Freight Hopping: Harmless fun or a dangerous raze?


When it comes to the railroad, safety is very important. It is really easy to become injured.

You are made out of breakable, soft material, and railroad equipment is made out of very heavy and hard materials.

A rolling boxcar will not even flinch as it rolls directly over you quietly in a nasty surprise attack.

Accidents also make everybody look bad. Me, you, the railroad lady who told you which train to ride, and all of the individuals who saw you and thought they were too cool to tell the Bull about you. That is why, each time that you speak to a railroad person, they will tell you that you need to stay safe. That is always the most important thing.

There is a railroad cop at some yards. This person is called the Bull. Being stupid is the only way that the Bull will catch you. Usually, the bull will sit someplace in an office until somebody calls him to help out with a problem, and that seldom happens. (Not true now).

The Bull will occasionally leave his office and go cruising around in his bull-mobile, which is usually a white Bronco or pickup truck.  The Bull might travel all of the roads going through the yard before heading back to his den. To avoid encountering the Bul, stay away from the plain sight of the roads that are in the yard. Walk in between cars. Watch out for flashlights and the bull-mobile. Stay away from danger. Stay away from the office.

Things To Take With You

Make sure everything is dark, including a dark blanket or sleeping bag, dark pack, and dark clothes. That will make it more difficult for the railroad cops to catch you as you are wandering around the train yard.

You will be doing lots of walking and throwing your pack off and on trains, so make sure to pack light and small – less than 25 pounds. If there is anything inside of your pack that can potentially break then it will. Your valuables should be left at home.

Make sure that your patience is brought with you. There is just as much waiting and walking as there is actual riding when it comes to freight hopping.

Think about warmth also. Dress in layers. You might end up out on an ao pen car during the middle of the night along with a 60 mile per hour wind blowing directly in your face. Your sleeping bag and clothes should keep you dry, comfortable and warm. Freight-hopping will be a really miserable experience if you are wet and cold.

Take boots and sturdy gloves with you to keep you safe when you are scrambling around on freight cars. Bring a hat if you prefer not sunburning your nose and eyes.

It is nice knowing where you are. Bringing an atlas along might come in handy, to find out where you have been let in addition to finding where you can catch-out. You might be able to get a hold of a railroad map. Try calling the railroad business office and pretend you are studying rail transportation. Some, will be international freight forwarders, so be aware of this as they may leave the country.

Take something to drink with you. Being exposed to wind can suck all of the liquid right out of you. Take something that will not spill when you are throwing your pack off and on cars.

Make sure to take your patience with you. There s as much waiting and walking involved in freight-hopping as there is actually riding. Most of your time is spent waiting for information, waiting to hop a train, waiting for the train to leave, so much waiting! You will need to have patience and flexibility for this.

A quick checklist:

  • dark clothing
  • dark pack that weighs less than 25 pounds
  • sturdy boots
  • sturdy gloves
  • Hat
  • railroad map or atlas
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Waterproof, warm jacket
  • warm, light bedding
  • non-perishable food
  • water or another type of liquid
  • newspaper (for reading, shitting, or kindling)
  • endurance and patience

Where You Should Catch-out

Search for a train in a forgotten area of town, that part of town that goes through the rough neighborhood.

Locate the local freight yard. A train will eventually be coming through or leaving there. Search for train yards located in forgotten parts of town, where the rough neighborhoods are. Usually, the yard will be close to big industry, and perhaps even a port or river. There are often street names such as Railroad Avenue that give it away. There will probably be a train station close by.

Nearly every American city has freight yards. However, there are not as many marshaling yards where trains are made up and broken down. Those yards will be the easiest places for you to catch-out and gather information. You can ask questions of the yard crew such as where and when the trains leave.

Some yards are the changing points for crews. One crew is able to work twelve hours maximum, so the yards where fresh crews are received by trains are placed strategically along the main lines. Those are good yards for catching out from.

How to collect information

The railroad workers will be friends of yours in this situation and will help you whenever they can. Usually, crews will only be able to tell you where the train is headed and when the power is called for. Often the entire story is known by yard workers. That is because they make up all of the trains that leave the yard. They will now which trains are going to certain places and often will know when power has been called for also. Sometimes they will call in at the tower and find out which track your train is going to be one and when it is going to leave.  

What To Ride

The most important consideration is your safety. Don’t take any shortcuts trying to save time.

The order of preference that you will want to ride is on open boxcars, on a hopper or grainer’s rear platform, between a piggybacked trailer wheels, in the well in back of the cargo containers (if it has a solid floor) on the third or second deck of an empty auto carrier (if you are able to get inside) or in an empty gondola. Once you are really bold, you can always ride on the back engine of a couple of units that are coupled at night.

Do not ride on tank cars carrying nasty stuff, or on loaded gondolas or flat cars whose shifting loads might crush you, or on cars that are broken but have been taken out of service yet or that are marked as a Bad Order.