When I was a kid I loved it when we were riding in the car and had to stop to let freight trains pass. We would lean across the front seat to watch the rail cars go by, chattering about them or just watching and getting that weird sensation that our car was moving…instead of the train. (I kind of liked that.)
I still remember some of the names painted on the sides of the rail cars. COTTON BELT – the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, that is. SOUTHERN. That was the Southern Railway (“Serves the South”). FRISCO. Also known as the St. Louis – San Francisco Railway. But we were also waiting to see the caboose – that gave us something to look forward to, even though I was kind of sad to see it. That meant the show was over!
The caboose is a thing of the past. Cabooses were once used on nearly all freight trains, by law. But advances in technology made the caboose unnecessary and undesirable, according to the railroads.
The caboose was originally just a makeshift shack built over an empty flat car, assigned to the conductor for his exclusive use – a kind of home away from home. Over time it became the quarters for the train crew and took on a utilitarian role. Railroads found that the caboose offered a good vantage point to keep an eye on trains as they got longer; to improve the view they added a cupola, a lookout post on top of the car.
For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, most cabooses carried a conductor, brakeman and a flagman. A second brakeman accompanied the engineer. (The conductor oversaw the safe operation of the train; the engineer oversaw operation of the locomotive.)
Before the era of automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled by whistle when he needed to slow down or stop. This was when the rear-end and head-end brakemen went to work. Each car had its own brake wheel, and the two brakemen, having climbed on top of this moving train, would move from car to car, from opposite ends, applying hand brakes until the train stopped.
Once the train stopped, the flagman would get off the train and walk back a prescribed distance to signal approaching trains that a stopped train was ahead. Once underway again, the caboose crew would sit in the cupola and watch for smoke from overheated axle bearings (this situation was called a hot box and was a serious fire and derailment hazard), smoke from stuck brakes, or other signs of trouble.
In the 1880s the automatic air brake system invented by George Westinghouse eliminated the need for brakemen to set brakes manually. Eventually electric track circuits were implemented to activate signals, eliminating the need for flagmen. Friction bearings were replaced by roller bearings, reducing the likelihood of a hot box.
Today the ends of freight trains are monitored by remote radio devices called End of Train devices, or EOTs. The EOT fits over the rear coupler and is also coupled into the air brake line. The EOT radios information to the engineer regarding the brake pressure at the rear of the train, whether or not the last car is moving and whether or not the flashing red light on the car is working.
The EOT also allows the engineer to set the air brakes from the rear of the train in the event the train breaks in two. In such an emergency the engineer could set the brakes on both halves of the train. With the introduction of these devices, the conductor moved to the front of the train with the engineer.
A lot of the cabooses were sold for their scrap value. But you can still see them in use in and around railyards sometimes. They are brought out for special events, too, such as historical tours. You’ll also find them in railroad museums across the country and in private use by individual owners.
The United Transportation Union is the largest railroad operating union in North America, representing workers on every Class I railroad and many of the workers on regional and shortline railroads. The union initially protested the phasing out of cabooses. It pushed for legislation to require that trains have cabooses if they exceeded a certain length or if they were carrying hazardous materials.
Several states did pass such laws, but as the railroads argued, the federal government no longer requires cabooses on trains. The caboose was obsolete as far as they were concerned.
In 1982 the union signed an agreement with the rail carriers that permitted the elimination of the caboose. A freight train just isn’t what a freight train used to be.