Brake van

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Preserved SR "Queen Mary" bogie brake van - most British brake vans had just four wheels.

Brake van and guard's van are terms used mainly in the UK, Australia and India for a railway vehicle equipped with a hand brake which can be applied by the guard. The equivalent North American term is caboose, but a British brake van and a caboose are very different in appearance, because the former usually has only four wheels, while the latter usually has bogies.

Many British freight trains formerly had no continuous brake[1] so the only available brakes were those on the locomotive and the brake van. Because of this shortage of brake power, the speed was restricted to 25 mph (40 km/h). The brake van was marshalled at the rear of the train so both portions of the train could be brought to a stand in the event of a coupling breaking.

When freight trains were fitted with continuous braking, brake vans lost their importance, and were discontinued by many railways. However, they still continue on some important railways, such as the Indian Railways, besides the heritage railways.


Railways were a formalised development of industrial tramways, which had found need on occasions to add additional braking capacity by adding an empty truck to the rear of a group of tramcars. This allowed the "locomotive" — often a cableway powered by a steam engine at the surface — to operate both safely and, more importantly, at higher speed.

The first railways, such as the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway of 1830, used a version of the tramways buffer and chain coupling, termed a screw-coupling. Vehicles are coupled by hand using a hook and links with a turnbuckle-like device that draws the vehicles together. Vehicles have buffers, one at each corner on the ends, which are pulled together and compressed by the coupling device. With no continuous brake across the entire train,[1] the whole train was reliant on the braking capacity of the locomotive, and train lengths were restricted.

To allow for longer trains, early railway companies from the 1840s onwards began replicating industrial tramway practises, by adding "break vans". The term was derived from their name on the industrial tramways, in which they controlled the (residual) train if there was a "break" in the linkage to the locomotive.[citation needed] Early railway couplings had been found to be prone to breakages. The term was only replaced by "brake van" from the 1870s onwards.

Because of the combined risks of shortage of brake power and breaking couplings, the speed of freight trains was initially restricted to 25 mph (40 km/h). The brake van was marshalled at the rear of the train, and served two purposes:

  • Provided additional braking for 'unfitted' goods trains
  • Put a man (the guard) at the rear of the train, who could take action in the event of a breakdown or accident

While the UK railway system persisted until post-nationalisation in 1948 with "unfitted" (discontinuously braked) trains and loose couplings (the final unfitted trains ran in the 1980s), other systems, such as the North American adoption of the Janney coupler, overcame the same railway safety issues in a different manner.

The guard's job[edit]

On unfitted trains, the brake van has several purposes, and hence jobs for the guard.

Firstly, and most importantly, the guard would use the brake van's brakes to assist with keeping the train under control on downwards gradients and whenever he could see that the locomotive's crew was attempting to slow the train. Route knowledge would allow the guard to initiate the braking before the driver. To aid in this, signalling regulations mandated that signals be left at clear until the entirety of a train (including guard's van) had passed, as the guard would immediately apply brakes upon seeing a signal at danger.

Secondly, the wheel handbrake could be screwed down to keep the loose screw couplings taut between unfitted wagons, to minimise the risk of snapped broken couplings from the locomotive "snatching" or jerking, which was particularly a problem as locomotives became more powerful. As breaking couplings on unfitted trains when starting were a fairly common occurrence, train crews were given specific instruction. Upon starting a freight train, rules mandated the footplate crew to look back on their train towards the brake van, waiting for the guard to signal (by flag or lamp) that the entire train was moving and all couplings were taut, before accelerating to higher speeds.

A later job of the guard was the provision of side lamps on brake vans. All three side lamps are visible in this picture: the white lamp is the tail lamp, whilst the grey lamps are the side lamps, along with the standard tail lamp (showing red to the rear and sides) required on the rear of every train. The side lamps showed a white light towards the front and a red light to the side/rear. The front-facing lamps were an indication to the locomotive crew that the train was still complete, whilst the provision of extra red lights to the rear was an additional safety measure. Due to the very low chance of all three lights being out at once, it was stipulated that a freight train passing without any lamps on the rear had split and that the rear portion was potentially running away.

Country overview[edit]

Great Britain[edit]

A "toad" brake van of the Great Western Railway
British Railways "standard" brake van


In Great Britain, freight trains without a continuous train braking system in either the whole train or the rearmost section of the train ("unfitted" or "partly fitted", respectively in UK railway parlance) were still prevalent in the 1970s, but mostly eliminated by the 1980s.

Early brake vans were heavily weighted, adapted open freight wagons, equipped with an externally mounted hand-operated brake acting on all four wheels. The term brake van began to be adopted from the 1870s onwards, when bespoke designed vehicles had a specific hut added to house the guard away from the weather. In keeping with tradition, most brake vans had an open area, but from the 1870s onwards. this "veranda" became in part enclosed through the addition of a roof. Some vans became fully enclosed, but were equipped at each end with windows to allow the guard to view the entire train.

All of the operating equipment, specifically the brakes and sand boxes to improve traction, were located in the open area of the brake van. Brakes were normally controlled using a hand wheel mounted within the veranda, although some early designs continued with an externally mounted shaft. To improve the guard's visibility, many were fitted with look-outs on the roof, but side look-outs (termed "duckets") were the more common. The North Eastern Railway, Great Central Railway, London Brighton and South Coast Railway and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway all built brake vans with a raised look-out at one end of the roof.

Two issues always added to brake power, the purpose of a brake van: wheels, and weight. Hence, many companies tried both approaches to improve their brake vans. Brake vans often had a significant amount of ballast, in the form of concrete, cast iron or water tanks built into their structure, to increase the available braking effort.

Whilst most brake vans had two axles with four wheels, many railway companies built brake vans with three axles and six wheels. The Great Northern Railway built a few eight-wheelers for very heavy coal trains, the only rigid eight-wheeler vehicles built in the UK. In the 1930s, the London Midland and Scottish Railway built three bespoke twin-bogied vans (four axles, eight wheels), for use on a particular branch line, where they replaced pairs of four-wheeled vans. The design covered the entire chassis length, with two extended verandas on either side of a cabin equipped with twin duckets.

To improve braking further, some LMS and LNER brake vans were fitted with vacuum brakes in addition to their normal brake, which could be operated by the guard. Almost all War Department brake vans were fitted with vacuum cylinders, as they were exclusively used on ammunition trains. The Southern Railway built some twin-bogie brake vans on redundant electric locomotive chassis, termed the "Queen Mary" brake vans. Designed for high speed operation on milk and parcels trains rather than stopping power, they had a lengthened cabin, but did not cover the entire twin-bogie chassis.

Decline after the Beeching Axe[edit]

In 1968, the requirement for fully fitted freight trains to end with a guard's van was lifted, and the guard was allowed to ride in the rearmost locomotive cab, giving a good view of the whole train. By this time, the Beeching Axe had reduced by two-thirds the amount of trackage in the UK;[citation needed] as a resultant, most steam locomotives had been withdrawn, and most British Railways standard-design diesel and electric locomotives had double-ended cabs. Therefore, there was no operational need for so many brake vans, and many types were withdrawn. In 1985, rail unions agreed to single-man operation of some freight trains, the first time trains had not had a guard on board for over 150 years. Brake vans were still required on trains carrying dangerous chemicals until the late 1990s.


Presently, brake vans are only deemed necessary by HM Railway Inspectorate or Network Rail in certain special cases, for example in trains with unusual cargoes or track maintenance trains, or when one of the few single-cabbed locomotives are used, such as the British Rail Class 20. The nearest equivalent to a brake van still in use on main-line British railways is the driving van trailer (DVT), which is used on locomotive-hauled trains to control the locomotive from the other end of the train in a push-pull configuration, removing the need for the locomotive to run around its train at termini. Although the DVT has braking capability of its own, this is incidental, as the vehicle's primary purpose is to allow the train to be driven from the opposite end of the train from the locomotive, as well as to provide accommodation for bulky luggage.

Brake vans are a common sight on many heritage railways. On occasion, multiple brake vans will be coupled together in what is known as a "brake van special" for people to ride in.


In Australia, brake vans (or guard's vans; both terms were in common use) were often also used for carrying parcels and light freight, and usually had large compartments and loading doors for such items. Some of the larger vans also included a compartment for passengers travelling on goods services or drovers travelling with their livestock.

Cane railways[edit]

Sugar cane railways in Queensland sometimes have radio-controlled brake vans. The wagons in these trains are unfitted and have no continuous brake pipes.


Indian goods brake van with four wheels (BVZC)
Indian goods brake van with eight wheels (BVZI)

On Indian Railways, brake vans are still in use to a great extent on passenger trains and goods trains (freight trains). The brake van in the passenger trains (usually the first and last coaches in the train) is a part of a coach and consists of an enclosed room/cabin with two small seats faced opposite to each other, one seat having the writing table for the guard to assist writing and working his train, the opposite seat being a spare. The van also has a small lavatory. A special feature of the passenger brake van is a small dog box where passengers can carry their pets along with them while they travel in the same train in a different coach. The guard generally remains responsible for the water and pet food while the train is moving, and there are features to the dog box to allow the same. The brake van also contains a stretcher, an emergency train lighting box, and a stand to hold the lamp signal during the night. The vacuum or air pressure gauge is hosted in front of the guard's seat with a lever to operate it in case of emergency. The hand brake can be used in case of high emergency. The remaining part of the coach consists of space for carrying parcels and small goods. It also has seating for ladies or for the disabled (wheelchair friendly).

The goods brake van in India is less attractive, is generally the last bogie on the train, open on both sides, and does not necessarily have interior lighting/lamps, but it does house a small WC lavatory seat for the guards, owing to their long hours on freight trains. The van is less secure and has fewer features than the passenger brake van. Eight-wheeled brake vans were introduced recently to improve the riding comfort for the guards.

Passenger brake van[edit]

British Rail Mark 1 coach with passenger compartments (left) and brake / luggage area (right)

A passenger brake van originally served the same purpose as a goods brake van, but, when continuous brakes became standard on passenger trains, its use changed. The hand brake is still fitted, but is for emergency use, and for when the train is parked without a locomotive present. The vehicle also provides a compartment for the guard, a luggage compartment, and sometimes passenger accommodation, as well.


Examples of British passenger brake vans include:

Support coaches[edit]

In the UK, converted British Railways Mark 1 passenger brake vans are used as the basis for preserved steam locomotive support coaches.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "SR 25 Ton Goods Brake Van No. 55993". Retrieved 2013-05-26. 

External links[edit]