by james hibberd for the austin american-statesman
It's the last night of October, and there are endless opportunities for Halloween fun and late-night intoxication in Austin. At Liberty Lunch, Green Day is playing. On Sixth Street, revelers pack the bars. And on every residential block, partygoers are laughing. But at the railway crossing at Fourth Street and Lamar Boulevard, three young men have elected to spend their holiday sitting on steel train tracks. They quietly stare up at the glowing City of Austin power plant sign, as they wait to hop a moving freight train.
They hear a horn a little after 10:00 pm. A train is approaching from the north, which narrows their possible destinations to San Antonio, Laredo, Corpus Christi, and all the railyards and sidetracks between.
They hide in the bushes beside the tracks and quickly put on their backpacks (containing water, beef jerkey, flashlights and, in a '90s touch, a cell phone). After so much boredom, the sudden excitement is overwhelming. They can't see the train yet, but they can hear the brakes whine as it prepares to cross the river and they can feel a weighty rumble.
Freight trains are commonplace, so much annoying rusty scenery. But for these three, this time, this train is different. Because this is the train they're going to risk their life to board. And if they're successful, they have no idea where the train will stop.
For trainhoppers, this is Halloween fun; this is late-night intoxication.
As it turned out, there would be no Halloween trainhopping for the twentysomethings at Fourth and Lamar. When the train rounded the corner, they quickly realized something was wrong. It was too fast, too short, too shiny; it was... an Amtrak. Unrideable. At least without a ticket. They went home disappointed, but having learned the first and only rule of riding the rails: there are none. No hard and fast rules, no schedules and no guarantees.
According to police and railway observers, surprising numbers of students and young urban professionals are hopping freight trains for kicks, particularly on the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest.
"There's a lot of people you'd characterize as mainstream, Disney World for vacation, they'll ride the train for a weekend."
Statistics from Union Pacific show the number of regional trespassers escorted off railroad property has increased from 3,600 per month in 1996 to 4,000 per month in 1997. But these figures are potentially deceptive as the railway doesn't differentiate train joyriders from migrant workers and transients.
No one can deny, though, that thanks to a slew of flattering Web sites on the Internet, a couple of how-to books and a smattering of new independent films, the age-old practice of trainhopping is receiving an unusual level of national attention.
"It's one of the last red-blooded adventures in America," said Duffy Littlejohn, author of the 1993 guide, "Hopping Freight Trains in America." "I think people derive a genuine sense of self-worth from riding. You're beating the system."
Not always. A judge recently fined Littlejohn $50 for trespassing on railroad property. He claimed the small fine is an example of how the illegality of trainhopping is merely "one cut above a parking meter violation." But Littlejohn did have the benefit of solid legal representation: himself. Littlejohn is a lawyer and a former San Francisco assistant district attorney.
How does he reconcile promoting a potentially fatal, illegal activity with his career in the legal system? First Amendment privileges, for one. And he says the safety tips given in his book will help prevent trainhopping accidents.
Obviously, Littlejohn's book isn't responsible for introducing the practice. Freight train jumping, or hoboing, was first popularized during the Great Depression as a cheap means of travel for migrant workers. Transients, migrant workers and illegal immigrants still make up the vast majority of riders, but some hobos have nice cars along with a garage to leave them behind in. These are 'sport trainhoppers', and they aren't required to be a Mark Twain, Jack London or even a Duffy Littlejohn to publicize their freight riding adventures.
A Web search on "train hopping" finds sites such as "The High Tech Hobo", "Introduction to Trainhopping" and "North Bank Fred's Freighthopping Page". These pages and their links to other hobo resources provide detailed descriptions of where to hop trains ("Catch out of Austin at the Fourth Street bridge over Lamar Blvd"), describe which cars are easiest to ride ("Empty boxcars are kings of the road"), how to avoid getting caught ("Unless they've got me dead to rights actually riding... I just say I'm some guy who's nuts about watching trains") and other helpful hints ("When the train is moving do not - repeat, DO NOT - attempt to urinate out the open boxcar door".)
What rankles some site visitors, however, are the descriptions.
"Nothing feels quite like it; you are on top of the world," raves one site. Another says, "The sounds were amazing - there was the rhythmic crashing of the train, the squeal of the air brakes, the wind howling through trees (and) our hooting in triumph at having caught a train."
Posts like these prompted former trainhopper Eric Jackson, a 40-year-old California software engineer, to publish an anti-trainhopping page ("www.amplifiedintelligence.com/DeadTrainBums.html"). He believes most Web-head hobos don't have enough experience to recognize the dangers involved.
"There's a lot of bad information out there. You click on a Web page and it talks about the thrill of adventure and the open air. But what you're doing is going into the world of the homeless and mentally ill", Jackson said.
That the Web promotes trainhopping to the masses is probably the only gripe shared by trainhoppers and those who deride the practice.
"I love freight riding so much and I love the culture so much and I have awe and respect for its history," said Bill Daniel (rail name: Bad Mouth), a 38- year-old trainhopper who hosted Funhouse Cinema at the Ritz Lounge. "The fact that it's on the Internet and the fact that it's getting totally popular as the yuppie-bungee-jumping-sport breaks my heart."
Interested in hobo graffiti and folklore, Daniel started trainhopping in 1987. He was especially fascinated by a particular graffiti tag: a cowboy wearing a large hat dubbed "Bozo Texino." He found the image in boxcars, campsites and freight yards throughout the country.
Already experienced as a commercial photographer, Daniel shot film footage for seven years for a travelogue titled "Who is Bozo Texino?" and recently received a $1,200 grant from the Austin Film Society to help finish the project. Although he's glad most of the shooting is complete ("Riding trains and trying to shoot at the same time is crazy," he said) his formerly personal and archaic subject is now as prevalent in the independent film world as on the Internet.
A documentary titled "Riding the Rails" debuted at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival, and another film titled "Hobo Jungles" is being shot in the Northwest by filmmaker Sarah George. And Daniel says a third film focusing on trainhopping punk rockers recently debuted in New York.
Competition and publicity from the other trainhopping films he can handle. The Internet, on the other hand...
"To me, freight hopping is this thing you find out about," Daniel said. "You discover it because you're outside, because you're trespassing, because you're inquisitive, because you take risks. And the opposite of that is logging onto the Internet."
Of all the characters one might meet in an open boxcar, the Yuppie Hobo is the most despised. While other part-time riders embark on long trips between major metropolitan hubs for scenery and travel, these weekend warriors often opt for quick aimless jaunts, going from HBO to hobo and back again, just for the experience. In some cities, there are enough professional 'bos to form a club, such as the notorious Arizona Combat Railfans. ACR members plot sophisticated maneuvers involving a mobile ground crew, radios, cell phones and, once, a private jet for the sole purpose of commandeering a boxcar. They videotape their exploits to view later and critique like Monday Night Football.
Most professionals who ride are a bit more subtle. Brendan Guilfoyle (rail name: Freight Doctor) is a 31-year-old former UT assistant professor who wrote his mathematics doctoral thesis while riding the rails and then posted his experiences on the Internet ("rene.ma.utexas.edu/users/guilfoyl/index.html"). "You see a different side of America," Guilfoyle said. "You pass through all these ghost towns that have been abandoned and wilderness areas that are completely untouched because the highway goes to a different area. No billboards, no 7-Elevens, none of the disgusting manifestations of traveling in the U.S."
Guilfoyle has since returned to his native Ireland where he says trainhopping doesn't exist. "Freight trainhopping isn't popular anywhere where there's an adequate passenger rail service," he said. "In America, Amtrak is a joke. It's really just for tourists."
Sport trainhoppers, though, are also tourists. They are foreigners traveling to a hazardous environment who want to leave unscathed. On their vacation, they quickly discover trainhopping is not for those accustomed to dependable transportation, as freight trains don't have schedules and often make unpredictable stops. During one of Jackson's freight rides through Nevada, the brakeman halted the train and disconnected an apparently malfunctioning boxcar. Jackson was hiding inside and was left sidetracked and stranded among the Joshua trees.
"I couldn't comprehend that they would leave that one car in the middle of the desert," he said. "But they did."
Rail riders summarize the trainhopping experience as 99 percent camping and 1 percent skydiving - long periods of boredom and roughing it, punctuated by a few moments of terror and exhilaration. In "Slacker," Richard Linklater rambles an angst-ridden monologue about how every decision switches you into an alternate possible reality. If true, trainhoppers live the ultimate slacker fantasy, where all decisions are relinquished but one: whether to hop the train. Once boarded, alternate realities give way to fixed train tracks and an unseen hand decides your destiny at every rail switch. People make a million everyday decisions; perhaps they are attracted to surrendering control to an unstoppable steel rocket.
"It's a total absolute rush, the whole thing; that's why it's so addictive," Daniel said. "It's hitchin' a ride on all that steel, all that power, all that history. It's crazy, it's scary and it's..."
"It's totally, butt-ass dangerous."
Newspaper headlines from across the country:
"'I came out lucky,' says boy trapped 8 days in train car."
"Fantasy journey ends in another train death."
"Man killed in train-hopping accident." Bebe Allen is the Texas coordinator of Operation Lifesaver, an organization dedicated to promoting rail safety. She reads and collects newspaper clippings of railway accidents from around the country.
"Trainhopping doesn't make sense!" she said. "It's like playing on the landing strip of an airport."
There are lessons to be learned from these newspaper headlines, but trainhopping joyriders either think tragedy could never happen to them or derive their rush from realizing it could.
The most recent statistics from the Federal Railroad Association say train- related accidents were responsible for 471 rail trespassers deaths in 1996 (not including rail-highway intersection accidents). Sixty of those deaths, up 11 percent from the previous year, occurred in Texas.
Nobody needs these numbers to know playing on a freight train is dangerous. But few realize how deadly rail riding has become in recent years. Even die- hard trainhopppers admit the practice has become too risky for casual riders.
"It was always dangerous, but these days trains run a lot faster, they go farther and there's less places to ride," said Buzz Potter (rail name: Night Train), the president of the National Hobo Association.
There isn't one isolated threat - and that's the problem. A modern freight train is chaos theory on rails; there are too many deadly variables rolling about to monitor and control. For instance, the phenomenon known as "slack action," the violent freight-car crashing produced by lengthy modern trains as they pick up and let out connecting slack. These shockwaves roll like homicidal dominos back and forth through the line of freight cars, sometimes hard enough to cause a derailment. Experienced trainhoppers often will lie flat on the floor to avoid getting knocked around like the ball in a spray paint can. "Have you ever been in a car accident?" Jackson asked. "It can feel like that."
Daniel put it more bluntly: "You could be sittin' there having a picnic, and next thing you know slack happens and you can impale your head on a bolt."
But that's only one variable:
You get into a car loaded with scrap metal or lumber and snuggle into one end. All is fine until the brakes are tripped and the car's contents do a 30 mph shift right into you.
Or you climb into an empty, open-topped grain carrier and slide down the sloping interior to the bottom. Your last thought as your legs pop through the trapdoor and onto the speeding tracks is utter surprise that the railcrew forgot to lock the hatch.
Even the traditional royal carriage of trainhopping - the empty, open boxcar - is no longer secure. The Web has accounts of boxcar trips that turned into a "living hell" because of violent slackaction or riders getting locked inside. One news report tells of a terrified young trainhopper who had to have his fingers pried off a railcar safety rung at the end of a particularly turbulent trip because he couldn't, wouldn't let go.
"The risks involved are not worth the thrill," said Union Pacific conductor Doug Smith. "A train is an industrial environment, and it's also our work environment. It's dangerous enough without throwing in more variables."
Still, according to longtime trainhoppers, the biggest threat to modern hobos isn't the machinery at all. Illegally traveling between police jurisdictions in an environment where gory accidents are common, there's opportunity for robbery and foul play. Enter the Freight Train Riders of America, a rail gang suspected of hundreds of trainhopper murders, robberies and assaults.
"You go out there with a good backpack, good clothing and good food, and these hardcore types don't mind meeting up with you," said detective Quackenbush, whose pursuit of hobo gangs led to the arrest of a trainhopping serial killer. "If you're out in a freight car in the middle of nowhere where there's one of you and five of them, they'll work you over like piranha and throw you out the boxcar. And who's gonna know?"
When Bill Daniel goes on the rails, he says, it's like preparing for battle. "You're at war, basically," he says. "I've had people get on cars with me and been stuck with them for 10 hours. And I wouldn't go to sleep."
Another factor is alcohol. Trainhoppers say riding the rails is intoxication itself, and once high on the train you're apt to take additional risks. Trainhopping accident victims, such as Brian Anderson, 26, of Cincinnati, Ohio, can testify that combining the physical intoxication of alcohol and the mental inebriation of trainhopping is potentially fatal:
Brian and three friends are up for a some Labor Day fun and midafternoon intoxication. It's a beautiful September afternoon in 1991, and Brian is getting drunk with some old high school pals at a party. But the music is too loud, so they go outside and walk along the nearby train tracks.
A freight train comes along, and Brian wants to hop it. None of them have ever hopped a train before, and later they describe the act as purely impulsive, just something to do before the downtown fireworks show.
Brian runs alongside the train toward a freight car ladder, not knowing this would be the last time he would ever run. The train is crawling along at less than 10 mph, and that's a big part of the temptation. Nothing about it seems dangerous: it's too slow to register as a threat.
Brian grabs the rung and pulls himself up. No problem. Two friends join him. The fourth, Mike, decides to stay behind.
Holding onto the ladder is cool, someone decides, but standing on the top would be better. So the three climb to the roof and stand victorious on the conquered train as it weakly chugs along. They are masters of the universe, kings of the castle. But Brian, watching his friend on the ground getting further away, decides to trot back along the top of the freight line. It certainly seems safe enough; the cars are spaced only about a foot and a half apart. Moving quickly down the line, he falls into a rhythm - step, step, step, step, hop, step, step, step, step, hop.
He jumps from one car, to another, and to a third and fourth. The next car is a different model, but he doesn't know that yet. Step, step, step, hop... in the air he notices that the top of the next car slopes inward and a four-foot gap has opened beneath him.
Brian falls between the cars and lands almost square in the middle of the track. Almost, except for his right leg, which pops outside the rails and is quickly severed above the knee. Brian lies on the tracks as the train rolls by above him, trapped.
His friend Mike sees the accident, runs up and yells at Brian through the passing machinery: "Lay still, lay still!" Confused, Brian tells him to shut up, and he tries to push himself off the ground. The next car whacks Brian on the back of the head and knocks him out. In a way, the knockout is lucky: it gets him to stop moving around. In another way, it isn't: the strike pushes him forward, his right arm falls across the rails and, like his leg, is cut off. The police arrive quickly, but the train is still rolling over Brian. A cop yells into his walkie-talkie for someone to stop the damn train, but it keeps grinding along. The police and Brain's friends have to wait and watch Brian's ordeal for several more minutes because, after all, the train is moving very slow.
Brian's mom was told her son would not survive. But he did. Today he manages a Cincinnati mortgage company and gets by with the help of a prosthetic. But still... "It completely changed my life," he said. "The way I eat, the way I tie my shoes, the way I brush my hair, the way I drive. I've had to learn to write all over again with my left hand. I was lucky; I guess God wasn't ready for me."