First used in America during the 1840s, the caboose provided the train crew with a shelter and a work platform at the rear of the train. For more than 100 years, state laws required a caboose on every freight train. Today, they are rarely seen in motion.
Prior to the advent of the caboose, crews would ride in empty freight cars or passenger cars. The earliest cars constructed specifically for the crews were simply modified box cars not suitable for freight service. The first true cabooses were small boxes on 4 wheels. These eventually expanded to 8 wheel units to improve safety, upgrade the accommodations and provide for more crew members. The drawing below displays a common 8 wheel caboose configuration.
In the US, there were two primary styles of caboose:
- The most popular was the cupola caboose that had observation windows on the top with elevated seats for the crew. From this vantage point, the tops of the freight cars were visible. It also afforded a view of the entire train as it entered curves.
- A bay window caboose had observation windows on each side. Many railway companies chose the bay window because it eliminated several problems with the cupola. First, there was no risk of the crew falling from the elevated seats. Second, it eliminated the need to accommodate the extra height for the cupola when constructing tunnels and bridges. Third, the increasing height of the cargo cars began to obscure the view from the cupola.
A typical crew consisted of the:
- Conductor – prepared reports, kept records and managed the train's operation.The earliest cabooses were strictly for the conductors. Often these cabooses would be furnished and decorated with photos, curtains and other personal items, just like a room at home.
- Brakeman – responsible for throwing switches and coupling cars, as well as keeping an eye on the train's cars and cargo while it was in motion. Before the introduction of the airbrake in the late 1800s, brakemen would climb across the tops of the cars to manually apply each car's brake.
- Flagman – walked a safe distance behind a stopped caboose carrying a lantern and flags to signal approaching trains that his train had stopped. Before two-way radios were invented, flags, lanterns, hand signals and whistles were used for communications between the engine and the caboose.
Life for caboose crews was both uncomfortable and perilous. The ride was rough and the cabin temperatures could be extremely hot or extremely cold. Ash or cinders from the steam engines often fouled the air as did the wood and coal fired stoves in earlier cabooses. Crews frequently spent noisy weekends living on the caboose in rail yards waiting for a train to pull them back home. The caboose was also used to shuttle crews between yards, adding crowding to the list of discomforts.
The greatest concern for the crews was their safety. They faced danger not only when doing their jobs but also when simply riding as a passenger in the caboose. Many cabooses ended service as a result of wrecks. Derailments, rear-end collisions, and broken switches were frequent events. The process of taking up train slack could throw the crew and equipment. Lanterns could fall and break, adding the risk of fire.
The railroad lines used safety concerns and climbing operating costs to promote the elimination of the caboose laws. In 1988, Virginia became the last state to end the caboose requirement.
Advances in technology led to the development of equipment that replaced the caboose and crew. Improved designs reduced wheel failures and sensors now detect developing problems.
On today's freight trains, instead of a caboose at the end, you'll find a FRED (flashing rear-end device).