Stupid Question ™
Jan. 18, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: I never see cabooses on trains anymore. What purpose did they serve, and why are they no longer needed?
A: For more than a century, the last car on a train was the caboose. A little shack on wheels, it served as office, bedroom and kitchen for the train crew. Its cupola (the sticking-up part on top) was an observation deck from which brakemen watched the train for shifting loads, overheating wheels and other problems.
“Caboose” is an old sailing term meaning a kitchen set up on the deck of a ship; it came to mean any portable or temporary shelter. The railroad caboose undoubtedly began as a tent or shelter set up on an old flatcar.
Converted boxcars were also used until the 1860s, when nearly every line had its own caboose design.
Made of wood or steel, cabooses weighed about 25 tons and often saw 50 years of use. Their crews called them “crummies,” “cabs” or other slang names.
The typical caboose had three or four bunk beds, a cooking and heating stove and a desk for the conductor to do freight-related paperwork. Later models had electric lights and refrigerators. Cabooses also carried extra supplies, from chain to oil. Some were outfitted to haul extra freight or even short-trip passengers, especially traveling salesmen.
One thing many cabooses didn’t have was a toilet. Urination was done off the back; defecation was done on a newspaper-covered shovel, with the results hurled off the side.
The typical crew was five to six men. Most of these were brakemen, who pre-1930s had to climb atop the moving train and tighten wheels atop each car to secure its brakes.
Frequently, a conductor would be assigned his very own caboose to use his whole career. Some conductors were big interior decorators; one New York-Connecticut line caboose in the 1940s was famed for its collection of 200 framed railway photos.
Today, air brakes and computer sensors (both onboard and trackside) have replaced the brakemen; crew hostels have replaced the bunks and kitchen. The two or three crewmen left can all ride in the engine.
The first major line to run without cabooses was the Florida East Coast Railway in 1967. Cabooses have now been entirely out of production in the US for more than 10 years. The last vestige of the caboose is an electronic box (known as a FRED, ETD or other acronym). Attached to the last car, it transmits load and brake information to the engineer, and also has a blinking signal light.
Cabooses are now mostly nostalgic collectors’ items used as home offices or dens. There are also several motels that use old cabooses as rooms; the original is the Red Caboose Motel is Strasburg, Pennsylvania, started in 1970.
Fifteen years ago, you could still go to a railyard and buy an abandoned caboose from a grateful railroad company for a few hundred dollars. But now supplies have dwindled, and caboose buyers can expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $50,000—not including shipping and handling.