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Hoppin' Freight

Dennis Kepic

Tim Barry is the singer for Richmond, Virginia’s mighty Avail, and if you’ve seen them live you know that "mighty" is an appropriate adjective. Tim, fresh off of a European tour, was kind enough to indulge me with a phone interview regarding his experiences and knowledge of freight train hopping.

Okay. So my knowledge of train hopping was previously limited to an episode of "The Simpsons" in which the Simpson family stows away in a boxcar because Homer refuses to pay an airport tax for a flight. The family spends the day giving a hobo sponge baths in exchange for his colorful stories of lore. I couldn’t go into an interview with an experienced freight train rider like Tim with just this, so I checked out a few web sites, finding most very informative, and some merely gore sites. I read magazine articles, which usually sounded a lot like the web sites. And I watched Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but only the portion that deals with trains. And in fact I learned that you can’t catch a train in Wichita, "… less’n you’re hog or cattle. The people train runs out of Stubbville."

From my research, I learned the various terms of train hopping, like types of railroad cars. Boxcars are easy: giant, box, cars. Gondolas, a convertible boxcar. Piggybacks or pigs are the flat cars with semi-truck trailers. Intermodal (IMs), 48s, or Double Stacks are the cars with wells for either one or two of the rectangular containers that are usually seen at ports being taken off or placed onto ships. IMs and pigs are high priority trains, i.e., much faster than a "junk train," a train of mixed freight that is usually low priority. Grain cars are not as tall as boxcars, and have the two visible ladders on either end of the car, and are favored by riders for their "grain porch."

The rails are the railyard workers that from most accounts are willing to help out with track numbers and directions to most people riding the trains. The bulls however, are the enforcers. They are the railroad security officers. They do not want people around the yards, the tracks, the trains, or the commodities that are being shipped (although isn’t it really trained?).

All right. So, I’ve done some homework, I’ve purchased a variety of recording equipment and devices and a phone card. I was now ready to call Tim and impress him with my superficially infinite wisdom of train hopping. Tim answers the phone and we’re underway – well, not before we hear a 500-foot ore ship sound its horn as it pulls into the Lorain harbor causing the 21st Street draw bridge to open. Tim hears the commotion through the phone and seems genuinely interested in the events. I explain the industrial nature of Lorain, Ohio, a once booming steel town, to which he begins speculating about the various freight companies that are probably nearby: NS, CSX, ETC, which is a very convenient segue -— freight train hopping.

"It’s dangerous as fuck!" That’s where Tim starts. Derailments? Train wrecks? "No, no. Envision yourself in Acca yard in Richmond Virginia. You’re at the West Wye [a wye is where the tracks split, just like a fork in the road] that’s the hop-out spot. You crawl up, you hike through the woods, pick off the ticks, get to the spot about 500 yards from the yard, wait eight hours, and finally a southbound train is coming through. And this is what I mean by danger: creeping up, you think it’s going slow, but when you start running next to it, you realize that you’re sprinting. The boxcar floor is at your shoulder and there ain’t nothing to catch on to. You run, throw your bag up, jump, and you got your hands trying to grab on to anything and your body is slipping off." The "body is slipping off" portion of the story is not so tastefully depicted at

Tim’s first train hopping experience was in 1993 with two friends, Naomi, who was also experiencing it for her first time and Ronny "Richmond" who was actually from Maryland. Ronny had been the experienced rider and had learned all that he knew about riding from his uncle. The ride was from Richmond, Virginia to Rocky Mountain, North Carolina. Ronny had told Tim and Naomi to wait under a bridge while he went and talked to one of the rails. He found out the line that they needed and before he returned had already selected a boxcar for the ride. Tim loved it. After riding with others a few more times, learning the basics, and getting the feel for it, Tim began to ride on his own.

A streamline rider is typically equipped with only a bag filled with the essentials: food, water, and enough cash for about a week on the rails, which as you can imagine probably really wouldn’t be that much cash, considering you’re not paying for a ticket, and won’t be spending much time in the dining car. Tim uses his time on the trains to take himself out of his day-to-day life and allow for new perspectives. "Songs will just start popping up when I’m not in my normal [routine]. Everything starts coming together. I’ll write tons and tons of songs before I leave for trips, when I get home, and when I’m on them. It’s very rhythmic. There’s something about the click on the tracks. I find myself writing rhythms and lyrics."

"Sometimes I feel at peace. Sometimes I feel real paranoid. It’s such a thought progression when you’re on a train. Sometimes I’m like, why the fuck am I on this? Or, this is the best thing in the world. Or, I just want to be home. I just watch. Watch the cotton fields pass. I think it was Duffy Littlejohn [author of Hopping Freight Trains in America] that said, ‘It’s the last red-blooded American frontier,’ and I back him on that."

There are very few certainties with freight train travel, well, other than if you get in the way of the train, your maiming will be celebrated on the internet. But things like departure times, destinations, and the duration of the ride are things that are typically unknown variables. "There is no such thing as a schedule on the trains," Tim notes. " [The web site] has all the CSX schedules for the East Coast. They don’t really help with times, they help with train numbers. Like the Q 403 goes between Richmond and Russell, Kentucky. And you can ask a worker, ‘Has the Q 403 come in yet, and if not what track will it be on?’"

"An example of the inconsistency with freight train travel with time: we [referring to Tim and a riding partner, Brent] call it ‘the loop.’ We get out to Lynchburg, Virginia on Norfolk Southern and we come back on CSX. The CSX line hugs the James River the whole way. It’s a beautiful ride. Laying there at 3:30 in the morning, hugging the James River, a full moon, in rolling Virginia hills. One of the most picturesque things I’ve ever seen in my life. That train took about eight hours to get about 130 or 140 miles. The next time he [Brent] did it with his girlfriend, it took more than over a day. You don’t expect 140 miles to take more than 24 hours; they were probably running out of train food."

In addition to the potential for being severed in two or killed (and they usually go hand in hand) by the train, there are also some other things to consider. For example, it’s illegal. Depending on who catches you, where you’re caught, and what you’re doing, the misdemeanor trespass violation for being caught sneaking around Fulton yard waiting for a train could be a federal offense if you’ve got a fire burning on a stationary gondola. Or maybe you didn’t know to "spike the door" of the empty boxcar you’ve jumped in, and the initial jerk of the engine 30 cars away slides your car’s door shut without any way out, and it could be weeks or longer before the car is opened. Speaking of that, Tim mentioned that there are some urban legend-esque stories that have circulated among the freight riders sub-culture.

Apparently a few years back (and it’s always a few years back with these kinds of stories) two kids, in the version that Tim has heard anyway, about ten years old, jumped into a boxcar and did not "spike the door" (placing a railroad spike in the door to prevent it from closing and locking from the outside). The train begins and the door slides closed and locks the boys in the boxcar. The freight of this particular car? Beer. And enough to sustain the boys for two weeks before they were found. There are other stories that make it around the rails as well, and they aren’t quite as endearing as two fourth graders living off of 18 pallets of Schlitz for two weeks.

Rapes, beatings, murders, and a serial killer all within one organization, and it’s not the insert-favorite-"whipping boy"-organization here. Tim explained that the FTRA, or Freight Train Riders of America (or Fuck The Reagan Administration, although that name may be a little dated), was a group of US veterans that began riding freight trains in the 1980s. Recently, the FTRA has been hyped by the media and targeted by law enforcement as a gang. They have been linked to string of victims on the high line between Minneapolis and Seattle that were found dead with their shirts pulled over their heads and their pants around their ankles.

In addition to the "Hell’s Angels of the Rails," Tim says that there are a lot of Vietnam veterans that have not adjusted to life back home after the war, rail kids, "weekend hobos," and the migrant workers that travel by freight. "The biggest group is the migrant workers. They don’t talk to [the rail] workers. They have a network, you can look under bridges and if you can read any Spanish at all, it will say so and so was here. I rode this train, here’s the best place to hide. Here are the trains that are leaving. The Buckeye yard in Ohio, under the bridge it says, ‘Don’t stand under this bridge. Go ten feet to your right, it’s city property. They can’t arrest you for trespassing.’ The bridges are full of amazing information."

"Out west, whenever we’re on ten [Interstate 10], I’ll always ‘hobo-spot.’ I’m in the van looking at train cars. ‘Look! There’s like six [migrant workers] on the back of that car!’ Tim’s hobo-spotting again." Once again we’re interrupted by the sound of a ship coming into the harbor and the bridge being drawn, this time it’s a large sailboat. Tim derailed mid-thought by the distraction 490 miles away says that he has to be going. He said that he was hoping to ride again soon, "It’s sunny and 80 degrees." He may be packing a bag and heading over to the West Wye this weekend. Be cautious of those streamliners, they’re the ones most likely to roll someone for their train food on a long ride.

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