Freight trains are incredibly loud, at least, while riding on or in freight cars. I’ve occasionally wondered how anything gets where it’s going in one piece after all the banging and clanging that goes on. I’ve come to realize that it depends significantly on what type of car you are riding and whether you are on the mainline or a poorly maintained branch line.  Mainlines and intermodal cars tend to be relatively smooth, but still ear numbingly loud.

I knew ahead of time that grainers and other bulk unit trains like  coal, potash, sand or rock trains tend to be the lowest priority. Even though this particular train was headed to Portland, it was soon apparent that it wasn’t high priority. We sided out several times to wait on hot shot freights. You now you’re low priority when you side out and get passed from behind!

Sided out along the Mississippi waiting for another train.

That was the case with my grainer. We weren’t twenty miles north of La Crosse when we sided out. Ten minutes later a hotshot intermodal Z train blew past us from BEHIND! Dammit, if I had just waited twenty minutes longer in La Crosse, I would have been on that hotshot.

My ride was pretty uncomfortable as rides go, I’m fairly tall and at 240 pounds, too big to fit comfortably in the hole on this grainer. I was able to stretch out on the floor of the porch though, and we sided out for an hour or two at one point and I nodded right off.

The view from the center of a grainer isn’t the best because of structural elements like ladders and supports that block the view.

Some freight hoppers like to ride grainers and have a basic ranking system of which ones are the best. Double barrel grainers have two holes for great hiding and tend to be cars from Canada. Cadillac grainers have fairly deep sidewalls that help for staying out of sight and plenty of room to stretch out. I think the style I was on is sort of a last resort, the type you ride to get out of a yard after spending a couple of days waiting on a train.

This one certainly got me on my way, but there was zero chance I was riding this thing beyond Dilworth, MN which is the first crew change after Minneapolis. I was pretty worried about getting through Minneapolis’s Northtown yard, and to make matters worse, this thing was so slow, it was now broad daylight and I would be rolling in there around noon in almost plain sight, easily seen if somebody was looking for riders.

I had a little fever building at this point, nothing too serious, but still, a fever saps your strength or at least your will power. I’m usually incredibly healthy, famous last words, but I will once every year or two, have a flare up of diverticulitis. I can feel a little pain in my lower gut and it is accompanied by a low grade fever and a day or so later, all is good. However, being out in the wet and cold and having the chill from a fever wasn’t a great way to be starting a trek across the country.

I realized that I was glad I wasn’t on the hotshot Z train intermodal that blew past us at about 70mph, that would have been pretty cold for sure. So, sometimes, you just never know, things don’t work out how you want, but they work out for the best.

A Herzog rail checking truck (a hi-rail truck that runs on the rails)  came rolling by while I was in plain site stretching and looking around while we were stopped on a siding. Apparently, they had been doing some work ahead. Herzog is a private contractor that provides a full range of services for a variety of railroads. No sooner had the truck passed by at walking speed, I heard it stop and the backup alarm went off.

I’d been seen, I was sure of it. In full panic mode, I grabbed my pad and sleeping bag and stuffed them in the hole of the grainer and contorted myself against the supports of the car to stay hidden from view. The Herzog truck backed up, stopped between the car I was on and the one behind and sat there for a half a minute or so.

I was holding my breath, as though that would make any difference. Finally, after what seemed like a hell of a lot longer time than the thirty or so seconds that elapsed, they continued on down the line. I fired up the scanner to see if I heard anything about a stow away, or any other warnings about riders and I heard nothing.

We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere and there was no way I was going to bail off this thing here and walk miles on end. If I was going to get caught, ticketed, arrested, whatever, I was just going to suffer through it.

You can see the pneumatic chamber and piston to the left that sets or releases the brakes depending on the line pressure from the engine’s compressors.

I stopped thinking about it as I heard the air pressure building in the brake lines and I could watch the brake piston on the car behind me release. If they were going to toss me from the train, they were going to do it somewhere besides here!


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