air pressure on the rear has been lowered.

If you need to use your air again, you can "go deeper" and apply a little more air and wait for it to go through to the rear car, by seeing that air pressure going down even more.

While setting and using air, you have to make sure you keep looking at your engine amp gauge because by applying train air brakes, you are causing the engines to have to pull harder.

To prevent getting a knuckle or a drawbar, I was taught to not allow your amp gauge to go over 600 while using air. You can get away with it going a little higher past 600 however, your risk for something going bad starts getting really high.

Once you set your train air you can either "kick off the brakes", knowing that you are going to use them again, in the very near future (next 20-30 seconds), making sure that you take at least 10 pounds off, before the final release or you can apply more air to get to the 10 pound "threshold" and then kick them off.

Also, it helps that when you kick off your air (to release it) you throttle down two notches. The reason is some rail cars will release faster than others, even if they are the same kind of car.

If you don't "notch down" you may start feeling your train "rubber-banding" (slack moving in and out at the same time). When that happens, that is normally when you get a knuckle!

Ideally you what your train stretched out or all bunched up as that is how you control the slack. Slack can tear up a train.

I was always a big "dynamic guy". That is what the railroad preferred, and using dynamics could not cause sticking brakes.

There were times when a train line might have a "kicker". A "kicker" is known as a condition whenever you go to set air on your train, the air brakes "kick" and go into emergency, due to a "faulty" joint somewhere on one of the rail cars brake rigging.

If you had a kicker, you did not want to touch and use your air brakes unless it was a very critical situation, which would force you to have to use

Whenever we stopped our trains, it was in the rule book that we were to apply a brake application and hold it while we were sitting.

The reason behind this was that if you developed a clog in your airline or if someone "angle-cocked" you, you would be able to tell. You easily tell if something wasn't right as the air on the rear of the train would not show increasing, when you released the train brakes. If that happened, your conductor would have to more than likely walk the whole train to figure out what was going on. (I have a good story about that, too!)

A clog in the air line could be rust or debris, or in the wintertime it could easily be ice buildup from frozen condensation and there was normally always some type of moisture in the airlines.

Needless to say, throttle modulation and dynamic brakes are an engineer's best friend.

Bottom line, know your territory!

Hope this makes some sense."
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That Engineer friend of yours, knows his stuff

I knew some things, but a lot I did not know, and I have to admit, I have run thru Spurs, Flown off the tracks a few times, run passed passenger stops, from coming in too hot (uh Speeding).......:hehe:

This of course was in Trainz world, after failing many a session due to Speeding, and not follow exacting instructions, I have improved, and I do practice the 5mph less than Speed Limit. ;)

I'll put this in my Study Notes and thank you for sharing, this very valuable information. :wave:
Thanks, Chris for this.

This is great information that's worth saving out to a PDF for safe keeping and future reference.
Now, if only half the enginespecs were set up correctly to allow you to set 3-5lbs . . .
Thanks! Would like to see these stories as well!
I have a drawbar story for you, but I'll save that for a different day! ;-)

If that happened, your conductor would have to more than likely walk the whole train to figure out what was going on. (I have a good story about that, too!)
I asked, and though he told me the stories he asked that I not post them, not sure why but I will adhere to his wishes. Sorry.
No worries. I know people who work on railroads, and sometimes it's better not to spread stories around. :p