Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Whatever Happened to the Little Red Caboose?
The Little Red Caboose ranks right up there with The Poky Little Puppy. Whatever happened to the little red caboose? Growing up, I always saw cabooses bringing up the rear of freight trains. They’re American icons along with the little red schoolhouse and the big red barn. Like the schoolhouse, they’ve disappeared.
Cabooses began in the United States, possibly in the 1840s. Conductor Nat Williams used an empty wooden boxcar at the end of his train as his office on the Auburn & Syracuse line in upstate New York. A wood box served as his seat and a barrel as his desk. He stored flags, lanterns, chains, and other work tools in this first caboose.
Laws in the North America soon required all freight trains to have a caboose and a full crew for safety. The caboose provided shelter for the crew at the end of a train. The crew’s responsibilities included switching and shunting rail cars, and to watch out for load shifting, damage to equipment and cargo, or overheating axles (hot boxes). While underway, a crewman would sit up in the cupola or at a side bay window to watch for smoke from overheated wheel or other signs of trouble.
The standard American caboose had platforms at both ends, fitted with curved grab rails to make possible crew members’ climb onto a moving train. The caboose also served as the conductor's office, where he kept records and handled business from a table or desk. For long routes, accommodations and cooking facilities were included. Red lights, called markers, enabled the rear of the train to be seen at night.
Cabooses were non-revenue equipment, meaning they didn’t earn money for the rail companies, and were often retained well beyond the normal lifetime of a freight car. They were part of every freight train until the 1980s, when safety laws requiring the presence of cabooses and full crews were relaxed. Automatic air brake systems eliminated the need for crewmen to manually set brakes on a moving train. Electric signaling circuits protect train movements and eliminate the need for flagmen. Monitoring and safety technology developments, such as lineside defect detectors and flashing rear-end devices (FREDs), are more efficiently and reliably than caboose crews. As a result, cabooses were phased out.
Today, cabooses are used for rail maintenance or on hazardous materials trains. They can be found on heritage or tourist railroads. And they have been transformed into unique homes or vacation lodgings.
Do you remember seeing cabooses? Did you read The Little Red Caboose?