In almost every train there is an emergency brake.

Emergency break

I was wondering in which scenarios a passenger would need to pull the emergency brake.

  • 40
    I was on one in Niederrad when a drunken sot in my car pulled the emergency brake on a lark. He was taken into custody by the police and all the other passengers were annoyed about the delay. I was also on the 'Vomit Comet' to Essex when train thieves used it to facilitate a robbery of all the passengers. Sadly for them the doors were locked and the Transit Police absolutely SWARMED. Maybe a dozen from each direction. Notably, every one was a bruiser, big and built like an ice box. I don't know where they find those guys!
    – Gayot Fow
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 17:47
  • 63
    One note is that you generally should not pull it if someone on the train is having a medical emergency - they will get help faster if the train can continue to the next station, or to some other point where an ambulance can be met. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 18:09
  • 3
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit see onelook.com/?w=sot
    – Gayot Fow
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:12
  • 5
    @phoog To a first-order approximation, stuff pulled by steam engines for tourists. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:28
  • 5
    AIUI in the UK they are not emergency brakes; they are emergency alarms which alert the driver that they should stop the train. In most circumstances this would have the same effect, but there are exceptions. For instance, London Underground drivers are trained to continue to the next station unless any part of the train is still in a platform, since for most emergencies help can be provided quicker this way. These were present, in the form of pull-cords running along the passenger compartments, even on most "heritage" stock.
    – Flyto
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 9:48

9 Answers 9


Building on the previous answers:

If you notice a condition where any sensible mind would think that it is extremely dangerous for the train to continue moving. Dangerous here can mean:

  • If another passanger’s life is in danger and the danger is technical in nature.
    (e.g. them being stuck in the door as noted above)

  • If something happens to the train that could endanger passengers if the train continues at full speed.
    (e.g. an outside door falling off)

  • If a condition happens where the train needs to get evacuated quickly.
    (e.g. a large fire. Note that small fires are better extinguished on the spot.)

    Naturally, you want to make sure that the train doesn’t stop where evacuation would be extremely difficult (on a bridge) or where stopping in case of fire would be deadly (in a tunnel). In Germany, (Switzerland and Austria,) train drivers have a function called Notbremsüberbrückung or NBÜ which they are required to activate if one of the above. In Germany and Austria, this is even signalled on the hectometre signs next to the track. NBÜ is designed to stop the train at the next position safe for evacuation. I’m pretty sure all European countries have this under different names — or else they will have signs affixed to the emergency brakes stating the restriction.

  • If anything happens to your carriage that would cause you to immediately hit the brakes when driving a car and a similar thing happens.
    (e.g. chunks of steel stabbing through the floor.)

The emergency brake can also be helpful if the train hasn’t yet actually left the station but is about to and you need help fast. For example, if another passenger collapsed and requires medical assistance. The reasoning why this should not occur en route is that it is easier for the paramedics to get to stations and they might even be ready at the platform awaiting the train. But if you are already at a station, time is only lost by travelling to the next one.

I already noted that fires need to be large enough that extinguishing them on-site seems impossible for pulling the brake to be warranted. Likewise, if any physical attack originating from other passengers happens (e.g. robberies, shootings), the emergency brake is better not pulled but the train staff notified (so the doors can be kept closed if necessary until the police arrive). There had been a shooting on a local train in the Allgäu where the two suspects jumped of the train at seemingly rather low speeds (I think 80 km/h — on other segments of the route it does 140). One died on the spot, the other was severely injured and didn’t get far, so having a train in motion is the better option.

And to complete the anecdotal evidence: Apparantly on one train route in Switzerland, somebody kept taking the express train that doesn’t stop at his station rather than the (slower) local one that did. He knew exactly where to pull the brake so that the train would slide to a stop exactly at the platform. Somehow, he managed to disappear before the train staff caught him (and they should have been warned because that had happened a few times). Unfortunately, the story is second hand coming from me, so I don’t know whether it was really true.

  • 11
    @Jan OK. You're obviously more skilled at diving off moving trains than I am -- 80km/h (55mph) seems pretty fast to a noob like me. ;-) Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:22
  • 8
    @DavidRicherby Yeah, if you take the train, you will note it slowing down in the area where they jumped off; and the difference between 140 and 80 is obvious. However, when you’re inside, you may have difficulties judging the actual speed — which is what I presume made them jump. Or maybe the woods just looked like a good hiding place ;)
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:27
  • 1
    That about fires is only true when there are no tunnels. In Switzerland there are often (always?) labels below the emergency brakes, saying that you should not use it when there is a fire in a tunnel.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Nobody I don’t know about Switzerland, but in Germany practically every train has a Notbremsüberbrückung which the driver uses to delay the action of the emergency brake if the train is in a tunnel or on a bridge. So you could pull it, but the train wouldn’t stop until it left the tunnel.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 21:57
  • 3
    @Jan excellent. Now... as far as fire, train cars don't burn. There is an elaborate, aviation-worthy certification process for materials allowed on railcars - can't burn, can't make toxic smoke. Nothing on a car wants to burn (except fuel in DMUs and the rare fuel-heated car). Best way to escape a fire: go through to the next car. They have separate ventilation systems. The crews will prefer to move the train to their choice of a good evac location (they know their railroad), and move again to a good firefighting location if needed (probably not on pax, often on freight). Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 1:42

In the Eschede rail disaster, a passenger noticed a chunk of steel that had shot up through the floor of his carriage, and began consulting with train staff as to whether he ought to activate the brake, while the train was still moving at speed. In fact that chunk was part of the train's wheel, which shortly failed catastrophically.

I think it's generally accepted that he really ought to have pulled the brake when he first saw this big chunk of steel shoot up through the floor.

  • I heard the emergency brakes in ICEs do not really engange the brake, but just give a signal to train personell. If that is true, the passenger had no safe way of stopping the train in time. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 23:49
  • 6
    @TheBlastOne Afaik, the emergency break directly applies, but in certain conditions the drivers are required to use a Notbremsüberbrückung (NBÜ) so that the train won’t stop until at a safe position (e.g. off the bridge, outside the tunnel). But I’ll double check that.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:02
  • Googled that, and you are 100% right Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 13:59
  • 1
    @TheBlastOne I googled it in German because it's about a German train and found this Wikipedia article which unfortunately isn't available in English. You seem to be somewhat right about what you described being done, but it's done in German subways, not in ICEs. According to the article, one can usually use it the emergency brake of a German subway as a normal emergency brake only within the first 10 seconds of the train leaving the station. Otherwise, it only establishes an audio channel to the train driver.
    – UTF-8
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:12
  • 3
    @TheBlastOne Yeah, I checked with an ICE train driver I know and he said he can choose to take action if he deems the train would stop at an unsafe spot. But if he doesn’t do anything, the emergency brake will kick in.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 22:05

In descending probabilities,

  • Someone stuck in the door with body parts outside when the train starts
  • Someone fell out of the window
  • Derailed single car

I am sure you can construct other reasons, more or less obscure. At least the first I saw happen once.

It may be useful for robberies, rape, homicide, or other crimes, as it forces the bad guy to run on foot or get collected.

  • 36
    Your last paragraph seems like very bad advice. While the train is moving, the criminal is trapped inside it. You should use the intercom to talk to the driver so they can stop the train at a station without opening all the doors. If you stop the train between stations, you're in a place that's hard for the police to reach and where the criminal can use the emergency door release to flee the train in an unknown direction. That pretty much guarantees their escape. Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 18:48
  • 11
    It is not an advice - I said 'maybe'. The next station maybe an hour away; I'd rather not sit in a rail car with a guy who just killed someone for another hour. It depends a lot on the situation.
    – Aganju
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 18:51
  • 4
    @Aganju for the record, the maximum (planned) duration between stations in The Netherlands is 35 minutes (between Amersfoort and Zwolle).
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 19:18
  • 5
    A couple of other possibilities off the top of my head: 1) Fire. 2) Damage that may not cause a derailment, but could be dangerous (broken exterior door/window etc.)
    – Dezza
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:09
  • 6
    Depending on the type of the train, it might not stop immediately, especially in the case of fire. If it's a train which runs regularly through tunnels, at least in Germany the driver can override the emergency brake, so that the train doesn't stop in the middle of the tunnel, where everybody would suffocate within minutes, if there is a fire.
    – dunni
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 20:21

Just as another datum, I've been involved in two emergency brake incidents in my life, both on London Underground (tube) services. In both I had no hesitation in concluding that the brake should be triggered, and in the case when I myself tried to trigger it no penalty followed.

In that case, a mother got on a busy tube train towing an unwilling child perhaps five years old, at the last moment before the doors shut. The doors closed with the child mostly still outside, holding the hand of his mother. His arm was thin enough that the rubber door edge strips compressed around it without triggering the "something in the door" detectors that would normally cause the doors to reopen automatically.

Two others and I all reached for the emergency brakes, whilst three other people grabbed the edges of the doors and attempted to force them open, to relieve pressure on the child's arm. I have no idea which of us pulled the handle first, but the driver got the message, and the train either did not move off or immediately braked to a halt (I can't recall which). Both mother and child were extremely upset, but unharmed.


Other reasons to pull the brake:

  • Uncommanded movement of the railcar or consist, beyond normal slack action -- e.g. the train's trying to roll away while the engine crew's on the ground briefing their replacements or some other similarly bad scenario.
  • If you're in a car and that car/portion of the consist uncouples/breaks away from the rest of the train -- Westinghouse-type automatic air brakes will engage automatically anyway provided the angle cocks at the separation point are open, but it most certainly won't hurt anything to pull the brake handle at that point.
  • Leaving the station would pose a greater hazard to life than staying put -- e.g. someone failed to mind the gap and now is at risk of being injured if the equipment moves.
  • Overspeed scenarios can also merit pulling the brake, but that's a matter of route knowledge -- you're basically saying "the engine crew is out of their mind" at that point, so you better be right!

Note that you'll want to get a hold of a crewperson immediately after pulling the brake under the first two conditions as they'll need to set the handbrakes on the cars in question promptly.

  • FWIW, I think vacuum-braked passenger stock disappeared in the UK a long time ago -- new-build stock from the late 1960s onwards was air-braked, and air brakes were retro-fitted to the existing vacuum-braked stock. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:26
  • 2
    Vacuum brakes (ones that are still used in heritage coaches in any case) are also fail-safe, @DavidRicherby; with both, the brakes are applied when the brake pipe is at atmospheric pressure. The only difference is that vacuum brakes have only 1 atmosphere of pressure to "play with", so they're just generally less good (but the mechanism was easier to build with steam locomotives, which is why they were used).
    – Muzer
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 9:02
  • When train is broken apart, braking of the front part is strictly prohibited until the rear part comes to a full stop. "rest of the train" is too unclear here. Only passenger in the rear part can pull the brake, and only if he makes sure that his part is not braking sufficiently on it's own (which, as you pointed out, it should). Unnecessary pull of the brake will only delay removing of the train and restoring traffic on the line. So actually, it will hurt unless absolutely necessary. Noticing that your train broke apart and isn't braking is so difficult that the scenario is not realistic.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 11:23
  • Non of this fits with the original question, which clearly indicated a passenger train in the Netherlands, (answer fits a freight train in the USA and that is not what Travel is about.)
    – Willeke
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 14:29
  • 1
    @Willeke As we pointed out, although the question originally said "the Netherlands", the principles actually apply to trains everywhere we can think of. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 18:18

In 2009, an American tourist decided to hang onto the outside of The Ghan train across the Australian Outback in sub-zero conditions. He would likely have died of exposure if he had not been rescued. In this case, he was rescued via an emergency stop triggered by a crew member. This is a kind of case where hitting the emergency brake can save someone's life. Here is a situation where @NateEldredge 's comment about continuing to the nearest station for medical assistance rather than stopping might not apply, as the article mentioned that the tourist was in danger of falling off. Stopping the train right away helped to prevent that from happening.

  • 16
    I think Darwin would have recommended not pulling the brake. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:32
  • 13
    @Malvolio perhaps, but Alice Springs thought otherwise. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 0:34
  • 14
    You're painting quite negative image of the guy. He did tried to enter the stopped train for 5 minutes but was completely ignored by passengers inside and hung to it only after exhausting other options. Most of us would probably do same instead of being stranded in the middle of Australia without documents, money and belongings.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 11:52
  • 1
    When they say "sub-zero" are they talking about F or C? The guy was from Alaska. Zero C is a warm day in some parts of Alaska. Granted, it's still inadvisable to hold onto the side of a train traveling 70 mph, regardless of air temperature.
    – reirab
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 20:05
  • 3
    @reirab: In Canada (where we use Celsius), weather forecasts say "sub-zero" temperatures at least as often as "freezing" to describe the same thing. It's a phrase you hear often. Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 14:02

You use the emergency brake if the world as you know it is collapsing around you and if you believe that a stopped train will be generally a safer place than a moving train.

In 2012, a train started leaving Prague main railway station despite a red signal and despite another train waiting on the same track in the tunnel. A passenger inside the train noticed the signalling and heard the sound of a switch being split (i.e., damaged by the train coming from the wrong direction) and used the emergency brake. The trains came to a halt 23 metres from each other. Compare this to the Eschede disaster referenced in another answer here.

Ignore emergency brakes until you are in an emergency of that grade. If the train seems to be running smoothly and no one is in obvious danger, count on railway personnel to figure everything out for you.

In response to comments: This is a very simple rule. If no one is in danger, it is none of passengers' business to determine whether the train should be moving or stopped. The simple rule is enforced with fines. Application of the simple rule may not always be that simple, especially if one is agitated, intoxicated, or in unfamiliar surroundings such as in a foreign country. I intentionally gave an example where a high level of awareness was necessary to correctly judge the situation as dangerous in the first place. First time users of the emergency brake should just try to stick to the simple rule, especially when travelling in a foreign country; but they also shouldn't hesitate to use the brake when the irregularity and danger becomes obvious.

I'm offering this simple answer beside the casuistic answers because the currently available ones don't seem to be based on real data or even real anecdotal situations. Disconnected trains are real. Disconnected trains whose engineless half keeps running until a passenger applies the emergency brake, that's imaginary.

  • 5
    Well, no. There are a lot of situations in between an emergency of the Eschede grade and "running smoothly and no one is in obvious danger", some of which are discussed in the existing answers, and the question is where the line should be drawn.
    – djr
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 23:47
  • I agree with @djr. It's a great example of a time to pull it, but the part about ignoring the brake in lesser situations isn't always right. The other answers show other less severe cases where it would also be good to pull it.
    – Dronz
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 5:26

When the danger is caused by the passengers themselves, and not by an accident, it may also make sense to pull the break.

A few months ago I witnessed the following inside of a carriage full of people (carriages non connected):

  1. the train was ready for departure (doors open) and a group of people started a verbal fight with a single person that was upset by this group for some ethical or moral reasoning (which seemed related to the seats available);
  2. basically the doors closed and a violent physical fight started between that person and the group;
  3. the train did not move, but people around started panicking and pushed for the doors;
  4. a few of them pulled the emergency brake, but the doors wouldn't open;
  5. after a couple of minutes that single person tried to escape via the doors and also pulled that brake, running and pushing people around the carriage trying to avoid the group;
  6. after several minutes we could see outside several policemen with dogs standing by and when all the doors opened, most people literally pushed and ran away from that carriage;
  7. I reentered another carriage and only more than half an hour later the train re-closed its doors and started moving.

I believe the panic was not only caused by the fight, but by the possibility that the group would involve other people around or withdraw weapons of some kind.

In any case, if the train was already outside the station, without the presence of the police outside, the fight would probably escalate even further and people would still pull the brake for their own safety.

  • 3
    If the train were outside the station, this is a good example of when pulling the brake would just result in being trapped in the car with the violent people far longer than otherwise. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 22:29
  • @kundor in this situation (train stopped while outside the station), people would likely force the doors open or break the windows to escape – generally there are emergency hammers near windows and doors manual overrides. However, if the train kept moving more people could be harmed or die inside that carriage until the next station was reached. People's instincts would tell them to get out as fast as possible for not becoming targets themselves (this may also apply to terrorist threats).
    – CPHPython
    Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 12:12
  • 1
    @CPHPython Out of curiosity, where was this? Commented Jan 1, 2017 at 6:06
  • @curious_cat I agree somewhat, but generalization is common and it gets into mainstream media in a distorted way, sometimes associated to a particular race or religion... This is why I chose not to mention further details (and also the looks of the people involved). If you are building statistics or correlations for a specific purpose, you may use this information, but those statistics should not be able to pinpoint and influence the perception of a certain location/group. I will delete the comment and I'd kindly ask you to do the same (these are non-related topics to the question).
    – CPHPython
    Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 13:15
  • @CPHPython Fair enough. :) Consider mine deleted! Commented Jan 2, 2017 at 13:21

Note that the emergency brake that you as a passenger can activate can be overridden by the driver. The driver has the option of talking to you and then decide whether or not to override the brake. This allows the driver to not only reject bogus use of the emergency break, it also allows the driver to stop the train at an appropriate location, should that be needed. Suppose e.g. that the train is about to stop at a station within a few minutes and there is a medical emergency. If there is no train conductor in sight (some very large trains only have one train conductor), then one should use the emergency break to communicate the need for medical assistance to the driver.

  • 5
    Maybe this is true on Dutch trains, but it isn't universal to all trains. On the New York City subway, pulling the brake automatically stops the train, and it cannot move again until the brakes are reset (which is apparently somewhat time-consuming). Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 4:18
  • 2
    @NateEldredge It isn't true on Dutch trains either, except for the international high-speed ones. In those the driver can override if the train is in a place where emergency braking is highly undesired. (Tunnel, bridge, etc.)
    – Tonny
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 9:39
  • 4
    "emergency break" should probably be "emergency brake".
    – user
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 9:56
  • 2
    @MichaelKjörling give the brake a break...
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 13:15
  • 4
    @jwenting The emergency break broke the brake. Break break.
    – user
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 13:22

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