Freight Train Crews

This one's for you, Hot Water.  And...yes...I did Google it...but I did not get a satisfactory answer.  I am no expert on trains.  So...since this is a forum...and I respect your extensive knowledge and experience...maybe you would know the answer to this.  In the steam days (let's say circa 1950)...besides the engineer and many would make up a freight train crew?  Was there a conductor?  Brakeman?  Rear Brakeman?  Any help would be greatly appreciated.  Matt#1 Train 432 Westside Line with Beans

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Original Post

Back in the "steam days", and depending on the state, a normal "full crew" for a main line road freight would have been:

1) Conductor, on the rear in the caboose.

2) Engineer

3) Fireman

4) Head Brakeman, in the cab of the steam locomotive.

5) Rear Brakeman, on the rear in the caboose.


Depending on the state, as some states required an "extra Brakeman", who could have been in the locomotive, or on the caboose. In such instances, that "extra Brakeman" would have been picked-up at the state line of said state requiring such, and then dropped-off upon leaving that state. 

boin106 posted:

Thanks...that was very informative.  What was required in the state of California?  Matt

I don't know, since I didn't have any delivery/riding assignments, back in the 1960s or 1970s, and not growing up in California, I had no exposure to the "steam days" on the SP or AT&SF.

A 5-man crew was pretty standard in the steam days.

  • The Engineer, Fireman and Head Brakeman would ride the engine.
  • The Conductor and the Rear Brakeman (sometimes called the Flagman) would ride the caboose.

The term "Flagman" came from his duties if the train made an unscheduled stop. He was the guy that had to go back a mile or two and "flag" oncoming trains to prevent a rear-end collision.

When they stopped the engineer would "whistle out the flag" which was a whistle signal for the flagman to start walking. When they were ready to go, he would "whistle in the flag" which was a whistle signal that told the Flagman to head for the caboose. The engineer would give him a certain number of minutes to get to the caboose before he would whistle off (2 shorts) and start moving again. All with no radios or cell phones.

The extra brakeman required in some states (such as Washington before the mid 60's) was commonly called the Swing Brakeman. He rode on the head end, in the tender "doghouse" if provided, or in a trailing unit of a diesel consist. He was especially useful in the steam era to help set the air brake retainers for downhill grades. He was also usually the lowest seniority train service employee, so he got many of the grunt jobs. 

From a practical point of view (i.e. not because of regulation) a five-man crew with a head brakeman would be needed on a long freight, especially if it had to pick up or set out cars along the way. A shorter train, say on a branchline or a shortline railroad, could get by with four: engineer and fireman in the cab, conductor and brakeman in the caboose. (Of course, passenger trains had a conductor and brakeman too.)

One thing that makes it difficult to discover the correct way things were done 'way back when' is that so much rail regulation was actually done by the states, not the federal government. Back before states had a DOT (Dept of Transportation) they had an agency that specifically regulated railroad rates, work rules, abandonments, adding or removing passenger trains from the schedule, etc. (Here in Minnesota it was the "Railroad and Warehouse Commission", and if I remember correctly, it's members were elected, not appointed.) This means there could be great variation in how a multi-state railroad operated in any particular place.

- Stix

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