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Cabooses, Vans, Crummies
"Fred" and "Hector"

R. L. Kennedy


Cabooses are another fast disappearing symbol of the railways, most that remain are a gaunt remnant of the former glory of a bygone era. Soon you may have to visit a museum to see one. A look inside a caboose has always been restricted to those having a reason for being there. Few outsiders knew exactly what was inside caboose, or what went on in there, other than it being a place for the crew to ride. Some may realize it was an office and home-way-from home as well as being a lookout. The conductor and two brakemen ate and slept in their caboose, which was always assigned to them for their exclusive use. In more recent years pooled cabooses for mainline trains meant only assigned local and branchline train crews kept their own van. Pooled cabooses stayed with a train to final destination and the crew slept in a bunkhouse like the engine crews had always done. Two brakemen (one riding the engine and one on the van for flagging and switching) were reduced to one brakeman, and in the case of many cabooseless trains just a conductor. These "conductor only" trains were once limited to the amount of enroute switching they were required to do. This restriction was soon eliminated. Cabooses are for the most part now used only on trains that have to make frequent backup moves. These are called a "platform", a safe place for a crew member to ride as access to the interior has been eliminated. This required the return of the emergency airbrake valve back to the platform. Brakemen are all called trainmen now but years ago trainman referred to a man working in passenger service, just as switchman has been replaced by yardman although both terms were used interchangeably. The CPR stated that it cost $100,000 per year to operate and maintain each caboose, so there were great savings to be had.

Cabooseless trains began operating on the CNR effective February 1, 1990. On the CPR the first cabooseless train ran November 14, 1989 between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. Montreal-Toronto started January 14, 1990. It spread across the railway over the year, in some cases in one direction only until such time as non-CTC switches were changed to auto-normal self-restoring.

A look inside van 437413 Spanner March 1954

End cupola type caboose rebuilt for pooled caboose run through operation. The yellow ends indicated this service. Canadian Pacific Spanner December 1967 issue

Modernized interior of run through center cupola van. Canadian Pacific Spanner December 1967 issue

Latest type of center cupola caboose with wide vision style cupola, also known as a "saddleback",
shown being completed inside Angus Shops. The "Little Red Caboose",
has been replaced by these bright yellow ones!
Canadian Pacific Spanner January 1971 issue

Getting back to that home-away-from-home. The van was also equipped with a kitchen and coal stove where meals were cooked and eaten at the "foreign" or away-from-home terminal, or even enroute on long days and nights with no end unlike today's 10-12 hour maximum. Coleman camp stoves were once used for cooking after oil heaters replaced coal stoves. What they ate in their cabooses depended upon the cooking talents or lack thereof on the part of the crew.
Let's hear some from readers who remember those days.

The inside of cabooses reflected the conductor's personal habits and the degree of cleanliness varied with some men being noted for spotless vans while others were much less so giving rise to the age old term for vans as "crummies". It was the junior brakeman's "duties" to stock up the van with coke for the stove and to wash the floor to the satisfaction of his conductor. There are many stories about young "green" brakies and one that fits here is about the conductor who finds himself with two spare men he doesn't recognize. (In fact, a conductor was not required to take two spare men if they were too green) He demands to know, who is the senior man; and when one pipes up, he tells him to couple all the hose between the caboose and the locomotive and then tell the engineer all right. He then tells the junior man to get the mop and pail and get busy washing the floor. Of course in any yard having carmen on duty it was they who did up the hose bags, but that spoils the joke. Upon reaching the locomotive the green brakie tells the engineer "all right" (can you see it coming?) Whereupon the hogger growls "all right, what?" "Why turn on the water, they're going to scrub out the caboose."

The cupola is a lookout point where the crew rode to watch for trouble with the train, an important safety feature. Things they would watch for included smoke or fire from a hot box (wheel journal), shifted loads, dragging equipment, evidenced by signs of freshly damaged ties etc. as seen from a rearward look. There was also an air brake gauge and emergency brake valve in the caboose. It is now thought by the railways to be adequately done with electronic devices connected to the last coupler. These end-of-train devices (E.O.T.) are know as an S.B.U. for Sense and Brake Unit and are electronically linked to another device (TIBS Train Information & Brake System) in the cab of the controlling unit which the engineer monitors. The SBU is also know by its USA term of "Fred" short for "Flashing Rear End Device" (also Rear End Device) thus the remark could be heard that Fred will look after that. This system provides the engineer with air pressure readings and in a emergency, if trouble is encountered with the brakes, through its two-way telemetry allows him to apply the airbrakes from the rear of the train to prevent a runaway.

Another electronic device that has changed railroading is the Hot Box Detector (HBD) which senses overheated wheel bearings or Hot Boxes. Newer ones check for dragging equipment and bad wheels too. Some older ones use display board at the trackside that lights up when it has checked the train. All zeros is a proceed signal, while a number displayed indicates the axle number that is suspect. Others give the reading to the Train Dispatcher who interprets it and calls the train crew by radio. Most new ones are talking detectors that broadcast a message with a synthetic voice identifying their location and if trouble the nature of the problem(s) and axle count(s). Train crews must then stop and inspect their train to verify the problem. These talking detectors are often referred to as "Hector" (the detector) and if no alarms the crew will acknowledge on the radio usually with "clear scanner" or "highball the scanner" but you might also hear "Happy Hector"!

WILD Wheel Impact and Load Detector is the newest electronic trackside device that detects such things flat wheels and shifted loads.

What was generally not known by most people including railroaders not directly concerned with trains was just how much equipment was carried in the caboose. Some of this equipment was to allow the crew to make emergency repairs to their train. Back in steam engine days trains often consisted of 36' and 40' freight cars having friction bearings with waste packing. This type of journal resulted in a high number of hot boxes (overheated bearings) and was one of the reasons so many car knockers were needed to check every car at every terminal. Carmen were called "car knockers" or "car toads" because they used to carry a hammer to hit the wheel with a good wheel gave off a true ring while a defective one had a dull sound. This was important especially since cast iron wheels were subject to more defects and failures than more modern steel wheels. Toads, since they were always hopping about around and underneath cars looking for troubles. Hot boxes developed mostly from lack of proper lubrication due to either no oil or because of a waste grab whereby the packing got jammed up and could not distribute oil properly to the axle. This was often caused by high impacts from too fast couplings during switching whereby the car would jump up disturbing the packing. This is why car inspectors carried a packing iron and a oil can with them to lift up the journal lid using a hook on the iron then look at the oil level and tamp the packing back in place if necessary. At night they also had to carry a light to see what they were doing and this was often a carbide lamp that gave off a very powerful and bright pure white light. These lamps were never turned off during a shift so they would be set down outside (because of the fumes given off ) with the reflector facing the wall. At times, the oil and waste would catch fire and this was one the things the crew was ever vigilant for. As long as the flames could be seen they would try to make the next siding, but once it burned out there was nothing left to lubricate anything with and an immediate stop was necessary to prevent a burnt off journal axle from derailing the train.

Lubricator pads replaced loose waste and eliminated a large percentage of hot boxes since the material stayed in place better. These pads cost a tiny fraction of the price of roller bearings yet provided almost as good a result. Roller bearings were very expensive and were only used on passenger cars, locomotives and heavy capacity freight cars. Gradually, the advantages of roller bearings outweighed the negative factors. One of which was that many railroads were reluctant to buy them since a freight car spent much of its time on foreign railroads especially the hundreds of them in the USA, as compared to just two major railways plus a few others in Canada. Plain (friction) bearing cars are prohibited from being interchanged with other railways and have restrictions as to where they can be handled in cabooseless trains, so their days are clearly numbered and those not converted will soon be scrapped or become museum pieces.

Hot boxes were dealt with by the train crew by adding a special cooling compound to nurse it along and or by repacking the journal, or in an extreme case such by having to stop right on the main line and re-brassing it. This required a heavy jack being brought out of he van and lugged into place to jack up the offending journal and replace the brass. Not a fun task at any time but especially so if the weather was bad or at night and knowing you had the mainline blocked holding up other trains and their planned meets, necessitating the changing of orders all up and down the line. Too, there was the delay to passenger trains to be taken into account, back in those days that was not something to be taken lightly as "the varnish", as passenger trains were referred to, was a priority as connections with other passenger trains were often closely timed. There might also be a private car (the railways preferred "business" car, but railroaders knew they were private accommodation for officials and called them just that) tacked on the rear of that passenger train you were delaying and the occupant would not happy at the delay. Unless of course he was asleep or the car had only the Attendant traveling in it.

Other equipment included a spare knuckle, hose bags and even a wrecking chain to chain up a car that had its drawbar yanked out and drag the car behind the van to get it to a siding.

Railroading was vastly different in those days not so long gone, and I doubt many of today's railroaders have any appreciation of what their Brothers (fellow railroaders) went through every day. There were no radios, just hand or lamp signals to communicate with. No bottled water to drink, just tap water in a galvanized pail and some ice to sit it on. (Vans had a small tank with an ice compartment.) No air- conditioned private hotel rooms at the end of a run (or a limousine ride either) just a small bed in a van or a bunkhouse shared with others in a noisy, dirty yard. Few of today's railroaders could work like their predecessors had to; they are too soft! Senior railroaders and pensioners remember those days and they shake their heads at the many things they see today, no doubt old timers would turn over in their graves if they knew what was going on now.


Gallery of vans

More Resources

Elevation and floor plan of typical GTW wooden caboose.

List of equipment carried in vans. Litterly a ton of equipment and supplies! This did not include living needs such as mattresses and bedding, cooking utensils, pots and pans, dishes and cutlery etc.

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