I recently sat in traffic waiting for a train. The train passed by and I noticed something that
I’d come to accept, there was no caboose. I realized that I hadn’t seen a caboose in years and I’d taken
an embarrassingly long time to realize the fact. It seemed to me like a sentence with out the period or maybe they’d
forgotten the rest of the train back at the roundhouse.
I did a little research and found that the Union Pacific
railroad began replacing the caboose in 1984. The caboose had kitchen and sleeping facilities plus a cupola to watch for problems
such as malfunctioning brakes or smoking wheel bearings. Friction bearings were replaced by roller bearings plus trackside
devices and the automatic air brake system eliminated the need for a brakeman. Modern trains were too long and too high to
observe problems from the cupola of the caboose so reasons to keep the caboose were few. Then came the End of Train (EOT)
device that fits over the coupler of the final train car. The EOT is a flashing red light that communicates brake pressure
to the railroad engineer. It’s an efficient system that eliminates a lot of labor costs, maintains safety guidelines
but is a poor substitute for a caboose.
The locomotive was the muscle of any train but the caboose was the heart.
The caboose served as home for railroaders who before new labor guidelines were gone from home for long periods of time. Food
was the one comfort these men had so if someone was known as a good cook he was in great demand. The conductor would try and
lure the cook away from his current crew. Farmers would plant a few rows of vegetables along the track for the railroad workers
who would in turn dump off coal to warm the farmers home. Railroad crews delivered messages when the telegraph was down and
delivered babies when the doctor couldn’t make it. The caboose made this possible by creating a home on the rails.
can’t recall the last time I waved to a conductor sitting in the cupola of the caboose. They always sat so you saw just
their profile but they always waved back to me. I assumed before I started this column that the caboose was never seen anymore.
It turns out that the caboose is still used but many of them are automated. You can still occasionally see a caboose at work
and some people take pictures to share this event. I found a website (www.greatnorthernempire.com) that featured caboose pictures
from as far away as Tacoma, Washington to as nearby as Zap, North Dakota. Gives me hope that the caboose may be around long
enough for me to become nostalgic about something else.
The caboose has gone the way of so much in our culture, efficiency
at any cost. We now have 24 hour access to many services but it seems like it’s the same eight hours of service divided
into thirds and distributed over a twenty four hour period. In the case of the caboose, it seems as though it’s no longer
useful except for it’s nostalgic value-too bad that’s not enough.