For a few weeks, I’ve been doing some research (just desk research…) on the subject of freight hopping: something I’d never heard of until I received a video recommendation from YouTube. This is a crime, pastime or way of life (opinions vary) with a long history and a great deal of present-day relevance.
Freight hopping is where you conceal yourself aboard a railway wagon that’s meant for cargo, either boarding it while stationary or hauling yourself aboard as it rumbles past… and hope that it’s going somewhere useful. You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t just a plot device in action movies, but something that really happens… a lot. You might not fancy your chances of climbing aboard a train that’s a mile long and three times as tall as you (four times as tall, if you’re Tom Cruise…) but there is a subculture for whom this isn’t a desperate act, but just another day at the office. It’s not something that’s going to take off in the UK – our trains are too short and our security generally too tight – but in the wide open spaces of North America it has proved impossible to stamp out.
The supply network is more complex than most of us can imagine. Perhaps your daily bread comes from the corner convenience store, but the flour probably comes from the endless wheat fields of Canada. The process by which it reaches us is ponderous, grimy, under-appreciated and essential. There’s so much that we never get to see… but some people do. They’re breaking the law, they’re risking life and limb and they probably smell none too good when they’ve been living rough for a week or more – yet many people envy those who ride this way.
In fact, why are trains in general so fascinating, for so many people? I asked Google and got a lot of different answers. The power; the speed; a yearning for adventure; nostalgia; the mystery of a profession with its own skillset and language; childhood memories.
I thought that Ann Litz, who describes herself as an “obsolete librarian” (and who, I should clarify, has no known connection with freight hopping) put it best:
Trains are fascinating because freight trains are an increasingly rare sight in the truck-oriented United States, and because every kid-at-heart knows the ritual:
A half-mile away a whistle shrieks. Red lights begin to flash. The barrier gates bedecked with white wooden strips like ribbons drift down.
How many locomotives are there at the front? Two? It’s gonna be a long train!
Quick, put your hand in the air and yank it down again. The engineer will blow the horn for you.
Coal cars, black tankers full of oil or corn syrup, cattle cars, box cars that might or might not be harboring mysterious stowaways. Meaningless graffiti from hundreds of miles away.
Flatcars with huge rolls of steel like toilet paper for giant robots.
More coal cars. Who uses that much coal?
You can kind of see the end now. The locomotive whistle sounds again, from very far away.
Sometimes there’s a caboose, and sometimes there’s a guy riding the outside of the caboose. Wave. Maybe he’ll wave back.
Up to a point, that romanticism makes a lot of sense, and there are railway enthusiasts of all ages. “Railfans”, if you’re in North America… but to choose to sneak aboard a freight train and ride it to places unknown? That requires more than mere enthusiasm, I suspect.
Freight hopping has probably been around almost as long as the railway itself, but it’s become much more visible in the age of social media – and technology hasn’t merely served to record the act, but also to facilitate it. Modern-day hobos use a radio scanner to listen in on communications while a train is being shunted together; they use Google Maps on a smartphone to study the security arrangements at goods yards, to track their progress while in transit and to choose where to disembark; some use crowdfunding services such as Patreon or GoFundMe, receiving sponsorship in return for documenting their travels.
To the travelling men of the Great Depression – the people that you can probably picture best if you think of a John Steinbeck novel – the life of a professional hobo in the 21st century would be completely incomprehensible. This really struck me when I saw ‘Brave Dave’ charging a couple of ’phones with a solar panel as he exchanged messages with friends, talking to camera and reporting his progress as he went. Compared to the experience of earlier generations, you might as well be zipping around in a flying saucer.
This business of crowdfunding raises a moral question: if you donate a few dollars to one of the professional hobos, are you doing a good deed such as funding their next meal… or are you encouraging them to keep on risking their lives, for your entertainment? Perhaps that question should have a simple answer… but freight hopping videos are compelling!
Brave Dave’s feature-length film in four parts details a journey across the vastness of Canada – and it’s better than most of the things they put on television nowadays. Videos made by Stobe are invariably funny and the piano accompaniment (his own) is first-rate. With ‘RanOutOnARail’ you get some excellent camera-work and railfans get to see things from a new angle, while the videos from Shoestring’s marathon career as a hobo are basically a love letter to the railway – and his short-lived blog was great, too. (I suspect he knows more about the operation and deterioration of the North American rail network than many of the people who work on it.)
Some railway staff clearly turn a blind eye to freight hopping, and even “the Bull” – the railway police – seem to vary in the degree to which they enforce the law. Some freight hoppers tell tales of having been made welcome by railway staff – given food, information and money… while on another leg of their journey they’ve been busted and spent two weeks or more in jail. The risk and the apparent randomness of this seems merely to add spice to their adventures. In at least one film, ’Stobe’ appeals to viewers that they shouldn’t leave any evidence of their presence, when freight hopping. He says this having boarded the unoccupied cab of a locomotive at the rear of a train; a distributed power unit or DPU. If you’re going to trespass on the railway, I suppose you might as well ride in style and comfort! Still, who among us would have imagined that an engine’s cab isn’t normally locked? It’s clear that you can learn a lot about the rail network from people who should never have been there at all.
These aren’t the people who we lump together and call the homeless. To use a line that I liked from Fisher Monroe’s Hitchhiking Blog, they’re not on the streets; they’re on the road. The rails, in fact: those parallel lines that meet at infinity, stretching further than the eye can see and always promising new experiences and greener pastures.
In the early eighties, Ted Conover wrote ‘Rolling Nowhere’ – perhaps the definitive book on freight hopping, detailing some of his adventures. Then he revisited the subject for Outside magazine in 2014, after his son asked to be shown the ropes. Wrestling with the anxieties he had never felt with other travelling companions, Conover nonetheless managed to deliver the requested adventure. In doing so, he achieved a longitudinal study that shows how America’s unofficial transport network is changing. Boxcars and autoracks are more secure than hitherto; relatively few of the flatcars that carry intermodal containers have a recessed ‘well’ in which a rider can stay concealed. Many modern railcars have no real floor, obliging the hobo to stay awake. To make use of such a car is called “riding suicide” – for obvious reasons.
‘Grainers’ are generally a better prospect: the tank that holds the grain is angled so that it can be drained from a single point. The steel structure of the wagon typically has large holes where a couple of riders can hide from sight and shelter from the worst of the weather. It’ll be filthy, of course; scorching hot in summer and freezing cold in winter; noisy enough to cause hearing loss and the jolts and vibrations are very uncomfortable, too. You may be robbed or assaulted by another hobo, and in years gone by you could have expected a beating from railroad employees as well.
Basically, there are a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t ride the rails.
Probably the only reason why freight hopping is still possible today is underinvestment in the railway network. Train crew sizes have been cut and the staff that remain have enough to worry about. Equipment hasn’t been updated: the infrared cameras and other sensors that could easily detect an illicit rider are few and far between. Fences don’t get mended and radio communications still aren’t encrypted. Meanwhile, freight volumes are growing and freight hopping is set to continue.
Deaths among railway trespassers are on the rise, too. According to the Federal Railroad Administration in the USA, 888 people died due to train-related incidents in 2017. Some of those cases involve unrelated issues such as vehicles on crossings being struck by trains – but an astonishing 575 people were categorised as killed while trespassing. Even if we discount cases where the coroner recorded a verdict of deliberate suicide, we’re still looking at a death a day. The constant background noise level of death on the American rail network is simply staggering. (The published figures make no distinction between those walking on the tracks and those who were freight hopping.)
The autumn of 2017 was a bad one for some of the freight hoppers that I have introduced, above.
Our token British freight hopper, ’Brave Dave’ flew to Canada – only to find himself the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant, written out by CP Rail Police in Saskatchewan as a result of his earlier adventure. He’s barred from entry into Canada and the USA for ten years.
‘Shoestring’ disappeared for a time, causing considerable concern among those who subscribe to his YouTube channel. (It’s nice to think that the fate of a self-described ‘hobo’ matters to so many people – something that would have been unlikely before the Internet era.) When Shoestring reappeared it was with the news that he’d suffered a serious accident, costing him two fingers from his left hand and requiring a stay in hospital. Leaving a moving train is dangerous, even to a highly experienced rider.
‘Stobe the Hobo’ died that same autumn. His body was found on the tracks near Baltimore and the circumstances of his death are unclear, although the injuries reported are consistent with his being caught on a train and dragged. He was thirty-three years old.
The big loads are still moving from city to city, though… and you can bet your bottom dollar that where there’s a freight train being put together, there’s a person (or more than one) camped out under a bridge, waiting until it’s dark enough to slip aboard.
And you know what? I understand the temptation.