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. ⚒