EDITOR'S NOTE: A former Sullivan and Charleston resident, Jerry Ginther writes a column the first Tuesday of each month in the JG-TC with his remembrances of years gone by in Charleston, Sullivan and the area.
Most of us have noticed for quite some time now the absence of a caboose on freight trains, but didn’t think too much about it. For most observers, the only significance of the caboose was that it designated the end of the train. In its place you will see a curious looking contraption riding on the trailing drawbar of the last car in the train. I’ll explain how this device has replaced more than the familiar last car of a freight train.
I’ll start with the caboose itself. Although most of us recognized it as the end of a train, the old rulebook definition of the end of a train was not the caboose. The rule stated that a train was an engine, or more than one engine coupled, with or without cars displaying markers. The keyword here is “markers.” Markers could be either metal reflectors or electric lights displaying red to the rear, or both. When placed on the rear of an engine without cars, the engine was designated as a complete train.
A caboose, then, had to be displaying markers at the rear or it was not the end of a train. Cabooses were also transported within the train like any other car, but without the markers displayed. To be more precise, an engine pulling cars with a caboose at the end not displaying markers was not recognized as a train under the rule and could not occupy a main track outside of yard limits.
The caboose served as the conductor’s office and was shared by the flagman, whose responsibility was to protect the rear of the train from collisions with following trains. These rolling offices were equipped with cupolas rising above the tops of the rail cars, providing an elevated platform for observing the train from the rear. From this vantage point both trainmen occupying the caboose could view the rear portion of the train with two objectives.
Primarily, they would look for lading falling from cars, and blazing journal boxes that had caught fire. Also, they could see if an automobile had struck the side of the train at a grade crossing that could not be observed from the engine. Often, a dangerous problem, like a partially derailed car located deep in the train with some of its wheels running on the ties, could only be determined from the rear of the train. This usually resulted in the ends of the ties being freshly chipped and splintered which could be seen from the rear only. Also, any other damage along the right-of-way, caused by a car running on the ground, could be seen. The trainmen in the caboose could then take action to stop the train before more serious consequences resulted.
The contraption now located on the drawbar of the last car that I mentioned earlier is known as a telemetry device. This device transmits information to a receiver on the engine, concerning the length of the train and when the device on the drawbar is moving as well as when it is stationary. This allows the engineer to know when, and if, all of his train is in motion and when all the cars come to a stop. Should part of the train be left behind for an unknown reason, the engineer would be immediately aware that the last car was not moving.
The advent of the telemetry device eliminated the necessity for the caboose and crew members on the rear end of trains. The conductor now rides on the engine and assumes the responsibility of the former head brakeman and handles the hand-throw switches where necessary. Also, by eliminating cabooses from freight trains, carriers have been able to reduce the expense of purchasing and maintaining these cars.
The brakeman, known as the flagman, who occupied the caboose with the conductor is no longer a required member of a train crew. They were mostly needed on tracks that were not governed by an automatic block signal system or a centralized traffic control system. Most of those tracks have been eliminated or upgraded with a signal system that no longer requires manual protection from following trains. The ones that remain are governed by track permits or warrants, issued by the train dispatcher, which give exclusive rights to defined limits of a track, to one specified train at a time.
Consequently, we can see that there is more than the caboose missing from trains these days. There are crew members and their jobs missing as well.