Do Trains Still Use Cabooses?

Have you ever wondered what happened to the infamous caboose that used to bring up the rear of trains for so many years? For years, train watchers waited for the caboose at the end of the train to give the crew a friendly wave while they passed by.

So, do railroads still use cabooses? Yes. Cabooses are no longer used on mainline trains, however, they are still used during yard switching.  In the early eighties, the caboose was replaced with a device called the end of train device (EOT) on mainline trains. This device can report train information to the crew such as pressure of the brake line and will alert the crew in the event of a coupler separation. The device reports its findings to the train crew using telemetry radio waves. 

The Caboose

For many years, cabooses were a mainstay on every railroad. The sight of the caboose evoked joy to enthusiasts and onlookers alike. Introduced in the 1830s, they were used by train crews to detect defects throughout the train such as loads shifting on flatcars, overheating axles, and other hazards.

In the early days of railroading, cabooses were no more than just flat cars with a cabin built atop them to shelter the crew working the rear of the train. However, they evolved into separate cars with a platform on either end, and a cupola on the top, that acted as a lookout tower for the train crew. The cupola allowed the conductor to view the train in its entirety.

Before the Westinghouse air brake system, brakemen had to climb aboard each train car and apply the brakes manually. The caboose allowed the conductor to ensure that the brakes were being applied correctly by giving him a view of the entire train. The main use of the caboose was to act as a mobile command center for the conductor of the train, who is responsible for ensuring that safety measures are being followed, and that the train delivered its goods safely and in a timely manner.

The earliest beginnings of the caboose can be traced back to a small railroad in upstate New York, where a crewman on the Auburn and Syracuse railroad, Nat Williams, converted a little used boxcar into a small space to store items and keep them organized. Additionally, he took care of the railroad’s paperwork in this car at a makeshift desk, made out of a wooden barrel.

PRR N5c Caboose
Photo courtesy Whippany Railroad Museum

Are there different kinds of cabooses?

Yes, there are a few different types of cabooses. The Cupola caboose, introduced in 1898, gave the conductor increased visibility, as it allowed him to get a full view of the train, however, beginning in the 1920s, taller railcars were built and it became difficult to have a view of the entire train. This led to the introduction of the bay window caboose which had windows jutting out from either side, allowing for a side view of the train.

Another type, the transfer caboose, usually remained close to the terminal of which they were assigned. They were small, simply designed cabooses with just a desk for paperwork. The transfer caboose offered large decks on either side to assist with yard duties such as switching cars.

Although effective, the use of the caboose had its drawbacks. Because the caboose acted as a mobile apartment for the conductor, he usually had a caboose that was assigned to him. When assigned to a train, the conductor’s caboose had to be present, which complicated the process of assembling trains. It also proved expensive to have extra personnel on the end of the train, and oftentimes, it would be difficult for the conductor to contact the engine crew.

Crew Safety

The use of the caboose warranted safety concerns such as slack action, which occurs when the train begins moving and the couplers clang together. When this occurred, the crew in the caboose would oftentimes be thrown around violently, and increased the possibility of injury. Structural integrity was also a matter of consideration, as most early cabooses were wooden and could not withstand a rear end collision. This prompted railroads to implement metal bracing to the sides of the caboose for reinforcement. Later cabooses were constructed with steel and had modern amenities such as heat and electricity, usually by a wheel driven generator.

Crew Comforts

Early cabooses were simple,they included a wood burning stove and a desk for the conductor to do his paperwork.  As the caboose evolved they received electric heat, beds, a kitchenette, and most of the amenities of a small apartment.

Decline of the Caboose

By the early eigties, many cabooses were phased out from mainline freights, and the end of train device (EOT) became standard railroad equipment. Simultaneously, various technological advancements were introduced including remote switching and the defect detector. Even though cabooses worked for railroads for well over one-hundred years, the new technology offered increased accuracy and significantly decreased operating cost. The EOT performed all the duties of the caboose and did not require any additional manpower.

What is an End of Train Device (EOT)?

The EOT performs many of the same duties as the crew in a caboose, except the detection of hot axles, as that is performed by a defect detector located trackside. Engineered by the Florida East Coast Railroad and first put to use in 1969, it took a span of over a decade for other railroads to implement the new technology. Once implemented, the use of the caboose began to rapidly decrease, resulting in the elimination of thousands of jobs within the railroad industry. However, this proved cost effective for the railroads, as they saved thousands of dollars yearly replacing crew members with this new technology.

End of Train (EOT) Device
Photo: Austin MacDougall

Are there Different Types of End of Train Devices (EOTs)?

Yes, there are two types of EOT devices, A “Smart” EOT gives the locomotive crew feedback on the status of the train, and the “Dumb” EOT, acts as a marker for the rear, and does not give feedback on train status.

“Smart” EOT Devices

Manufactured by Pulse Electronics and Union Switch & Signal, smart EOT devices monitor the status of a train, such as the pressure of the brake line, as well as alert the crew in the event of a coupler separation. In the event of an emergency, the EOT is equipped with an emergency braking switch, allowing the brakes to be applied from the rear of the train.

In the cab of the locomotive, the engineer can keep track of the EOTs readings via the head of train device (HTD), nicknamed the “Wilma”. The devices are paired by an assigned frequency that communicates the telemetry radio waves. In newer locomotives, the HTD screen readout is built into the locomotive’s computer, in addition, older locomotives have been retrofitted with the device.

Head of Train Device (WILMA)

Advancements of the device have been made prevalent over the course of its lifetime. The weight of the EOT has been dramatically reduced to weigh just under 30 pounds, and is able to be easily carried by a train crew. Additionally, advancements in battery life allows the device to require a charge just once over the course of a week.

“Dumb” EOT Devices

Dumb EOT devices can be as simple as placing a red flag on the rear of a train, or are just equipped with a blinking marker light to warn oncoming trains. These EOT devices are only used on local trains and yard moves.

Uses of the Caboose Today

Today, the caboose is used as a shoving platform for yard jobs, allowing the brakemen easy access to switches. They are also used on maintenance of way (MOW) trains.

Related Questions

Are Cabooses used outside North America?

Yes. Cabooses were not only utilized in North America, but throughout the world. In Britain, railways would use a brake van, which performed the same duties as a caboose. These were used as crew quarters and for paperwork, and are similar to bay window cabooses. These brake vans served the same purpose, however, just carried a different name.

Why are Cabooses Painted Red?

Many cabooses were painted red to increase visibility. Railroads wanted to paint their cabooses in a color that could easily be seen from a distance for the safety of both the train crew and bystanders .

For further information and photographs about the glory days of the caboose, Brian Solomon, author of various rail related publications, has published a book about the life and legacy of the caboose. If you are interested, it is available here. (link to Amazon)






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