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Brake Vans

"The Guard is the man that rides in the van

That runs at the back of the train

The men in front think he’s a fool

And he thinks they’re the same"


The brake van, also known as a guard's van, a guard's car, or in America a caboose, was an important part of every early goods train.  It carried a guard and was equipped with a strong brake to help with slowing and stopping the train.  From here, the guard could keep an eye on the train in case of problems.


Barrow Hill has two examples of Goods Train Brake Vans.



These can still be seen running on demonstration days and on some of our big events where we offer popular trips up the short Springwell branch line.


London Midland Region Brake Van

Eastern Region Brake Van

In both of the examples look at the the protruding side windows to allow the guard to watch for fixed signals, the chimney for his stove and the side and rear hanging hooks for the lights.  The side lamps were so the driver sould see the end of the train at night and check it was complete.  The rear hook carried the red tail lamp, used by signalmen also to verify the train was complete.  It is one of the few instances where seeing a red light means that all is well.

Each of the four main companies had their own style of brake van.  They all weighed about 20 tons which was achieved by large concrete ballast sections at each end to give plenty of weight over the wheels when braking.














Each brake van was equipped with a shunting pole, 2 sprags, one tail tamp and two side lamps.  A small coal stove was a standard fitting and part of the guards own equipment was a small shovel.  He normally found his own coal, either from coal bunkers at the side of the tracks or occasionally from the loco itself.





















Brake vans were always used on loose coupled freight trains, those not fitted with automatic brakes.  The guard would apply his brake to assist the braking of the train when descending steep gradients and in the event of a broken coupling causing the train to become divided, he could bring the rear portion of the train to a stop and avoid an accident.  His duty, after firstly securing the stationary wagons, was then to go back down the line and warn following trains of the problem.  The brake could be manually applied by a hand wheel or, if on a pipe fitted train, the guard could apply the vacuum brake or air brake.  


Concrete ballast 1

Example of part of the concrete ballast used to add weight to the van


The coal stove

internal brake van

Guard's seat built into the protruding window


Guard's desk

Hand wheel to both control the train on slopes or in case of mishap.  Also used to secure the van when stationary

Powered braking system control  

On many cases in trip working the train would work with the guards van at the front.  The guard would keep a sharp lookout, sounding his whistle to anyone on the line and giving signals to the driver by hand in daylight and by his hand lamp at night and in poor visibility.


Up to the 1980’s it was still common to see freight trains with a brake van running behind but with the advent of the MGR trains and fully braked trains the practice eventually became obsolete.  Rare sightings could still be made of engineering trains with brake vans but these too soon ceased.  These was a short practice of the guard riding in the back cab of diesel locomotives for safety but with the advent of driver only operated trains (DOO), guards were no longer needed.

An interesting piece of history that has now been lost by example was that some brake vans needed conversion for the merry go round routes. The chassis sides and steps were modified to allow them to pass through the automatic unloading system.



Concrete ballast 2
emergency brake 2
Handbrake 2
emergency vacuum brake
hand brake 1
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