Let me be very direct, if you have an inkling or maybe even a major itch, to ride trains, don’t do it without some help. I don’t follow all that many train riders on Youtube, but two of them, which amounts to about 30% of those I follow, have met with significant accidents.
Jim Stobie, aka Stobe the Hobo, or Hobestobe on Youtube, arguably the most widely known modern hobo, was fatally injured in an accident with an Amtrak train in the Baltimore area. I don’t really know the full details so my knowledge is secondhand at best. Apparently he was on a bridge without a walkway, which isn’t uncommon, especially back east where much of the infrastructure is old or created in narrow right-of-ways. He was supposedly on the bridge when Amtrak came screaming past and his backpack was somehow caught by the passing train. The result was a dragging that ended in fatal injuries.
Another of the people I follow slipped on ice getting off a train, and had his hand crushed between the rail and a train wheel, losing part of his hand and several fingers in the process. He required multiple surgeries and skin grafts to save what was left of his hand. Hobo Shoestring is his name on Youtube.
There have been countless others, people who have been crushed by shifting loads on various types of cars, or people run over trying to hop on or off on the fly, which is much, much more difficult than it appears on film.
There are several types of cars that people do ride, that are inherently dangerous and are referred to as “suicide rides”. Jason Litzner, aka Lil’ Jay was killed when he fell under the suicide container car he was riding. The shock and pain was over quickly for him, but not so much for his wife and a traveling companion. Jay’s accident.
So, I don’t take riding lightly, it isn’t safe and it is illegal in most places. It isn’t unusual to be ticketed or jailed for hopping freight trains. Freight yards, especially hump yards, carry an entire list of additional hazards, especially at night, which is when you’re most likely to end up in one. In short, I can’t recommend doing this unless you have some help or significant experience around trains. Being a foamer (railfan) doesn’t hurt since most foamers know the workings and hazards of trains.
I find the anticipation of a ride to be exhilarating to the point I don’t sleep much the night before I plan a hop. For me, riding a freight train is the perfect combination of excitement and anticipation followed by a mostly tranquil, but noisy, ride through backyards, old sections of towns and open countryside. In some areas, the tracks are about the only thing to interrupt the beautiful scenery along the way.
I’m too old, and truth be told, probably never was athletic enough to safely catch out on the fly. So, I’m pretty much limited to getting on and off where the trains are stopped. There are only a few places where that happens regularly, crew change points or places where two competing rail lines cross and less often, along sidings used to allow trains to pass one another are a few such places.
The track crossings are usually referred to as “diamonds” because of the shape the tracks make in the middle when they cross at an angle. They still call them diamonds even when the tracks cross at right angles and the center is a square instead of a diamond. Usually, only one of the railroads owns and controls the crossing, the one that preceded the other. You can count on the non-owner to get stopped waiting for clearance fairly often, and you can catch out if you’re lucky.
On the busiest mainlines nowadays, much of the tracks have been changed to “double track” which negates the need for one train to stop to allow another to pass. The UP (Union Pacific) has one of the longest stretches of double and even triple track in the world from Omaha to Ogden Utah. Known as the Overland Route, it’s probably double tracked all the way to Chicago since the UP acquired the C&NW (Chicago Northwestern) in 1995 to expand eastward.
So, I began getting serious in May about catching out. I figured I needed a decent pack, sleeping bag, tent, self inflating pad, some food and some means of carrying water. I also wanted to bring camera gear and some extra battery storage to charge up all the batteries involved.
To keep expense down, and knowing how rough and dirty trains are, I elected to buy a used 70L pack on Craig’s list. I ordered a self inflating pad, which I ruined on my first hop, and a mummy type sleeping bag good for Spring, Summer or Fall, but not totally suitable for real Winter. The tent is a really slick one man tent.
I had researched a potential catch out spot via Google Maps in satellite view. Since my ultimate goal was to ride the BNSF mainline through Glacier National Park the best place to catch out was probably La Crosse. So off I went to La Crosse via bus, because there aren’t any mainline railroads in Madison to catch out on. I knew that BNSF intermodal trains changed crews in La Crosse so, not only would they probably stop for the diamond the CP (Canadian Pacific) controls, but they’d also change crews there. That would give me a decent ten minute window to make the connection.
The best laid plans…. What could go wrong?