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 Deadtrainbums.com.
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
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] Bullsheet.com 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
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
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.