In their simplest form, the locomotive is braked by cast iron shoes that act on the wheels. The brakes are connected together by a compensating linkage so that when they are applied, an equal pressure is exerted on all wheels. A hand screw, usually on a pillar allows the brakes to be applied manually and in addition, a steam cylinder can be actuated to apply the brake.

compensating brake gear on a coach

Trains also, usually have a system that brakes the wheels of the train. This is either operated by vacuum or pressure.

vacuum brake

The vacuum brake, was introduced around the early 1870s, the same time as the air brake. Like the air brake, the vacuum brake system is controlled through a brake pipe connecting a brake valve in the driver's cab with braking equipment on every vehicle. The operation of the brake equipment on each vehicle depends on the condition of a vacuum created in the pipe by an ejector or exhauster. The ejector, using steam on a steam locomotive, or an exhauster, using electric power on other types of train, removes atmospheric pressure from the brake pipe to create the vacuum. With a full vacuum, the brake is released. With no vacuum, i.e. normal atmospheric pressure in the brake pipe, the brake is fully applied.

The pressure in the atmosphere is defined as 1 bar or about 14.5 lbs. per square inch. Reducing atmospheric pressure to 0 lbs. per square inch, creates a near perfect vacuum which is measured as 30 inches of mercury, written as 30 Hg. Each 2 inches of vacuum therefore represents about 1 lb. per square inch of atmospheric pressure.

In the UK, vacuum brakes operated with the brake pipe at 21 Hg, except on the Great Western Railway which operated at 25 Hg.

The vacuum in the brake pipe is created and maintained by a motor-driven exhauster. The exhauster has two speeds, high speed and low speed. The high speed is switched in to create a vacuum and thus release the brakes. The slow speed is used to keep the vacuum at the required level to maintain brake release. It maintains the vacuum against small leaks in the brake pipe. The vacuum in the brake pipe is prevented from exceeding its nominated level (normally 21 Hg) by a relief valve, which opens at the setting and lets air into the brake pipe to prevent further increase.

Principal Parts of the Vacuum Brake System

This diagram shows the principal parts of the vacuum brake system as applied to an electric or diesel train.

drivers' brake valve

The means by which the driver controls the brake. The brake valve will have (at least) the following positions: "Release", "Running", "Lap" and "Brake On". There may also be a "Neutral" or "Shut Down" position, which locks the valve out of use. The "Release" position connects the exhauster to the brake pipe and switches the exhauster to full speed. This raises the vacuum in the brake pipe as quickly as possible to get a release.

In the "Running" position, the exhauster keeps running but at its slow speed. This ensures that the vacuum is maintained against any small leaks or losses in the brake pipe, connections and hoses.

"Lap" is used to shut off the connection between the exhauster and the brake pipe to close off the connection to atmosphere after a brake application has been made. It can be used to provide a partial release as well as a partial application, something not possible with the original forms of air brake.

"Brake On" closes off the connection to the exhauster and opens the brake pipe to atmosphere. The vacuum is reduced as air rushes in.

Some brake valves were fitted with an "Emergency" position. Its operation was the same as the "Brake On" position, except that the opening to atmosphere was larger to give a quicker application.


For some reason, exhausters are called ejectors on steam locomotives.  They are, of course, steam operated.  The ejector consists of a series of cones inside a tube.  Steam is allowed to pass through the cones so that a vacuum is created in the tube and thus in the brake pipe to which it is connected.  There are always two ejectors, large and small, which provide the brake release and vacuum maintenance functions respectively.  The large ejector provides the rapid build-up of vacuum required for brake release and the small ejector provides the constant vacuum needed to keep the brake pipe and cylinder vacuum at the correct level to maintain brake release.

On some locomotives, ejectors were combined with the driver's brake valve.  Most had only "Brake On", "Running" and "Brake Off" positions and many were combined with a steam brake fitted to the locomotive and tender.  The more sophisticated allowed a single brake application to apply the brakes on the train before they were applied on the locomotive.  This gave a smooth and even stop and prevented "bunching" of coaches behind the locomotive.  Drivers were taught that it was best to slow the train down and then gently ease off the brakes as the train came to a stop.  This required them to restore much of the vacuum by the time the train was brought to a stand, allowing a quick release without having to run the large ejector for very long, thereby saving steam.

brake pipe

The vacuum-carrying pipe running the length of the train, which transmits the variations in pressure required to control the brake. It is connected between vehicles by flexible hoses, which can be uncoupled to allow vehicles to be separated. The use of the vacuum system makes the brake "fail safe", i.e. the loss of vacuum in the brake pipe will cause the brake to apply.

dummy coupling

At the ends of each vehicle, a dummy coupling point is provided to allow the ends of the brake pipe hoses to be sealed when the vehicle is uncoupled. The sealed dummy couplings prevent the vacuum being lost from the brake pipe.

coupled hoses

The brake pipe is carried between adjacent vehicles through flexible hoses. The hoses can be sealed at the outer ends of the train by connecting them to dummy couplings.

Brake Cylinder (shown in blue)

Each vehicle has at least one brake cylinder. Sometimes two or more are provided. The movement of the piston contained inside the cylinder operates the brakes through links called "rigging". The rigging applies the blocks to the wheels. I do not know of a vacuum brake system which uses disc brakes. The piston inside the brake cylinder moves in accordance with the change in vacuum pressure in the brake pipe. Loss of vacuum applies the brakes, restoration of the vacuum releases the brakes.

vacuum reservoir

The operation of the vacuum brake relies on the difference in pressure between one side of the brake cylinder piston and the other. In order to ensure there is always a source of vacuum available to operate the brake, a vacuum reservoir is provided on, or connected to the upper side of the piston. In the simplest version of the brake, shown above, the brake cylinder is integral with the vacuum reservoir. Some versions of the brake have a separate reservoir and a piped connection to the upper side of the piston.

brake block

This is the friction material which is pressed against the surface of the wheel tread by the upward movement of the brake cylinder piston. Often made of cast iron or some composition material, brake blocks are the main source of wear in the brake system and require regular inspection to see that they are changed when required.

brake rigging

This is the system by which the movement of the brake cylinder piston transmits pressure to the brake blocks on each wheel. Rigging can often be complex, especially under a passenger car with two blocks to each wheel, making a total of sixteen. Rigging requires careful adjustment to ensure all the blocks operated from one cylinder provide an even rate of application to each wheel. If you change one block, you have to check and adjust all the blocks on that axle.

ball valve

The ball valve is needed to ensure that the vacuum in the vacuum reservoir is maintained at the required level, i.e. the same as the brake pipe, during brake release but that the connection to the brake pipe is closed during a brake application. It is necessary to close the connection as soon as the brake pipe vacuum is reduced so that a difference in pressure is created between the upper and lower sides of the brake cylinder piston.

Operation on Each Vehicle

Brake Release

This diagram shows the condition of the brake cylinder, ball valve and vacuum reservoir in the release position.  The piston is at the bottom of the brake cylinder.  Note how the brake cylinder is open at the top so that it is in direct connection with the vacuum reservoir.

A vacuum has been created in the brake pipe, the vacuum reservoir and underneath the piston in the brake cylinder.  The removal of atmospheric pressure from the system has caused the ball valve to open the connection between the vacuum reservoir and the brake pipe.  The fall of the piston to the bottom of the brake cylinder causes the brake blocks to be released from the wheels.

This diagram shows the condition of the brake cylinder, ball valve and vacuum reservoir in the application position.  The vacuum has been reduced by the admission of atmospheric pressure into the brake pipe.  This has forced the piston upwards in the brake cylinder.  By way of the connection to the brake rigging, the upward movement of the piston has caused the brake blocks to be applied to the wheels.

The movement of the piston in the brake cylinder relies on the fact that there is a pressure difference between the underside of the piston and the upper side.  During the brake application, the vacuum in the brake pipe is reduced by admitting air from the atmosphere.  As the air enters the ball valve, it forces the ball (in red in the diagram above) upwards to close the connection to the vacuum reservoir.  This ensures that the vacuum in the reservoir will not be reduced.  At the same time, the air entering the underside of the brake cylinder creates an imbalance in the pressure compared with the pressure above the piston.  This forces the piston upwards to apply the brakes.

Westinghouse brake system

click on image to enlarge

The Westinghouse system uses air pressure to charge air reservoirs (tanks) on each car. Full air pressure signals each car to release the brakes. A reduction or loss of air pressure signals each car to apply its brakes, using the compressed air in its reservoirs.

The pressurized air comes from an air compressor in the locomotive and is sent from car to car by a train line made up of pipes beneath each car and hoses between cars. The principal problem with the straight air braking system is that any separation between hoses and pipes causes loss of air pressure and hence the loss of the force applying the brakes. This deficiency could easily cause a runaway train. Straight air brakes are still used on locomotives, although as a dual circuit system, usually with each bogie (truck) having its own circuit.

In order to design a system without the shortcomings of the straight air system, Westinghouse invented a system wherein each piece of railway rolling stock was equipped with an air reservoir and a triple valve, also known as a control valve.

triple valve

The triple valve is often described as being so named because it performs three functions, but this is a widespread myth, as the triple valve simply performs two functions: it applies the brakes and releases them. In so doing, it supports certain other actions (i.e. it 'holds' or maintains the application and it permits the exhaust of brake cylinder pressure and the recharging of the reservoir during the release). In his patent application, Westinghouse refers to his 'triple-valve device' because of the three component valvular parts comprising it: the diaphragm-operated poppet valve feeding reservoir air to the brake cylinder, the reservoir charging valve, and the brake cylinder release valve. When he soon improved the device by removing the poppet valve action, these three components became the piston valve, the slide valve, and the graduating valve.

If the pressure in the train line is lower than that of the reservoir, the brake cylinder exhaust portal is closed and air from the car's reservoir is fed into the brake cylinder to apply the brakes. This action continues until equilibrium between the brake pipe pressure and reservoir pressure is achieved. At that point, the airflow from the reservoir to the brake cylinder is lapped off and the cylinder is maintained at a constant pressure.
If the pressure in the train line is higher than that of the reservoir, the triple valve connects the train line to the reservoir feed, causing the air pressure in the reservoir to increase. The triple valve also causes the brake cylinder to be exhausted to atmosphere, releasing the brakes.
As the pressure in the train line and that of the reservoir equalize, the triple valve closes, causing the air pressure in the reservoir and brake cylinder to be maintained at the current level.   

Unlike the straight air system, the Westinghouse system uses a reduction in air pressure in the train line to apply the brakes. When the engineer (driver) applies the brake by operating the locomotive brake valve, the train line vents to atmosphere at a controlled rate, reducing the train line pressure and in turn triggering the triple valve on each car to feed air into its brake cylinder. When the engineer releases the brake, the locomotive brake valve portal to atmosphere is closed, allowing the train line to be recharged by the compressor of the locomotive. The subsequent increase of train line pressure causes the triple valves on each car to discharge the contents of the brake cylinder to atmosphere, releasing the brakes and recharging the reservoirs.

Under the Westinghouse system, therefore, brakes are applied by reducing train line pressure and released by increasing train line pressure. The Westinghouse system is thus fail safe—any failure in the train line, including a separation ("break-in-two") of the train, will cause a loss of train line pressure, causing the brakes to be applied and bringing the train to a stop.

Modern air brake systems are in effect two braking systems combined:

The service brake system, which applies and releases the brakes during normal operations, and
The emergency brake system, which applies the brakes rapidly in the event of a brake pipe failure or an emergency application by the engineer.

When the train brakes are applied during normal operations, the engineer makes a "service application" or a "service rate reduction”, which means that the train line pressure reduces at a controlled rate. It takes several seconds for the train line pressure to reduce and consequently takes several seconds for the brakes to apply throughout the train. In the event the train needs to make an emergency stop, the engineer can make an "emergency application," which immediately and rapidly vents all of the train line pressure to atmosphere, resulting in a rapid application of the train's brakes. An emergency application also results when the train line comes apart or otherwise fails, as all air will also be immediately vented to atmosphere.

In addition, an emergency application brings in an additional component of each car's air brake system: the emergency portion. The triple valve is divided into two portions: the service portion, which contains the mechanism used during brake applications made during service reductions, and the emergency portion, which senses the immediate, rapid release of train line pressure. In addition, each car's air brake reservoir is divided into two portions--the service portion and the emergency portion--and is known as the "dual-compartment reservoir”. Normal service applications transfer air pressure from the service portion to the brake cylinder, while emergency applications cause the triple valve to direct all air in both the service portion and the emergency portion of the dual-compartment reservoir to the brake cylinder, resulting in a 20-30% stronger application.

The emergency portion of each triple valve is activated by the extremely rapid rate of reduction of train line pressure. Due to the length of trains and the small diameter of the train line, the rate of reduction is high near the front of the train (in the case of an engineer-initiated emergency application) or near the break in the train line (in the case of the train line coming apart). Farther away from the source of the emergency application, the rate of reduction can be reduced to the point where triple valves will not detect the application as an emergency reduction. To prevent this, each triple valve's emergency portion contains an auxiliary vent port, which, when activated by an emergency application, also locally vents the train line's pressure directly to atmosphere. This serves to propagate the emergency application rapidly along the entire length of the train.

The most visible item is the pump, operated by steam pressure. These can be one or two cylinder.

single cylinder pump on a small steam engine