This clean Walmart piggyback van seemed a good place to rest while riding the rails in Kansas for RanOutOnARail, who shot this video. Screen captures from RanOutOnARail via YouTube.com

This clean Walmart piggyback van seemed a good place to rest while riding the rails in Kansas for RanOutOnARail, who shot this video. Screen captures from RanOutOnARail via YouTube.com

Hobos “rode the rails” during the Great Depression, catching rides in and on freight cars, looking for work in towns along the way and, in general, searching for escape from hunger and passage to better lives.

Today, in the midst of prosperity, people are still clambering aboard freight trains – not because they have to, but for the fun of it, a very dangerous and illegal pastime known as train hopping.

As I was looking at YouTube videos filmed by these risk-taking outlaws, I found a story about a young woman who was killed when hopping turned bad. I saw warnings about looking both ways before dashing across railroad tracks. I read an admonition against “crossing knuckles,” meaning the knuckle couplers between cars, which can crush your feet as slack widens, then closes suddenly, or simply throw you off, maybe under a car’s steel wheels.

“Iron is not mindful of a human’s well-being,” commented one.

If you want to feel some really heavy iron and get a feel for just how dangerous it might be, walk up to a freight car – while it’s standing still – and examine what it’s made of.

From watching those videos, it appears that one of the easiest rail cars to board is a piggyback flatcar. In this video, a guy with a head-mounted camera begins in Gardner, Kansas. He crosses a creek, runs across a field and into an intermodal terminal, then pulls himself onto a “pig” car and scrambles under a clean, probably near-new Walmart semitrailer. He crawls quickly and hides under the trailer’s tandem, whose wheels conceal him from any officially threatening eyes as the train leaves the yard.

The underside of the van looks factory fresh. What appears to be sealed hardwood forms the floor. The train hopper hid behind the tandem's wheels while leaving the yard in Gardner, Kansas.

The underside of the van looks factory fresh. What appears to be sealed hardwood forms the floor. The train hopper hid behind the tandem's wheels while leaving the yard in Gardner, Kansas.

The train rolls along and we see details of the trailer’s undercarriage: crossmembers, flooring, swaying air hoses, and shiny aluminum wheels and deep-treaded tires that are kept hard by automatic monitoring and inflation systems. It’s an equipment inspector’s vantage point, but at 50 or 60 mph. We see many fast-passing views of the flat terrain of Kansas (but I can tell you that, after climbing many grassy hills and stumbling through briar-clogged ravines during Army infantry training at Fort Riley, way back in 1964, Kansas ain’t all flat).

Our adventurer, who calls himself RanOutOnARail, hops off as the train stops at another intermodal yard in Kansas City. He sprints toward its perimeter and climbs up and over a tall, barbed wire-topped fence, then scales three more chain-link barriers before he’s clear of the yard and railroad police.

Aluminum wheels are shiny and new, and pressure inflation systems keep the fresh tires firm.

Aluminum wheels are shiny and new, and pressure inflation systems keep the fresh tires firm.

As in the grim 1930s, today’s railroads don’t like people riding their companies’ freight trains and will arrest them if they can. We can hope they’re more professional than the cops of the ‘30s, who sometimes beat up and even shot hobos (at least according to “Bound for Glory,” a poignant film about musician Woody Guthrie’s rail-riding travels and personal travails across the Great Plains, the Rockies, and in California).

Historically, truck driving offered the lure of the open road. And it's a safer way to experience the country than the dangers of train hopping. It's one thing for a trailer to ride atop a piggyback flatcar; it's quite another for a human being, no matter how high the adrenaline rush.

Note: This blog has been edited to further emphasize the dangers of train hopping.

 

Author

Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

View Bio
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