Sunday, March 30, 2014

The End of the End of the Train

Image courtesy of  Peter Port.

Today I finally managed to kick my rear end into gear and get this article published. I choose that phrase specifically, because today’s topic is the things that come at the end of the train.

I personally am a bit young to remember the days when every train ended with a caboose, but I notice that there seems to be just as much nostalgia for the way the back of a train used to look as the front. Like the sounds and sights of steam locomotives, cabooses (cabeese...?) endure in pop culture as a quick visual shorthand for all things railroad related despite falling completely out of use. So, let’s take a moment to look at the history of cabooses, then to examine why they faded from the industry.

Beyond officially indicating the end of a train, a caboose had two basic purposes. The first was to provide a place for the crew to rest during or in between train trips--one more innovation to cope with the long, desolate stretches of track that made up the American railroad system. Within the inside of the caboose were bunks, a stove and heater, and a table where the train crew could fill out paper work.

The second was to allow the crew a way to keep an eye out on for problems on the train ahead of them that couldn’t be seen from the locomotive cab. The “hump” in the middle of the caboose was called a cupola, and housed a seat where crew members could get above the level of the train and spot broken axles, overheated bearings, and spilling loads. A few cabooses did not use cupolas, but instead had “bay windows” which protruded far enough from the side of the caboose that the crew could see down the side of the train.

The United Kingdom and other countries had an equivalent of the caboose, the brakevan, but as the name implies, their main function was more to provide additional breaking as the train descended down hills than to watch for problems or allow the crew a place to rest.

The invention of the cabooses dates almost as far back as the beginning of the railroads themselves. The first ones were little more than empty boxcars or wagons strapped down on top of flat cars, but the familiar shape and traditional colors developed by the mid-19th century. Oddly enough, the origins of the word “caboose” itself have been lost to history, though there is some evidence that it might have been borrowed from now archaic French and Dutch naval terms.

Cabooses disappeared from the railroading world only very recently. In fact, they were legally required by American law to be at the back of a train until the early 1980s. Two different factors, unrelated but all arriving in this same span of time, contributed to the downfall of the caboose.

Put simply, technology advanced enough that both of the caboose’s functions became obsolete. By the 1980s, technology had advanced enough that remote sensors could detect the sort of problems with the train that would have formerly been the crew’s responsibility to detect. These detectors were placed along the tracks, and a sensor called called an EOT (end of train) device or a FRED (flashing rear end device--though I’ve heard some acronyms much more colorful than that!) was also installed also on the back of the last car on the train.

The need for shelter for the train crews also reduced, leading up to the 1980s. The transition away from steam in the 1950s reduced the size of train crews over all, and in the second half of the 20th century, politicians and corporate administrators began to pay more serious attention to the long working hours and crew fatigue that had historically plagued the railroad industry. Legal caps on the length of shifts and working days translated into less of a need to house train crews overnight. Railroad companies successfully lobbied the United States government and argued that cabooses were no longer needed, and by 1988 the last of the laws requiring the use of a caboose had been repealed.

Even if they have disappeared from the tracks, cabooses are quite well represented in the library of preserved railroad artifacts. Not only are they quite well represented in transportation museums, many private collectors and businesses recycled old cabooses for a variety of alternate uses.