Leaving on a Freight Train (don't know when I'll be back again)


Port Coquitlam rail yard. (p) rog45

Part 1: Greenhorn

Being an unemployed bum can get hectic sometimes. That's why occasionally I need to step back from my daily routine of avoiding work and go on a road trip.

My plan was to visit some friends in Calgary that I haven't seen in awhile. Usually I hitchhike the 970 km, but I've been a bit of a grump lately and I didn't really feel like having to make small talk with every person who picks me up. It's the same old conversation:

driver: So what do you do?
me: I'm an engineer.
driver: Really? [They never believe me.] What kind?
me: Electrical. I work for a digital camera company.
driver: Cool, I'm looking at buying a digital camera, can you recommend one?
me: Well we don't make consumer grade cameras. We make high-end digital cameras used for microscopy. Our entry-level camera sells for about $10,000 US.
driver: Wow that's a lot.

And so on and so forth. I'm lying a little bit. I used to be a working engineer, but have since retired. Because this situation is a little hard to explain (I'm only 28), and because the real purpose of this conversation is to prove that I'm a normal, decent human being that is not going to murder them with a rusty axe, I choose to say I'm gainfully employed.

Given my recent asocial tendencies, I could imagine myself snapping on one of these last remaining kind souls of the world. Very bad karma. So instead I decided to hop a freight train. Just lay out, relax, and take in the beautiful scenery. Hobo style.

I've been planning to hop a train for years, but every time I get the urge something tries to dampen my motivation. When I finally tracked down someone with some first-hand information on the sport, some hobo-guru from New Hampshire, he simply told me: "don't do it." Jerk. Or the time a couple friends hopped a train from Elkford to Vancouver. They didn't get very far. One of them decided it would be a good idea to surf the train and a motorist called the cops. The police assumed the worst, that my friends were hobo-militia-al-qaeda bent on derailing freight trains. It ended in a full scale manhunt with police helicopters, dogs, guns, the whole nine yards. Fortunately one of them was the son of a retired local police sergeant, and they got off with a warning.

Determined and undeterred, I bought four cans of tuna, four cans of pork-n-beans, and some bagels. I packed a sleeping bag, a tarp, $100, earplugs, and no ID whatsoever. If I got busted, my name was Jamie Ford. I was currently living in Regina, Saskatchewan, no fixed address, on my way home. No amount of torture would make me admit otherwise. I don't have any prints on file. I don't have a criminal record and I'd like to keep it that way. They could hold me as long as they like, it's not like I've got to work the next day.

I said my goodbyes and headed off to the Port Coquitlam rail yard via the West Coast Express passenger train, which quite handily stops right there. I'd done some research on the internet regarding which types of cars were rideable, "Don't ride loaded boxcars or container cars because the loads can shift and crush you." Other than that, I was a greenhorn. It was pouring rain. Within 15 minutes I, and everything I packed, was thoroughly soaked. My initial plan was to watch and see what trains were going where, and wait until dark to make my move. But my desire to get out of the rain sent me running cluelessly through the yard towards a string of grain cars with an engine attached to it. I figured an empty grain car meant a trip to the prairies to get more grain. Easy enough. There was another train loaded up with lumber, but I figured lumber headed south to the USA. There were also some empty oil tankers, which would've been a surefire trip to Calgary, but they proved to be unrideable. Grain cars on the other hand have neat little cubby holes in the end of them, which are about 5ft x 4ft x 4ft. Comfy enough to sleep in diagonally, out of sight, and most importantly out of the rain.

I eagerly waited in my little cubby hole, thinking I'd soon be on my way to Calgary. However the engine detached and left my grain car sitting in the yard. I poked my head out to see what was going on, and in a terrifying moment of clairvoyance, realized what was happening. The "engine" wasn't a train engine in the sense of those things on the front of trains that pull long lines of cars through mountain passes. No this engine was just a little worker-bee whose sole job was to push strings of cars around the yard, assembling larger strings that would eventually be hooked up to a proper engine and hauled off to some great foreign land. The worker-bee accomplishes this by pushing cars down the yard until they are a going a fair speed, letting them go where they drift and slam into another chain. This links the couplings together. And this was what was about to happen to the car that I was in. A few seconds after I jumped off of the car, a big line of oil tankers came crashing into it. I don't know what it would have felt like to be in one of those cars when it collided, but I imagine it would've been somewhat similar to driving into a telephone pole at 60 km/h.

The other thing is, these sections of train that drift through the yard sans engine are virtually silent. Given the rain and the increasing darkness they were also quite hard to see. I took a deep breath, looked both ways before crossing the (multiple) tracks, and got the fuck out of there! In hindsight, I can see why the New Hampshire hobo-guru told me what he did. I obviously didn't have a clue what I was in for.

Someone must have spotted me running like an idiot through the yard and called it in, because for the next three hours there was constant rail police patrols. I hid in a thornbush and waited while the worker-bee assembled my train. And waited. And waited. In the pouring rain. I was cold and miserable. On a positive note, I learned many things through observation. For example: proper train engines, although looking very much like the worker-bee types, have distinct sound. Proper engines sound like a racecar or a jet, whereas the little worker-bee types sound more like a Mac truck. Eventually I heard the welcome sound of a high performance engine somewhere in the yard. When I finally found the engine, which was connected to a welcome string of empty grain cars, it was already moving out of the yard. This was it. I grabbed my pack and ran frantically. There were two rail police trucks patrolling along the train, but I was cold and wet and didn't much care anymore. I timed it the best I could, and after one truck passed I ran the final 50 meters and jumped on a grain car. Yee-haw. It was close. Another 20 seconds and the train would've been moving too fast. I collapsed in a wet pile and fell asleep.


The Spiral Tunnels of Doom, with exhaust. (p) L. J. Farer.

Part 2: The Ride

Grain cars provide great shelter from the elements, and you feel quite safe from the big bad world outside.

I slept well, except for the occasional dream of suffocating in the Spiral Tunnels of Doom. Oh yeah the tunnel. Apparently there are two very long tunnels at Roger's Pass that circle within a mountain, gaining elevation, and then come out the other side. They are each supposed be 2 km long, taking around 20 minutes to pass through. During this time it's very hard to breathe due to diesel smoke from the engine and the lack of oxygen in the tunnels. I've heard horror stories / urban legends of hobos dying from asphyxiation. I prepared for the tunnels by bringing a pack of balloons. I planned on filling the balloons beforehand, and If I had a hard time breathing I could suck on the air from the balloons. Unfortunately the balloons were water balloons, so they didn't inflate very much and broke easily. In hindsight this was a dumb plan. A garbage bag to trap some air would've been much easier, and air has more oxygen content than breath. Whatever, I figured I could put a sock in my mouth or something.

So after a good amount of time sleeping and laying in my wet down sleeping bag, I decided to do some exploring. I found some cardboard and empty beer-cans in the cubby hole adjacent to my own, signs that perhaps I was not the world's first person to hop a train.

I ate some beans and tried to figure out where I was. Unfortunately my map was too wet to read. I knew we were traveling along the Thompson River and were probably somewhere around Kamloops. At Kamloops the rail line splits: one branch heading towards Calgary, and the other towards Edmonton; so I didn't want to miss the junction in case I was on the wrong train. I could jump off at the Kamloops rail yard and then catch a different train to Calgary. I must've slept through Kamloops though, because by the time I figured out where I was, the tiny town of Blue River, I was well on my way towards Edmonton. Oh well, it was an even-money bet and I lost. At least I wouldn't have to deal with the Tunnels of Doom. Plus the rail line followed Highway 5, which I've never had the pleasure of traveling. The autumn scenery was beautiful. The leaves had turned their colors weeks ago and were half gone. There was snow in the mountain passes, I even saw a moose.

I passed the day by reading "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac. A little cliche perhaps, but it was honestly the perfect book to be reading at that moment in time:

"We didn't know how to hop a proper chain gang; we'd never done it before; we didn't know whether they were going east or west or how to find out or what boxcars and flats and de-iced reefers to pick on, and so on. So when the Omaha bus came through we hopped on it and joined the sleeping passengers."

That made me feel badass and clever. "Just do it you wuss", I urged the protagonist. The day passed, I had now spent 24 hours on the train. I felt more comfortable hanging out on the deck at night, since I was less likely to be seen. It was a full moon and I could still clearly see the incredible scenery around me. I wish I had brought a camera.

The beans ran through me and I considered my dilemma on where to go to the bathroom. I decided my best option was to hang out on the ladder with my butt hanging off the side, and just go. I really wish I had brought a camera.

Traveling through Mount Robson park I realized that I probably didn't need to go all the way to Edmonton. I could jump off at Jasper and try to hitchhike back into Calgary along Highway 93. The pros of this plan were that it would probably be quicker, since it was likely still another eight hours from Jasper to Edmonton via train. And this way I wouldn't have to deal with rail police at the Edmonton yard. The cons were that I had no idea whether the train would slow down enough through Jasper to jump off. Also, I've never traveled Highway 93 before, and had no clue if hitchhiking would be feasible. Some roads are cursed. In the end, having never traveled Highway 93 was its biggest selling feature.

The train stopped briefly in town, just long enough to let another train pass by. Most Canadian rail is only one track. Because they run trains in both directions simultaneously, there are short two track sections where one train will stop until another has passed by. I jumped off, made my way off the tracks, and joined the world of law-abiding citizens. It felt good.


Highway 93. (p) G. Zinnecker.

Part 3: End of the Line

I walked to a gas station and milled about inside, to warm up a bit before hitting the highway. The cashier was staring at me curiously, and I realized that I was absolutely filthy. The kind of filthy that makes you look like a raccoon when you wash up and forget to wash your eyelids. The kind of filthy that makes you blow black snot for two days. You can only really experience this by working in a coal mine for 12 hours, or hopping a train for 30.

Since it was about 3:00 am I figured my chances of getting a lift out of Jasper were pretty slim. I walked to the outskirts of town and settled down for the night in a ditch beside the road. Visions of freight trains danced in my head.

At first light I grabbed my cardboard sign I'd made the night before and hit the road. Within five minutes I was inside a warm car on my way to Calgary. The quickest, easiest, best ride of my life. Highway 93 did not disappoint, and I enjoyed an absolutely beautiful mountain sunrise. Rugged mountains covered in snow, huge glaciers, frost covered trees, and too many Elk to count. An older lady named Beth picked me up, an animal biologist on her way to a meeting in Calgary. Beth worked, played, and lived in these mountains, and proved to be the ultimate tour guide. We swapped climbing stories and she told me the names of so many mountains I had heard about from friends back home, but had never experienced firsthand.

Ard is planning a cross Canada freight train trip, slated for summer 2009.

Nov 02, 2004

1 Comment

aawyeah's picture

11 September 2011

These are great trains. I remember when I've read an interview with a locomotive engineer from Poland, who claimed that all his colleagues did participate in at least one fatal accident on a railway crossing, while most oscillated around 5+ (with 10+ not being that uncommon). Before anyone call bullshit, do bear in mind that's Poland we're talking about: a) it's not unwise to assume that most of them worked before 1989 as well and we all can imagine how communist regime safety regulations looked like; b) basing on my own experience I'm guessing around 50% of all railway crossings still don't have barriers and rely solely on STOP traffic sign; c) of those some are placed in really shitty areas, like between rails' turns, so a driver can't see more than 150 metres in either direction (AFAIK a train is now required to come to a full stop at such crossings so that drivers could see it coming, but I know of at least one crossing that doesn't require that and also I don't know when that rule was introduced).

Anyway, it was something he said that made me really remember this whole story. He said that the worst part of this whole participating-in-accident experiences was when it became obvious to him that he will crash into an immobilized car and watched in horror as it was getting nearer, but couldn't do anything, because a train is not exactly a something you can stop that easily.

Can you comment on how common such accidents are in your and your colleagues' careers? What are safety regulations to prevent them? If they happen, how do drivers handle them? (I remember that guy saying that after the second one most assume it's tragic, yet inevitable part of their jobs).