Can Trains Run Backwards?

We’re used to seeing trains running “forward” with locomotives on the front and the train cars behind them. Can trains reverse?

YES… but sometimes it is not a good idea.

They Can…

Modern diesel-electric or electric locomotives can run equally well in either direction. The wheels are driven by electric motors (called “traction motors”) which can run either way.

There is a lever called a “reverser” in the locomotive cab that determines the direction of travel. It has three positions: forward, neutral, and reverse. The reverser handle is removable, and if it is removed, the locomotive won’t run. It’s the closest you can come to a “key” for a locomotive.

Steam engines generally could run in either direction as well. They also had a reverser handle.

Many diesel locomotives will have a small “F” or “R” letter on each end to indicate which end is the “forward” or “reverse” end.

But Can You See?

The main problem with running a locomotive or train in reverse is that the engineer (driver) cannot see very well in reverse. Most locomotive cabs are designed for forward operation, with the controls set up for the engineer to look forward while operating the train. If the locomotive is driven in reverse, the engineer has to look over her/his shoulder and the visibility can be very limited.

For backup moves with a train attached, someone has to be on the “leading” end of the train (the back) to watch for any obstacles and to tell the train engineer when it is time to slow down and to stop.

When trains had cabooses, the crew would ride on the rear platform of the caboose and use signals or radio to communicate with the engineer.

Today, a crewperson has to hang off a ladder or step on a freight car to do the same function, or stand on the ground to watch the train’s movement. It can be very uncomfortable and possibly unsafe to ride the rear of a freight car for a long time, especially in poor weather.

Changing Ends

If a train has to run backwards for a long distance, crews will generally stop the train, detach the locomotives from the front of the train and run them around the train on an adjacent track to the rear of the train and couple up there. That makes it the new “front” and then they can run forward. This is how trains turn around.

This is why multiple engines on a train usually face in opposite directions, so crews have a “forward” facing locomotive no matter which direction they are traveling.

At Both Ends

Sometimes there are no passing tracks to use to change ends of the train. Some railways have engines on both ends so they don’t have to exchange ends. The crew is in one engine and the other engine is remotely controlled.

Passenger trains often have a locomotive at one end and a “cab car” at the other end. This cab car is a regular passenger car with a special compartment at one end with controls for the engineer to use when the locomotive is “pushing” the train.

Turning the Train Around

It is possible to turn an entire train around. Railroads use a track arrangement called a “wye” to do this. The train pulls onto one “leg” of the wye, onto the “tail”, then backs out the other “leg” onto the main line. Once this maneuver is done, the train is facing the other direction.

This is not often done. Wyes take up a lot of space, and the “tail” has to be long enough to contain the entire train, so it is not practical to turn an entire freight train. Usually wyes are used to turn locomotives or a few passenger cars.

Turntables can also be used to turn individual locomotives or cars. These are far less common nowadays because diesel locomotives generally aren’t turned like steam engines were.

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