The Caboose

Jim Townsend

The little wooden shanty that trailed faithfully after every string of freight cars – like many railroad scenes -- has undergone many changes in the past 150 years.

The box-like shelters that train crews built to shield their cooking fires on platform cars in the mid 1800's, the converted box cars with sliding doors around the turn of the last century, the cupola-topped wooden cabooses after the First World War – each of these gave way to the all steel cabooses of the 1970's with sleek bay windows of shatterproof glass, automatic oil heaters, electric lights, radio telephone and specially designed crew seats. Costing $18,000, this type of caboose was vastly different from its forebears.

The origin of the caboose is uncertain. The generally accepted story is that a freight conductor in the 1830's made it his custom to sit in the last car of a freight train on a barrel to direct the train's operation. As trains and runs grew longer, some railroads provided platform cars for their train crews, and eventually converted boxcars for crews to use as shelters.

Even the origin of the word caboose is disputed. Historical authorities document its use back to the days of the early sailing vessels, when sailors customarily set up a fireplace on the ship's deck. To protect their fires and provide shelter for themselves, the sailors set up boxes over the cooking fires. These shelters were known to the Dutch as kabuis, the Danes as kabys, the Swedes as kabysa, and the Germans as Kabuse. The alternative theory is that the word originated from the Spanish Calaboz.

Depending upon where you were in North America, the car at the end of the train was called the way car, accommodation car, train car, brakeman's cab, shanty, crummy or Conductor's Van. In England the term is Guards van.

The origin of the most distinguishing feature of the caboose – the lookout or cupola – has also been the subject of controversy. The addition is attributed to a conductor who discovered in 1863 that he could see his train much better if he peered through the hatch in the roof of the boxcar. Cupolas were first built into cabooses about 1875 and were permanent fixtures until the bay windows made their appearances during the 1940's.

In the early days of railroading, each crew was assigned its own caboose, which served as their home for days at a time.  As railroading became more complex, and trains grew faster and went farther in shorter times, the caboose was no longer needed for extended accommodations. The cabooses were then assigned to a division. The caboose pool proved to be practical.  Under the pool arrangement, a caboose stays with the freight train from the point of origin until it reaches its destination.

The caboose served several functions, one of which was as an office for the conductor. A printed waybill followed every freight car. The conductor kept the paperwork in the caboose. The caboose also carried a brakeman and a flagman. In the early days before automatic air brakes the engineer signaled the caboose with a whistle when he wanted to slow down. The brakeman would climb out on to the roof. There were ladders at each end of the caboose and running boards on the roof. Not just the caboose had running boards, but all the cars had them.  The brakeman would work his way forward along the top of the cars, twisting the brake wheels. Another brakeman riding in the engine would work his way towards the rear.

Another function of the caboose was the monitoring of the train while underway. The conductor and brakeman would sit in the cupola and watch for signs of trouble. One problem was the overheating of wheel journals – called hot boxes. Originally these had friction bearings. Packing materials kept the axel lubricated. This was replaced by the roller bearings which are now required for all train car wheels.

Canadian National cabooses were originally painted in mineral brown. The colour was the same as the boxcars until, in 1944, all CNR cabooses were painted orange. The logo was originally a square with Canadian National Railways printed in 3 lines and underlined. All lettering was in black. The lettering was switched from black to white in 1957. In the 1960's the familiar CN logo was adopted and applied to all rolling stock.  CN cabooses were painted the red after this date.

The spread of technological change began eliminating the need for cabooses.  The replacement of friction bearings by roller bearings made visual detection of overheated journals unnecessary. Freight cars became so high that they blocked the view from the traditional cupola. New labour laws eliminated the need for cabooses as lodging. Computers eliminated the conductor's need to store the paperwork.

Today, the ends of trains are monitored by remote radio devices called End of Train devices or EOT.  The small boxes fit over the rear coupler and are connected to the train's air brake line. Railways began using the EOT devices in 1984. The need for the caboose was thus eliminated.