Friday, March 16, 2018

What Happened To The Caboose?

What happened to the caboose?

The question is not unusual, especially outside of the railfan community. Locked deep in the American consciousness is the memory of the caboose, typically red and with the signature cupola on top, trailing at the end of a freight train.

As a young boy, one of my favorite children's books was a Little Golden Book called The Little Red Caboose. It tells of a caboose that's sad it sits at the back of the train, instead of up front where people see the big black engine or in the middle where people watch and listen to the cars. Instead, it's stuck at the end where people are turning away to go on with life. Yet life changes for the caboose when it uses its brakes to keep the train from sliding back down the mountain. Its heroic act causes everyone to give it recognition, which is what it always wanted.

Such a bright and cheerful picture has staying power, long after the last caboose disappeared from main line railroading. But in order to understand why the caboose has largely vanished from railroading, it's necessary to look at a number of its functions in the context of the century of railroading from 1865 to 1964.

Iron Men, Hotboxes and Dangerous Cargo

In the grand scheme of a railroad, men were often called upon to make things work together. In the beginning, car manufacturers didn't have industry-wide specifications beyond the basics of gauge and connections like the coupler and the brake hose. Because the construction and design of rail cars varied widely, railroads required more manpower to make things work together. Yet, no matter the manpower, sometimes things went wrong.

For one thing, car axles were held by solid lead bearings with grease wells that were prone to overheat, especially when maintenance was lax. When a solid bearing did overheat, it would smoke, glow red and eventually melt or burn with the heat of the friction. Such an incident was called a hotbox, and they caused a great deal of grief for the railroad and its neighbors. A caboose manned with eyes and noses could catch these hotboxes before they developed to cause real trouble.

As seen in this photo published in the December 1961 issue of Trains Magazine, a hotbox was often a hot mess! Even in black and white, the heat of the grease fire comes through.
Original Photo: Howard S. Patrick, Trains Magazine, used with permission of the publisher

On the other hand, it wasn't always a hotbox. Despite even the best care in loading railcars, tie-downs and straps loosen, bolts break, and cables fray and snap. Once that happens, a simple curve is all it takes for a loose load to shift. When it does, look out! A shifted load can lean out of the car's profile, causing the freight to collide with anything nearby: a signal mast, a bridge truss, a tunnel wall, or even a passing train or people on a station platform. Like a knight in a jousting match, a load can skew across and clip anything or anyone unfortunate enough to be in its way.

Therefore, in the same way as hot boxes, a caboose served as a watchful guardian shepherding the loads on the cars to limit the accidents that would happen. This lookout role is the primary reason for the cupola on top of the caboose and the bays on the "side bay" cabooses.


When introduced, Westinghouse air brakes made the process of slowing a train safer and more reliable, and it remains in use a century later. When the engineer needs to slow the train, he moves a lever that reduces the pressure in the brake pipe. All the cars along the train read that reduction in pressure and apply the brakes in proportion to the reduction. Inside the caboose, the pressure in the brake pipe is visible in a large gauge, typically up in the cupola, and a brakeman or conductor has the ability completely dump the air pressure, making an emergency application of the brakes (and causing a big headache for everyone).

The air brake alleviated the need for brakemen on the roofs of cars, a dangerous and hazardous position, especially in the winter when cars developed sheets of ice that could cause a man to slip or worse, break loose under a man's foot. Remember, shoes and boots were not the all-terrain grip monsters worn today. Hazards were real and safety was not as important as getting the work done.


Freight railroading in the 19th century was inefficient and piecemeal from today's standards. Brakemen would ride on top of cars and brake the cars by hand coming down hills in all weather, year round. The caboose was one place to warm up or cool down, take a leak and fill up when the train was between significant hills. A couple of bunks, a pot belly stove (coal fired, of course) and a locker for tools helped make the brakeman's job possible.

Yet another function of the caboose was as an office for the conductor. Rail cars picked up, dropped off, set out, and sorted all had forms for the railroad to document what that train did. Conductors oversaw these movements and made sure everything was done as ordered. A desk and filing holes helped the conductor impose order on the daily chaos of railroading.


In the 20th century, and especially after the World Wars, railroads began to modernize, using technology and standardization to improve the railroad's performance. Sensors, remote controls, radios and other applied technologies began to help replace the human element.

At first, it began phasing out positions manned by limited duty, semi-retired or partly disabled workers operating switches or guarding crossings. Then, once railroad executives realized the savings and reliability afforded by automation, they began to implement it everywhere they could. The caboose would be one of many such traditions to vanish with automation. Strange acronyms like TDDs and FREDs began to reduce or eliminate the need for a caboose.

Talking Defect Detectors are devices affixed along and between the rails at specific locations along the railroad. They are programmed with a voice pattern that is broadcast on the standard railroad VHF radio frequency used by all trains along the route. The TDD apparatus is rigged to detect defective parts that are critical to a train's operation, such as a wheel bearing that is overheating or a piece of equipment that is dragging underneath or alongside the train. Most TDDs are designed to broadcast a warning only when a defect is detected.

TDD apparatus, Zonker's Defect Detectors page
Talking Defect Detectors were installed on the railroads of the United States starting in the 1970s. Along with the replacement of solid lead bearings in favor of superior roller bearings in the 1950s and 60s, the TDDs eliminated a large percentage of hot boxes. In fact, TDDs could detect an elevated temperature before the bearing could smoke. Once TDDs were in place on a particular rail route, many of the services provided by the men in the caboose were no longer needed.

A Flashing Red End-of-train Device is placed on the last coupler on the train to let the engineer monitor brake pipe pressure by remote radio link. It also has, as the name indicates, a flashing red beacon focused in the opposite direction of the normal motion of the train. The beacon is the last line of protection for a train on the main line. If the track warrants and signals have not protected the end of the train from collision, the FRED should give at least some warning to any approaching trains.

The Human Cost

One other--but often overlooked--reason for the end of the caboose came down to injuries caused by riding in a caboose. As train technology has advanced, freight train length has grown substantially. The reason for growing train length starts, ironically, at the other end of the train. Unlike steam locomotives, diesel electrics can be set up in multiple unit mode, giving one engineer control over several locomotives together. More locomotives pulling together meant more horsepower per train, which can increase your speed and your capacity for more cars per train. More loads moved over the road with fewer people involved meant savings and higher profits.

The longer trains were not without their drawbacks, however. Some of the physics involved with these longer trains were having a detrimental effect on the health of the crews. It was what industry professionals called in-train forces.

Roy Gelder, in an opinion piece for Trains magazine in March 1987, wrote,
Immediate change of train speed is magnified to the rear end [of the train] like a whip. This phenomenon--slack--is merciless in its injuries to people, regardless of how well the trains are handled or the crew may be braced [for the impact].
In the steel framed cabooses of the 50s and 60s, it was possible for a death to occur because of a sudden stop at the front of the train. The engineer would be free of injury, but because of a slack action, a caboose moved so suddenly and violently that the occupants were severely injured or killed.

The End of the Caboose?

With the automation of the last 50 years in place, the brakemen became fewer until it was a single brakeman on most trains. The brakeman and the conductor still occupied the caboose into the 1980s.

Beginning in the 1970s and finishing around 1992, FREDs began replacing cabooses and the brakeman and conductor moved up to the locomotive. Nevertheless, the caboose has not completely vanished from railroading.

Today, the caboose fills a niche for local trains and short lines. Where there is a number of switching maneuvers or a significant need for backing the train, cabooses fill the role by providing a platform for the brakeman or conductor to ride and watch for hazards.

Cabooses also form a very diverting part of railroading lore. Not only are there books like The Little Red Caboose, but there is an entire branch of railfans who focus mostly on the caboose. Where it is often too large a challenge for railroad preservation organizations to care for a locomotive, a number of these groups focus their attention on rolling stock with special attention paid toward cabooses. A number of museums, chambers of commerce, hotels, and bed & breakfasts feature cabooses as curiosity draws and yes, you can often visit or sleep in one! See the map and links below. ⚒



Tuesday, March 13, 2018

POTD - BN Caboose Two Miles High

Photo of the Day: Mike Danneman
It is 1984, and the Climax local has just returned to the two-mile high city of Leadville under threat of rain from a July cloudburst overhead. Winter snows still cling to Mount Elbert above the covered hopper and Mount Massive (at far right), the two highest peaks in Colorado. The summer storm belies the fact that summer, if it comes at all, is far too brief at this altitude to make much of an impact. Nevertheless, as noted photographer Mike Danneman notes, this line survives as the Leadville, Colorado & Southern, a summer tourist railroad in business long after the neighboring Tennessee Pass Route has fallen silent.

The isolated segment of the Burlington Northern system, 150 rail miles from its nearest connection at Pueblo, is still generating revenue many decades after coming into the fold of Colorado & Southern as part of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad. To get there, the DSP&P climbed from Como in South Park over the Continental Divide at Boreas Pass, down through Breckenridge and Frisco before heading up over Fremont Pass (and the Continental Divide, again). Such up and down, north and south wanderings are why they had such turbulent corporate histories and why Colorado narrow gauge railroads are so beloved. ⚒

Monday, March 12, 2018

POTD - A Southern Stranger In the Snowstorm

We are less than a week away from St. Patrick's Day, when folks celebrate the world famous Scot by pretending they're Irish for the day. It's also the last holiday before the first day of spring, and springtime in the Rockies is famous for its weather! March is typically the snowiest month of the year for most locations in Colorado including Denver, when and where today's Photo of the Day was taken.

Photo of the Day: BUFFIE
BNSF crews on March 23, 2016, are finding just how hard it can be to find the points in the snow while cleaning the switches of ice. Failing to do so can result in a derailment and a headache for everyone involved, especially if the derailment is in a yard as busy as the one at the Engine Servicing Facility in Denver. The snow almost covers the unusual herald of Norfolk Southern 8345, a GE-8 diesel electric much more accustomed to sunnier climes like those of South Carolina.

I wish I could say I saw this photo first and beat everyone else to the punch in honoring it. Alas, no, it already received the coveted People's Choice Award from RailPictures.Net. Nevertheless, give honor to whom honor is due, and today's photographer, BUFFIE, is certainly worthy, considering he nearly lost a finger pressing the release to capture this stunning photo. Well, maybe he might have risked losing a finger. Frostbite can be very subtle. 😉 Regardless, considering the scene and the Norfolk Southern locomotive, the photo has a once-in-a-lifetime feel to it, and I'm glad he was there to capture the moment. ⚒

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Now Available In HTTPS

The Colorado Railroads site is now available over a secured connection! If your ISP requires HTTPS secured protocol, you should have no problem accessing the site in the future! ⚒

Monday, March 5, 2018

New Durango & Silverton Video Worth Watching

Tim's Video Channel produced a new video of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that is worthy of some extended viewing! With alternate views riding both right and left sides of the gondola, this is more than the typical vacation video. However, where it truly shines are the too-brief pilot shots, riding the "cow catcher" at the front of the locomotive. Have a look! ⚒

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Glenwood Springs Museum Closes

The 14 year-old Glenwood Railroad Museum closed forever as of  Monday, November 27th, 2017. Since 2003, the museum operated in the former Women's Waiting Room in the east end of the historic Glenwood Springs railroad depot, built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1902.

Until 2016, it had always enjoyed a $250 per-year lease, educating the public and providing a place for Amtrak passengers to visit while waiting to embark. Glenwood Springs is Colorado's most popular passenger destination, second only to Denver's Union Station. However, Union Pacific decided it didn't want to foster goodwill and interest in western railroading as much as it wanted $30,000 per year in what it believes is a market rate for the space.

Their last hope was a bond issue that failed in the 2017 election cycle. The month of December was spent finding homes for all the artifacts and exhibits collected over the years.

Thanks to Trains Magazine for the tip.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Coffee Table Layouts -- Moving Outside Their Own Little World

We're fully into winter now and with the weather moving some activities indoors, it's prime time to bring up a model railroading topic: Coffee Table Layouts.

Expansive, inspiring, but oh-so difficult to
set your nachos on during the big game!
For the model railroader without an extra room, options for engaging in the hobby are severely limited. Coffee table layouts appear to solve that problem, at least on the surface.

What coffee table layouts I have seen are usually the "small" steamer trunk variety that's about 5 feet by 2 wide and another 2 feet deep. They have a small but usually complex pike with a few turnouts and a loop or two for a basic train to navigate. The scale of these model railroads can run as large as one dreams, but usually, for realism and economy, only smaller scales are used. The trusty HO to N scale and even the tiny Z scale are all on the table--ha!--for modelers to build these railroads in the living room.

One very tangible shortcoming of these pint-sized pikes is the "glass-bottom boat" feeling a person gets from looking down into them. There is no way to get down on the level of the rails, so there is no opportunity for engaging the patron (person viewing the layout). It's impossible to enter the world created inside this small space. It's tiny and confined, so it is easy to dismiss. Adding windows on the sides or dropping the sides attempts to address the problem, but it compromises on integrity of the layout or sturdiness of the table. There's still that railroad-under-glass feeling too.

Fortunately, some crafty modelers have found a solution. Their N-scale layout is a computer-controlled m-arvel, but that is not the best part. At 1:50 in the video below, the entire layout except the background rises out of the table's chest and allows full eye-level viewing! The coffee table layout stops being a toy or a curiosity and becomes an immersive world that all true layouts aspire to be.

Even in a Christmas afterglow, it was impossible for me not to seek out a price tag listing for the layout. Apparently it's not for sale, much to my wallet's relief. Still, I would wager they've received an offer or two for the one they have made.

HT: John Hill and Hackaday

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Timeless Lines To a Locomotive

The following poem, a "prophetic tribute," written by Hon. William D. Lewis of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was composed around 1840, a dozen years after the first railroad in America. It was first published in the Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia) and reprinted in Trains magazine's December 1964 issue on page 35. While technology has changed all but the most basic concept of the railroad in the 177 years since, and time itself has rendered the verse archaic, the imagery and themes are vivid and timeless and just as easily apply to the railroads of Colorado today.

Lines To A Locomotive
by Hon. William D. Lewis

Sublimest courser of the plain,
Whom toil can neither daunt, nor tire,
Onward thou bear'st thy lengthened train, 
With iron nerves and lungs of fire.

Boldest exploit of daring man,
Whose restless and impatient mind,
Infringes nature's general plan,
And leaves with thee the winds behind.

No match for thee in airy race,
The eagle, borne on sounding winds,
Envying he views thy lightning pace,
Most wondrous of earth's wondrous things.

As some bright meteor of the sky, 
Or some unsphered and shooting star,
Thou, locomotive, seems to fly,
Beheld by dazzled eyes afar.

Science and skill their aid impart,
Trained, hills to level, valleys rear,
Thy pathway smoothed by laboring art,
To urge thee in thy swift career.

On then, majestic, mighty steed,
Speed thy fast flight from clime to clime,
To thee,the glorious task decreed,
To cancel space, to vanquish time.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic To Run Special Christmas Trains In Toy & Food Drive

If there weren't ads out there telling us "the season" is coming, the weather itself is reminding us: Christmas is on the way! Retailers depend on Christmas to make their annual margin and use ads to drive the sales up. While there's always a family we seem to know that spends itself silly in a celebration of excess, there's a very different reason for the season, and that is driving why I am supporting the following.

Christmas can be stressful for parents. Some plan and spend, other parents worry and wish. They know their family isn't going to get much of a Christmas, no matter what they do. They need help just to keep food on the table and heat in their home, let alone toys or clothes for the kids. Many families in the San Luis Valley know especially the problems of scarcity. What's more, this year, many charities have been stretched thin by the hurricanes and floods. That's why I was excited to read about the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad's Toy & Food Drive. Here's what's happening:

Celebrate the Season on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad’s Santa Train

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Collecting Toys or Food Items to Benefit Toys for Tots & Food Bank
Antonito Departures on Dec. 9 & 10; Chama Departures on Dec. 16 & 17

ANTONITO, CO & CHAMA, NM -- To help make the holiday season a little brighter for those in need, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS RR) will again be running holiday trains to collect food and toys to distribute in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.  The one-hour rides are free for children (11 and under) and only $5 for adults (ages 12+). A donation of either
  • a non-perishable food item, or...
  • a new boxed toy
per person is requested.

Last year, the railroad collected more than 5,500 pounds of food and 1,000 toys, which were all distributed in the San Luis Valley of Colorado and in Northern New Mexico.
Last year in Chama
Photos: Roger Hogan
The highest and longest narrow-gauge steam railroad in America is owned jointly by the states of Colorado and New Mexico with stations in both Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. This is a wonderful opportunity for families to experience the thrill of a steam locomotive in winter, while also helping those in need in the community.

There will be two different opportunities to experience the C&TSRR Christmas Trains, either

  • departing from Antonito, Colorado on December 9 or 10, or...
  • departing from Chama, New Mexico on December 16 or 17
The Antonito departures will climb the foothills of the San Juan Mountains to the Ferguson Trestle and back, while the Chama departures will run to the Lobato Trestle and back. Santa and Mrs. Claus will visit with children onboard and Santa’s elves will serve complimentary hot chocolate and cookies during the ride.

All food and toy donations are distributed to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation from Antonito and the Antonito Food Bank to recipients in the local area. Food and toy donations in Chama are distributed locally by the Chama Fire Department Toy Collection and the local Chama Valley Pantry operated by the Rio Arriba County Echo Food Bank.

To make your reservation on the C&TS RR Christmas Trains, go to and click on the Christmas Train link or call the train depot at 888-286-2737. Train rides start at 10 a.m., with the last train departing at 4 p.m.

Wouldn't it be great to take your children shopping for a toy they would like to give? It's great to hear the insights they have as they pick out the right one. Then, let them bring it to the station as part of your Christmas celebration. Sometimes the biggest reward is seeing the warmth in your child's heart. ⚒

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

POTD - A Plow In Aspen Gold

Photo of the Day: James Belmont
With the weather turning colder again, it's only fitting for the mind to turn to the one thing that made Colorado winters famous--or infamous, to the minds of railroad presidents and their accountants: snow. First in the line of defense of the high mountain passes and deep canyons were the plows, of which the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad's X-67 is one of very few built for them by the Russell Car & Snow Plow Company. Further, she was listed by the Rio Grande as a plow, rather than a plow and spreader. Nevertheless, she looks fantastic sitting in Minturn on a relatively hot spring day in June 1981, awaiting the call to action in a fresh coat of Grande Aspen gold with wide-vision caboose 01509. Since Tennessee Pass has been dormant for 20 years now (grrr!), X-67 has been summering in Glenwood Springs, not a bad way to spend one's time!⚒

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Poem From the End of the Era of Steam

From David P. Morgan's Trains Magazine in February 1963, a poem from what was the already fading era of steam by William F. Bradbury, titled...

The Express Passes

The original as it appeared in Trains
Dim in the distance a waver of light,
A murmur, a hum, a confusion of sound,
The shriek of a whistle far-piercing the night,
An electrical throbbing and thrill in the ground;

A widening glare o'er the glittering snow,
The fire from a flaming red orb of an eye,
A roaring and rumbling that gather and grow,
A vomit of rolling black smoke to the sky;

A singing of steel, and a crashing of crank,
A hissing of steam shot out in a blast,
A whistle's hoarse scream, and the iron's harsh clank,
And the huge, swaying monster goes thundering past!

A swirling of snow in a fine, stinging spray,
A buzzing of rails, growing fainter -- now gone,
The clang of a bell dying quickly away
A glimmer of light, and the train rushes on.

                                              -- William F. Bradbury

What a vivid picture! Whether through the mountains or rolling out on the plains, this prose is a clear reminder that such beasts roamed the rails of Colorado and the nation in ages past.⚒

Sunday, August 6, 2017

POTD - Cheyenne Frontier Days Special Rides Again

It almost goes without saying. This year's Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo had a steam special run by Union Pacific. I say almost because, although it has been a regular trip for many years, a lot of planning, effort and money go into making this event happen every year. The citizens of both Wyoming and Colorado owe a debt to The Denver Post, Union Pacific, and the many staff and volunteers who invest their time and effort to making the CFD Special happen. Without it, the rodeo wouldn't be as popular and the economic impact would be profound. Highball, UP 844!

Photo of the Day: John H. Hill
Today's photo of the day is by Colorado Railroads' contributing photographer John Hill. He captured the Cheyenne Frontier Days Special high-stepping its way south through Weld County past Nunn and toward Carr and Denver Union Station on July 20, 2017 at 11:08 in the morning, led by Union Pacific's famed 844. A class FEF-3, oil-fired 4-8-4, it has never officially been retired, and since the 1980s it has served as the railroad's primary public relations dynamo. I can't fault them for it. If I had a horse this beautiful, I would show it off each chance I got! ⚒