A Beginner's Guide to Hopping Freight Trains
Firstly, some background information on the art of freight train hopping:
Freight train hopping really kicked of c. 1930 at the time of America's great depression. At this time there was an estimated quarter of a million youths travelling illegally on freight trains throughout America. A recent film 'riding the rails' (produced by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys)gives a very accurate depiction of the life experienced by a group of teenagers who took to the rails at this time. To chronologically mark an end to the depression; the year of 1941, and a reason; America's decision to accept involvement in World War 2. This turning point in American history caused a slump in the number of freight train hoppers. Train hoppers then began to return in the 1950's with the beat generation and the 60's when the hippie culture was in full swing. A brilliant description of train hopping can be found in Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac(a famous and very talented beat author). The next generation of freight train hoppers appeared in the form of a series of gangs, the largest of which was, and still is, the F.T.R.A (the freight train riders of America). The group was founded when thirty freight train hoppers came together under the leadership of Daniel Boone in a bar in Montana in the early 80's. Although the original objective of the group is unknown it definitely differed from that of the rail's pacifist riders of earlier decades. Now freight train hopping is picking up again, the contemporary rail rider seems to take the shape of a traveller looking for adventure or a faster and more exciting alternative to hitchhiking. So if you're interested in riding the rails your self here's a few fundamental pieces of information you should be aware of:
First and foremost, boring and sensible as it may sound, safety needs to be your top priority. No one likes being run over by trains, your body's just not designed for it. There's not a lot to be said as far as safety is concerned, you just need to be concerned about safety. Use your common sense don't walk on the tracks. Don't cross under couplers or cars and if you're hopping at night be very cautious of cars moving around the yard because they can roll menacingly smoothly and, caught up in the excitement, you may well fail to notice one sneaking up behind you.
Next you've got to plan your ride. Dress dark, take a dark pack (preferably under 25 lb do not take any valuables they will break ), dark sleeping bag. This repeated dark theme is obviously so you don't get caught by the cops (Although you must also take into consideration such gangs as the FTRA, they do not tolerate non members riding on their rails. If you wear a certain coloured bandanna or something of the sort the FTRA will think you are part of another group and make sure the only thing you're riding is the ambulance. Back on the subject of cops here is some useful information: Most yards have a railroad cop (universally referred to as the "bull"). Fortunately for you the bull has a handy tendency to spend all-day (and night) sitting in a hut (known to him as his office) munching donuts and rarely patrols the yard. As a result the law enforcement animal shouldn't pose to many problems if you're sensible but here are a few guide lines for keeping out of the bulls way:
1) Stay away from the roads in the yard. If the bull does decide to wander out of his hut he will do so on his bull-mobile (a white pick-up or something of the sort) and will therefore be restricted to the roads so keeping away from them should keep you out of his view.
2. Where possible try to walk between strings of cars this, if done properly, will have the effect of two opaque walls either side of you.
3. Make sure you keep your wits about you, listen for noises, look out for flashlights (both are signs of (drum roll) the bull-mobile!
4. Whatever you do make sure you do not go near the office, you should have no reason to and tempting as it maybe to get a quick photo for the scrap book; refrain.
The next aspect to worry about is your own personal comfort; vital to an enjoyable ride. Dress warm, depending on the route your taking, you may end up in an open car with fierce winds incessantly freezing your ears. Wear at the very least three layers, gloves (your fingers can get numb; not good for scrambling amongst cars) and a hat is also strongly recommended as you loose a lot of your body heat through your head. If you think there's any possibility that it will rain be sure to bring a waterproof jacket, it won't take up much space in your pack and you will thank yourself for it later. Bring food, a lot of food you never know how long it will take to get to your destination and it's better to have to much food than not enough. You will also need a drink remember that you will be throwing your pack around a lot so obviously don't bring anything you're going to spill over your nice, warm, dry sleeping bag. You may also wish to bring a flashlight but be very careful it should be considered a tool, completely contingent on an emergency for its usage as it gives away your position immediately.
You need to be very conscious of the direction you are travelling and to be sure of your exact location at all times. For this you could bring an atlas but ideally you need to get your grubby mitts on a copy of the railroad map. This can be easily obtained by finding a small child with a cute voice and instructing them to telephone up saying please could they be so rude as to ask for a railroad map to help with their school project on the freight train network. When you have the map, after giving the child some candy, establish the nearest yard. This is where you are going to "catch out" from. The yards are usually near big industrial areas and on such cunningly named roads as Railroad Avenue. Ideally you want to catch out from a yard which is on a main line.
The final decision you need to make is which car to travel in. Your preference should swing towards open boxcars, between the wheels of piggybacked trailers, on the platform at the back of grainers/hoppers, in the well behind cargo containers or in empty gondolas. To avoid: loaded flat cars, loaded gondolas or any cars with "bad order" marked on them as often cars are broken but not removed.
Things to bear in mind:
1. Trains to do not run to a schedule they run to tonnage so you can't guarantee when a train is going to depart.
2. A train crew can only work for a maximum of twelve hours and changing crews take up to a day. You could change trains but the likelihood of getting lost is increased.
3. When you board a freighter make sure you don't slam the door shut because if you are unable to open it again
suffocation will dig your grave.
4. Before hopping any trains do a lot more research into the subject: You will need to know a lot more local knowledge of the rails you plan on riding.