RailFolk: The human side of railroading
December 16, 2015 8:49 AM   Subscribe

North Bank Fred, described in the New York Times as "[p]erhaps the most well-known recreational hobo," runs a website that's packed with fascinating photographs and stories of the life on the rails. Want to know more about nomadic rail ways? Then let's visit the The Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture, "preserves and promotes railroad culture by documenting and furthering the art, music, literature, community, and work of those who, historically and in modern times, travel or work on the railroads of North America." posted by MonkeyToes (24 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Fred's a great guy. Many years ago, I met up with him in Dunsmuir and he showed a friend and I how to ride. My friend and I then spent the next two weeks riding trains through California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. It was an amazing adventure.
posted by ryanrs at 9:08 AM on December 16, 2015

this stuff fascinates me. thanks for the post!
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 10:11 AM on December 16, 2015

It was an amazing adventure.

Say more, please?
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:19 AM on December 16, 2015

BBCRC is doing God's work. I recommend anyone interested in freighthopper culture check it out. Their library of zines and other hobo writings is truly impressive.

I'm up there for most of the work days. Does anyone else on MeFi go?

Also, please message me if you've ridden the Gateway sub between Keddie and K-Falls, or want to do so some time in the next year.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:22 AM on December 16, 2015

Last summer I was stuck at train crossings for about four hours total, in different weather. I took a lot of pictures of the various communications, and art pieces. Very mysterious and beautiful.
posted by Oyéah at 12:32 PM on December 16, 2015

If you like hoboing and weirdly retro publications with a healthy dose of WTF I cannot recommend enough "Mostly True: The West's Most Popular Hobo Graffiti Magazine".
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:08 PM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have to step in here and say:


If you've ever seen the remains of a human being that's tangled with a train or its cargo, you wouldn't even consider this.

Railroads are private property: if you are riding on a freight train you are breaking the law, and railroads have specially trained and deputized police officers with arrest and detention powers.

In the 1970's the Federal Railroad Association mandated removal of all but operationally necessary ladders and catwalks from freight cars in interchange service in the United States. While this was done to reduce the accident rate among railroad workers, by inhibiting some unsafe practices, it also had the effect of making trespassing upon freight trains orders of magnitude more dangerous.

Railroad workers have to deal with enough hazardous things in their ordinary lives without coming across your pulped body in a shifted load of pipe or scrap steel.

If you want to ride a train, there's Amtrak, commuter railroads, and railroad museums and tourist lines all over the country. Don't do this and potentially cause someone else a psychic scar that will last the rest of their life.

I don't care what some random self-proclaimed expert told you: There is no safe way to hop a freight train.
posted by pjern at 2:06 PM on December 16, 2015 [28 favorites]

Lots of things in life are dangerous. You can avoid most of the risk by following some simple rules:
1. Don't get on or off a moving train.
2. Don't be drunk or high.
3. Look both ways before crossing every set of tracks, especially in the train yards.
4. Ride in empty cars.

There are a lot of dumb kids doing dumb kid things on trains, and they die every now and then. It's a lot less risky if you're cautious and deliberate. I did over a hundred hours of reading and research before I attempted to ride a freight train, and I felt fairly well prepared for what I encountered.
posted by ryanrs at 2:19 PM on December 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, and in case it becomes a 'thing' in this thread, people should be aware that there is a fair amount of animosity between railfans (people who watch trains) and people who ride trains. I suppose it's a bit like the difference between ham radio operators and pirate radio broadcasters. When the two meet on the internet, they often yell at each other.
posted by ryanrs at 2:25 PM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Add to ryanrs's list:
(5) Don't ride on crossbars—there should always be a floor.
(6) When crossing trains in the yard, don't go under a train, and never step on the coupling
(7) Don't hang around with other train riders unless you are very certain of their sanity. Some of them are violent, and there's probably no one around to save you.

pjern: It's true that riding freight trains is, per mile, probably more dangerous than conventional modes of transit. However, given that train riders routinely violate all 7 of the rules ryanrs and I have listed, and they typically *don't* get mangled to death, it's pretty safe.

This document analyzes rail trespassing fatalities. On page 17, you can see that in 2008 and 2012, the fraction of rail trespassing deaths that involved riding were 2.8% and 4.9% respectively. Yes, it sucks for the rail worker or first responder who needs to clean up the corpse. But y'know, mangled corpses turn up all over the place, mostly on highways; ending up as a mangled corpse is an occupational hazard of an active lifestyle.

Lots of fun things create corpses that innocents will clean up: riding any 2 wheeled vehicle, climbing things, floating on things, etc. That doesn't make those activities morally wrong. The difference with train riding, as I see it, is that it's illegal. Personally, that doesn't much change my moral assessment of it.
posted by andrewpcone at 3:14 PM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

That rule about empty cars is mostly for boxcars and gondolas. Sharing a 48' well car with a 40' container is quite nice. You've got this 4' porch with a solid floor and high walls to keep out the wind. One time I caught a 48' car with a 40' container, and a 53' stacked on top, so I even had a roof.

Stay out of cars that don't have solid floors or have gaping holes in them. You might think you're safe sitting on a 6' panel across from a hole, but slack action can throw you out. I've had slack knock me over when I was already sitting flat on the floor.

Stick to empty boxcars, empty gondolas, well cars with solid floors, and similar. I'd even avoid flat cars and empty lumber racks. Aside from the danger, riding a flat car out in the wind would get old really fast.
posted by ryanrs at 3:36 PM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post! Mr. Roquette and I love old trains, U.S. and over-seas. I love when he pulls up video of trains in Czech Republic, or Poland, or Russian Federation, or India, or even Germany, I get to show off my language skills. We both get to enjoy the trains.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:01 AM on December 17, 2015

My late mother and her school-mates used to hop freights in Minneapolis in order to play hokey in Chicago. I can't believe as a young person she had the necessary agility. She did tell us it was pretty stupid of them even if they did have a good time. I think her assorted adventures turned her into a hyper-vigilant mother.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:09 AM on December 17, 2015


One of my fondest memories of my trip was traveling eastbound out of Portland along the Columbia River. Luke and I had caught a nice boxcar, with doors open on both sides to watch the view. It was a clear, mid-September day in Oregon, a lovely time to be illegally riding a freight train.

One of things you don't notice until you're actually riding in a boxcar is how narrow the rail line is. When you drive, your immediate view is of the highway. But when you ride, you don't see the tracks. The beauty of countryside comes right up to you, just an arm's length away.

On the Union Pacific line through the Columbia Gorge, the rails are right on the banks of the river, weaving along the shoreline, periodically shifting onto trestles over the water itself. Luke and I tossed pebbles into the river from the train and snacked on pistachios.

Was it dangerous? Sure, I guess. But was it worth it? Oh yeah. You can't help but feel like a hero, thundering along the river, wind in your face, jubilant children frantically waving and cheering you on at every grade crossing. There's just nothing like it.
posted by ryanrs at 12:27 AM on December 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

The difference with train riding, as I see it, is that it's illegal. Personally, that doesn't much change my moral assessment of it.

So, it's alright to stow away in the cargo compartment of a bus, or the trailer of a semi truck, or the trunk of your neighbor's car, just because you want to. I see.
posted by pjern at 10:07 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Luke and I did get caught once, by a railroad worker in Hinkle Yard, outside Hermiston, Oregon. We had just arrived from Portland and our train had stopped deep in the switching yard. We were sitting in a boxcar trying to figure out our next move when a railroad worker stuck his head in the car and told us to come out.

We gathered up our packs and hopped out of the boxcar, apologizing in case we had startled him. He told us, "Stand right there while I go find the bull [railroad cop]." Then he turned around and walked away.

We heard his message clearly: "Don't be here when I get back." And we weren't.
posted by ryanrs at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2015

I used to live quite close to some train-tracks and once got the bright idea of jumping up on a flat car while the train was stopped. It had nothing else on it and I figured it was pretty much the same as riding in a truck bed. I figured it would take the train miles to get up to speed, and I was used to trains in cities where they don't go that fast, so when this thing started really getting going I realized I realized if I didn't get off soon it would be going too fast to jump, and I was probably going to end up in Missouri, so I jumped back off at about 25 MPH. I went ass over teakettle along some rocks and rail ties. It wasn't the worst tumble I'd ever taken, but it wasn't like in the movies. I then had to limp home bloodied and bruised.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:40 PM on December 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, freight trains, especially the shipping container trains, hit 60-70 mph. Don't get on unless you're ok getting off in another state.
posted by ryanrs at 1:29 PM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

ryanrs: "Oh, and in case it becomes a 'thing' in this thread, people should be aware that there is a fair amount of animosity between railfans (people who watch trains) and people who ride trains."

Makes sense, rail fans are probably reporting hoppers and the railhoppers make things more difficult for rail fans by creating friction between the rail cops and the public.
posted by Mitheral at 6:55 PM on December 17, 2015

I feel like the image of the hobo is too romanticized sometimes. It's one of those things that has a neat cushion of time, like a lost art revived, so when we look at it now we can divorce it from all the sharp edges and unpleasantness of the historic past. The common image of the hobo is the guy with a bindle and fingerless gloves sleeping in a quiet wooden boxcar. It's quaint. You have people like Kerouac, talking about the freedom of the rails. I think we sometimes forget that the original hobos, the ones we think of when we hear the word, were, in reality, mostly desperate migrant laborers.

The idea of being a recreational hobo feels to me a lot like being a recreational homeless person. I don't mean that to sound harsh, because I know people who are voluntarily homeless and I don't think they're monsters, or something. But the romanticizing of the situation can betray an insulation from what drove a lot of people to it in the first place.

I don't mean this to sound like a moral imperative against doing something I don't participate in. But there's certainly an element of mythologizing American culture and history here.

Thanks for sharing this - interesting post.
posted by teponaztli at 12:24 AM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can't help but feel like a hero, thundering along the river, wind in your face, jubilant children frantically waving and cheering you on at every grade crossing. There's just nothing like it.

Sure there is. You could actually do something heroic. Be a firefighter. Or whatever kids get excited about. Drive a monster truck or learn to juggle. Ride a motorcycle while wearing all black and aviator glasses. Learn to skateboard, go on a zip line. Dress up like Elmo. Kids cheer and wave at practically anything.

It just sounds like a weird and dangerous and embarrassing way for a grown up to get thrills.
posted by discopolo at 12:54 PM on December 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Heh, yeah that sentence was intentionally overwrought. But as both a trainhopper and a motorcyclist, I gotta say that the trains get more waves from kids.
posted by ryanrs at 1:23 PM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite books, Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, tells of the author's days as a part-time, amateur hobo. It treats the downsides fairly as well.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:13 AM on December 19, 2015

I think we sometimes forget that the original hobos, the ones we think of when we hear the word, were, in reality, mostly desperate migrant laborers

I think it's too easy to only see the history you're talking about with sepia-tinted glasses, because there were casuals and just plain wanderers back during the golden age of the hobo, too, and Woodie Guthrie might have been one of the most famous of them all. He was out there because he wanted to be, not just because he couldn't find work or was traveling to find work.

I used to intersect with younger modern train hoppers and modern hobos for a while, and most of those folks are legit hobos-as-workers who move around the country doing woofing and other farm work, or cannabis trimming/growing, or random construction or trades gigs, or seasonal recreational/park/tourism/service work.

Sure, there's the odd trustafarian in there, but there's the odd well heeled tourist, too - and that's a different breed, sure. (Not counting you in that, ryanrs.)
posted by loquacious at 6:41 PM on December 20, 2015

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