freight train hysteria

David Soderblom,
Thu, 9 FEB 1995

This newsgroup regularly sees someone posting a note asking all about learning the ropes to ride freight trains, as though we were keeping some valuable information to ourselves. The usual short response is to point out to them -- often in pungent terms -- that what they want to do is illegal and very dangerous. Attempting to ride freight trains _is_ against the law and _is_ extremely dangerous and those pointing it out are not merely acting grandmotherly. In the hope of explaining why, I offer the following. Corrections and additions are welcome, of course.

Hoboes by this time have been romanticized nearly beyond recognition. What we might think of as the golden age of riding freights was the 1920s and 30s. Doing so even then was uncomfortable at best and perilous all too often. Getting on or off even a slowly moving train without injury to yourself is not as easy as you might think it ought to be, especially because you need to reach up to grabs and steps that are well off the ground. It bears no resemblance to boarding a passenger train that has just started to leave the depot.

Railroads now operate very differently than they did then, and a comparison might help to understand why freights are to be avoided.


Fifty years ago or more freight trains often traveled as slowly as 15 to 25 mph, depending on where they were. Railroads pretty much had a monopoly on freight transportation and had little incentive to change the way they'd always done it, which was to move the freight slow and easy down the line. There were exceptions, of course.

Today passenger trains have lost speed compared to those "good old days" but a major reason is that the track has been designed and built to haul freight at high speed. Fifty to sixty mph is typical except for short periods of time near terminals.


In the old days a freight train would stop often to take on water for the steam locomotive and to change crews because of restrictive labor rules. Also, there were more instances of direct carload deliveries to lineside industries (by local freights). The water stops especially were hobo hangouts.

A major goal of current operating practice is to minimize stops because every time you stop you throw away hard-earned (and expensive) time gained by speed increases. Labor rules have changed significantly, allowing more hours at higher speeds, and careful planning allows trains to meet and pass each other without stopping, even on single-track lines. Don't count on the train stopping or even slowing down at a place you're interested in.


The freight train of yore was heavily dominated by the boxcar. Often the doors of boxcars were left open or ajar when they were empty, leaving a natural and relatively protected place to get into for your ride. Getting into a moving car was not easy though. If no such cars were available, a hobo might "ride the rods," which meant crawling underneath the car in the area between the car floor and the truss rods. Truss rods were stiffeners used on pre-1920 equipment with wooden underframes. I won't go into details here, but one would have needed some boards to lay across the rods to do this (equipment of this type and vintage can sometimes be found in railroad museums). Even then you were right down next to the rails getting wind and dirt and dust kicked up by the motion of the train. Box cars, even if one with an open door was available, could also pose problems, particularly if the previous load was powdery (e.g., flour or fertilizer) or disagreeable (e.g., untanned hides). You might not find out until you were in the car and the train was picking up speed, leaving you with stinging eyes for hours.

The box car has nearly disappeared from railroad service, supplanted by containers and piggyback. You may still see some with open doors, but most of those that remain are "plug-door," which means that the doors must be closed and sealed before the car is moved. Can't ride those. Piggyback trailers are notorious for shifting and you're out in the wind. Gondolas may be the worst because they are tempting (you can hide, sort of, behind their low sides) but their cargoes are often loosely loaded and there are constant reports of railroad people finding squished dead bodies in them. The cars in freight trains undergo strong impulse forces as the train is operated because of slack action (gaps in the couplers and permissible movement of the draft gear). This results in dramatic jerks that often shift loads quickly and unpredictably. One motivation for eliminating cabooses from trains has been that they are a constant source of on-the-job injuries for trainmen from this effect. When you're out there with tons of cargo you can be crushed before you've known what hit you.

Another factor to be aware of is that modern freight cars have many fewer hand grabs and steps than cars used to. This is by design so that freight crews aren't tempted to try to get to the top of a car or to take other unnecessary risks. For example, you will rarely see anyone who works for the railroad riding the step of a moving freight car like you would in a video of an older freight yard.

The social environment

Hoboing was tolerated at some level in the past at least as a means for seasonal labor to move itself. But many railroads and the cops that worked for them were downright brutal in the way that trespassers were treated. And hoboes were not always so nice to each other, despite the romantization. We're not talking about the upper stratum of society here, and you could forget about a Miranda warning.

Whatever your view of the ethics involved, any corporation today can be expected to be very concerned about liability and to take the steps needed to limit its exposure. Moreover, the isolated nature of freight yards makes them subject to theft. You might not notice them (they may not want you to), but railroad police are definitely out there and keeping an eye on things.


  1. Where are you going to ride? There are no safe places to sit on a modern train.
  2. Where are you going to get on or off? Modern trains stop at few places, and those places tend to be carefully watched.
  3. How are you going to get on or off? It's not easy; one slip and you're under that car and gone.
  4. Why bother? Personal transportation is as cheap as it's ever been. Ride Amtrak if you need the sound of steel on steel.
P.S. The last time I posted this (August, 1994) I saw a follow-up by someone taking me to task for gross inaccuracies. The whole point of this is to get the facts straight, so I asked that person to specify what they felt was wrong. I never got an answer. On the other hand, genuine railroaders have indicated that they agree with what is presented here. I still invite corrections from anyone.

David Soderblom
Space Telescope Science Institute
Baltimore MD These are purely personal opinions, of course.