Photo by Bethany Houghton

Trainhopping

The lure is irresistible. When you see these pictures you will know why.

“as long as freight trains run and loners pick up dreamers with thumbs, who needs governments to get a letter to you, or a mixtape to me, or a postcard to johnstown? what’s a thousand miles between friends?” — Vampires are Poseurs, by Ramshackle Glory

What we’re about to talk about is extremely dangerous and illegal.

They call themselves traveling kids, or just kids. They busk or scrounge for money but look down on those who beg on street corners, calling them “homebums.” Travelers have contempt for homebums but also sincerely hope they don’t turn into them, as homebums have serious drug and alcohol problems and can’t take traveling because they need a steady stream of drugs or alcohol, and one might be on a locomotive for days or “end up in Sioux City or some small railroad town in South Dakota where the county is dry and the cops are mean.”

The lowest in the pecking order are the “oogles” — the posers, the dabblers, the dilettantes who pay to ride, the jerks who leave trash and anger in their wake.

They communicate through the phone calls, texts, and secret Facebook groups that are second nature to today’s youth, eliminating the difference that distance makes, charging the phones on the fly and finding wi-fi where they can.

Today’s traveling kids are a far cry from the hobos of yesteryear, like Jack Dempsey, the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, who started his career “riding the rods on trains and sleeping in hobo jungles” to get between bouts, or even former hobo and current 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson. They are in some ways closer to their counterparts around the world who hop trains for free travel in search of better jobs and better days.

Ernest Hemingway; Mexican migrants; Scene from movie Divergent

They know it’s illegal. In their minds it’s BitTorrent illegal, taking advantage of a good that already exists at (perceived) minimal additional cost to the provider. They know it’s a harsh world with dangerous people, so they become adept at knives and picky about their drugs of choice — alcohol, tobacco, whatever.

I talked to the parent of one traveler we’ll call “Boxcar Betty” who shared these observations: “Cops, etc refer to them as ‘crusty punks’ or ‘crusties’, especially in NYC; Betty didn’t know nor like that term. When I was in Monterey, I was at a Starbucks and I saw 2 men, probably in their 30s, but they looked like they were in their late 40s, one sitting outside, the other chatted with him and then came inside. There was a coffee sitting on the counter ready for a customer. The baristas kept picking it up, reading off a name and no one came up for it. The man watched a minute then scooped up the coffee and went outside. On my way out, I stopped and asked, “Do you travel?” They seemed startled at first that I knew what I was talking about and then somewhat amused when I mentioned Betty traveled and that I was ok with it. They explained that they were no homebums, they worked for everything. I laughed and said, “Like that coffee?” He smiled and said, “Hey, I watched a long time, she was nowhere!” They told me that ‘homebums’ beg and give nothing in return, that travelers would never take advantage of the religious people by saying, “God bless” on a sign or writing a picture of a cross on one, that travelers will do chores, heavy labor (he did carpentry), that they prefer to work for their money, just had no need for what we think is necessary like a stable job, clean bathrooms of our own, stability.”

Another observer, Ben, was more dismissive: “In Portland, it was aggressive panhandling, able bodied kids with dogs dropping out of normative society. Not your grandfather’s nice hobos.”

They know it is a dumb way to die.

Railroads, city and school officials, public safety experts, and others want the practice to stop, for obvious reasons. Physical danger, drug use, truancy, spreading of infectious diseases, the mess from camps, and more.

Live map of railroad trespassing incidents (click on it for the actual site)

NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt told experts at a National Transportation Safety Board summit titled “Trains and Trespassing: Ending Tragic Encounters:”

“There is truly no single stereotype we can point to as a “trespasser profile.” The good news is that from the personal standpoint there is a 100% effective way to protect yourself: Just don’t trespass. Don’t let your kids do it. Don’t let your neighbors’ kids do it. If the averages hold true, while we have been discussing this problem, four more people have been struck by trains. Two of them have died. Railroads, regulators, advocacy groups, and above all communities and their leaders, owe it to themselves to pursue fresh approaches.”

I said in the title this would be a defense of trainhopping. What’s to defend?

  1. Travel, as memorialized in centuries of American literature, is good for a person. It widens horizons and educates. This particular style of travel instills street smarts and survival skills and exposes a person to the unseen side of the tracks.
  2. Their presence deters terrorism. They are eyes and ears on trains that no longer have cabooses and are relying more and more on electronics. The kids want the trains to keep running, so those who would do harm are their natural enemies.
  3. As seen around the world, it is a longstanding method of traveling at minimal expense. It can’t be stopped. It can, however, be accommodated.

Accommodating the Trainhopper

Laws can be passed relieving railroads of liabilities for injuries or deaths not involving crews or paid passengers — people who are supposed to be there.

One traveler also has these suggestions:

  • Make Amtrak louder because it is so quiet many people die because they cross tracks and don’t hear it coming.
  • Put more security warnings about slack action between the couplings aka knuckle
  • Have more signal horns
  • Public safety announcements not to go under trains to walk across
  • One more: put floors and porches on grainors aka hopper cars instead of cutting them out but they’d never do that.

The danger doesn’t keep them away. The laws don’t keep them away. Short of legalization, which this post does not recommend, maybe it’s time to accept it.


The best hobo song ever written. Included here with the permission of singer-songwriter Jane Gillman, http://janegillman.com/.

More on this topic:

This article was written by Steven Polunsky for Inside Job and is not intended to represent the official position of anyone or anything other than the author. The author has permission to use the images of trespassers above without attribution. Some have been altered only to preserve anonymity. All other images are by the author except as noted above and:

We are part of the publication https://medium.com/homeland-security.

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