The brake operator of these early days had to be a rugged person, able to work hard in all kinds of weather and often under dangerous conditions. Traveling was difficult and time-consuming. Threats from outside the train were also a problem, particularly in the Old West. Until the intervention of air brakes by George Westinghouse in 1869, brakes had to be set by hand on each car of the train. The increasingly rapid inventions of the last third of the nineteenth century made the job of the brake operator easier and less dangerous. Further developments in the twentieth century, however, have so improved the efficiently of the braker’s work that automation and mechanization are now threatening the existence of many jobs in this field of work.
Relating to their logistics jobs, the brake operators perform a variety of tasks. As flaggers or road freight couplers, they see that proper flags and signal lights are used to ensure the safety of the train. They signal the engineer when to start and when to stop, throw track switches, and couple cars to make trains. Acting as inspectors, the brake employees check air brake equipment and see that tools and other equipment are stored in their proper places. In addition, they inspect the train both while it is in motion and during stops, looking for any indication of trouble from sticking brakes to overheated bearings. They make minor adjustments when necessary and report any need for major repairs. As passenger-train brake couplers, they help passengers on and off trains and open and close outside doors. Also with their jobs in logistics, they often assist the conductor in collecting tickets and looking after the general comfort of the passengers. Further responsibilities for this ob include inspecting and operating the air-conditioning, heating, and lighting equipment. As yard switch tenders or yard couplers, the brakers work inside the railroad yards performing such jobs as switching, stopping, and distributing cars on proper tracks for the purpose of loading or unloading. They also help make up trains before and after runs.
In their logistics employment, high school students may learn more about the work by talking to an experienced brake operator in his transportation jobs, and by arranging to visit railroad venues. Because the majority of brake operators are represented by the United Transportation Union, a visit to the local office of this union may be helpful. Some high schools and vocational schools offer a general course in railroad shop crafts and maintenance. Young persons may apply for work as brake operator at the local railroad office or at the local branch of government department or any agency. Once accepted, new employees are trained on the job by working and receiving instruction from experienced brake operators. Before going on the road, the beginning braker must pass a written examination on the rules of railroad operation and the specific regulations of the job. After passing the examination and demonstrating practical ability on trial trips, the new brake operators’ name is placed on the brakers’ ‘extra board,’ and the new person becomes subject to call for temporary work assignments. One may remain on the extra board for a year or more before obtaining a first assignment.
When a brake operator advances, it is usually to the position of conductor. Two important elements, however, enter into any advancement in this field. First is the matter of seniority, sometimes railroad workers spend certain years as brake operators before advancement. Next, oral and written examinations are required covering such information as timetables, signals, brake systems, and general operating procedure. Thus, while waiting for an opening as a conductor, brake operator in the freight service often try to transfer to passenger service. This work is considered more desirable because it is less strenuous and often involves shorter hours.
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