The job of the brakeman has changed significantly over the years. Historically, the brakeman was a person who helped stop the train, since most trains had cars with individual braking systems. The brakeman was responsible for getting to an individual car to apply its brakes manually in order to help stop or slow the train when necessary. Since the inception of automatic braking systems on trains, brakemen have taken on other duties necessary to keep a train running efficiently and safely.
While brakemen did move from car to car — a very dangerous activity even in the best conditions — most of the time the brakeman was stationed in the caboose of the train. Brakes could be applied in the caboose, which would aid in slowing the train down. In addition to the braking duties, brakemen were responsible for ensuring that all couplings were connected properly, and they were constantly on the lookout for overheating axles, stowaways, and shifting cargo that could adversely affect the handling of the train. Because brakemen rode in various cars on the train, they faced many dangers, including moving freight, stowaways, and extreme conditions. Brakemen were often exposed to the elements, which led to sickness and even death.
A brakeman would communicate with the conductor using hand signals. Because he might be moving from car to car, it was important for the brakeman to make sure the conductor knew immediately if there were any problems. Today, two-way communication devices have largely replaced hand signals, and automatic air brakes prevent brakemen from having to move from car to car. As a result, the job is far safer today than it was in the past.
Today, brakemen have different responsibilities. A brakeman is responsible for taking tickets on passenger trains, and ensuring that all doors are closed properly before the train departs. He is responsible for communicating with passengers, making announcements pertinent to the trip, and assist passengers boarding and unboarding the train. In freight train yards, brakemen will throw hand operated switches that allow different cars to be moved into position and coupled to other cars. A brakeman is responsible for checking the train's braking systems before it gets underway, which includes checking brake pads, air hoses, and gaskets. He is also the conductor's extra set of eyes, keeping a lookout for rail obstructions, problems on the train itself, or other issues that may complicate or endanger the train's operations.