The venerable-freight train caboose of history has been made obsolete over the past few decades by sophisticated, rugged, electronic end-of-train (EOT) devices which do much more, much better, and much cheaper.
Ah, the caboose (Figure 1): it’s a railroad car which combines practicality, utility, legend, imagery, history, nostalgia, romance, dreams, myths, and so much more. The caboose, which dates in its basic form to around 1830, provided a place for a brakeman and conductor to watch the train from the rear, looking for derailed cars, hot bearings, and other problems. The brakeman, who was located in the caboose, could also assist the up-front engineer by releasing air from the brake line (thus applying the brakes) from the rear, which is often needed for steep downgrades and in the event that an emergency stop was required.
However, technology advances and the operating needs of modern freight railroads have relegated this combination of look-out station, rolling office, kitchen, bunk/sleep living area, and holder for end-of-train flag and red marker lights to near-total obsolescence (Reference 1). In its place, there is a relatively small box attached to the end of the last car which not only provides some of the functions provided by the caboose and its occupants (they are still needed), but also adds many important new capabilities.
This box which has replaced and expanded on the role of the caboose is known by various names. In its earliest configuration, it was simply a red warning light called a flashing rear-end device (FRED). As the functionality increased, it also became known as an end-of-train device (ETD or EOT). As these EOT devices are so effective at improving train safety and operational efficiency and can do so much more than a caboose for at far less cost, they are now mandated in the USA and Canada as well as other countries. In fact, if the mandated EOT is not functioning properly for whatever reason, the train must instead follow strict rules with respect to reduced speed and restricted operation (Reference 2). A modern EOT unit (Figure 2), weighs about 20 pounds and is about 20 inches tall.
Cabooses now are used only in limited situations such as in train classification yards or restricted areas. Trains that perform a lot of switching at industrial parks with multiple rail sidings, make extended back-up moves, or use passing sidings with hand-thrown switches (and there still are a few of those on small, “local” rail lines) still employ cabooses. Some railroads still use cabooses where the train must be backed up, on short local runs, as rolling offices, and as transportation for maintenance crews. Many of the now-retired cabooses serve in new roles as fixed-in-place tourist attractions, snack bars, part of tourist trains, or even lawn ornaments!
This article will look at some of the history, functions, and features of the EOT devices, and how these have evolved along with modern railroading.
Why even say “goodbye caboose”?
The obvious question is: why get rid of cabooses on freight trains? Yes, they were eliminated long ago on the remaining long-distance passenger trains (the few that are left) since the crew (engineer, brakeman, conductors) could use the regular coaches, but doesn’t the freight-train crew need a place to rest? Reality is that there are many strong reasons from an operational perspective to abandon this venerable railroad car:
- with an EOT device, modern freight trains now need to have just an engineer (driver) plus a conductor who rides upfront with the engineer; there is no brakeman as there was in the past;
- the “paperwork” which the crew used to do related to freight cars, loads, maintenance concerns, and trip logging is now automated and computerized, with reports sent by radio and even satellite link;
- on a modern freight train, the runs are short enough between mandated crew switchovers (typically four hours) that there is no need for a kitchen or bed. The “crew” now does not stay on the train long enough to need those;
- the faster speeds of a modern freight train (50-60 mph) on quality trackage mandates more information and reporting about the condition of the entire train from the locomotive at the front (and sometimes a “helper” locomotive in the middle) through all cars, with updates on engines, fuel, brakes, wheels, bearings, and load balance or shift, as well as track anomalies;
- the caboose is actually in a very dangerous location. Obviously, it could be hit in the rear by another train, of course. But the more-common danger is very different. A train and its many cars do not function as a rigid assembly. Instead, a train is more like a chain of links with slack between the cars due to the couplers, plus the cascaded effects acceleration, deceleration, and swaying. Starting, stopping, and controlling it is not like driving a car or even a truck and its semi-trailer. Every time the train changes speed, and especially when it starts and stops, the acceleration forces ripple through the entire length with major jolt even at the last car. When the engineer applies the brakes (release brake pressure) the effect has to propagate through the brake piping and so has a long time lag from front to back of the train. Crew members in the caboose had to literally “brace for impact” each time by holding onto railings and grab bars, while they and objects in the caboose would fall down, get dislodged, or even go flying across the caboose;
- there’s no longer a need for a conductor to be positioned at the rear to manually set up warning flags for approaching trains, as there are direct radio links between trains and between a train and central control. There is also no need for that conductor to help the engineer by manually managing the brakes at the rear of the train on steep downhill grades;
- the caboose is not a “revenue-producing” car, yet it has a significant upfront cost, requires constant attention, maintenance and inspection, adds weight the train, and must be switched in the yard as trains are broken up and new ones made up (Reference 1);
- As railroads transitioned to carrying more and bigger loads per freight car, they began to use taller cars including triple-deckers for carrying automobiles. The clear view of the entire train and its cars which the conductor previously had by simply looking out of the caboose cupola was now blocked.
Part 2 of this article will look at the EOT devices and capabilities in more detail.
Related EE World Content
Electric locomotives and catenary power systems – Part 4: maintenance and corona
Electric locomotives and catenary power systems – Part 3: power delivery
Electric locomotives and catenary power systems – Part 2: power needs
Electric locomotives and catenary power systems – Part 1: basic functions
Electrified Locomotives, Tunnels, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, Part 3: The station
Electrified Locomotives, Tunnels, and the Pennsylvania Railroad, Part 2: The tunnels
Electrified Locomotives, Tunnels, and the Pennsylvania Railroad: Astonishing engineering but a partially sad ending, Part 1: The challenge
Connectors Ensure Reliable Control Between Railway Locomotives And Vehicles
Power modules meet EN 50155 standard for railway apps
300-W AC-DC cassette converters optimized for railway & rugged industrial apps
DC-DC power modules meet stringent railway specs
- Trains, “The colorful caboose”
- International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, “New FRA regulations go into effect”
- Trains, “End-of-train devices”
- Railway Technology, “Inteletrack: End-of-Train Telemetry (EOTT), Railcar Tracking and Satellite Signalling”
- Trains And Locomotives Wiki, “End of Train Device”
- Pulse Electronics, “Antennas for Railroad Applications”
- United States Patent 5267473, “Self powered end of train unit”
- Wikipedia, “End-of-train device”
- Progress Rail, “Guardian End-of-Train Device”
- WikiVisually, “End-of-train device”
- Runaway Train (1985 movie)