Freighthopping or train hopping is the act of surreptitiously hitching a ride on a railroad
Rail transport
Rail transport is a means of conveyance of passengers and goods by way of wheeled vehicles running on rail tracks. In contrast to road transport, where vehicles merely run on a prepared surface, rail vehicles are also directionally guided by the tracks they run on...

 freight car
Railroad car
A railroad car or railway vehicle , also known as a bogie in Indian English, is a vehicle on a rail transport system that is used for the carrying of cargo or passengers. Cars can be coupled together into a train and hauled by one or more locomotives...

. In the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

, this became a common means of transportation following the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 as the railroads began pushing westward, especially among migrant worker
Migrant worker
The term migrant worker has different official meanings and connotations in different parts of the world. The United Nations' definition is broad, including any people working outside of their home country...

s who became known as "hobo
A hobo is a term which is often applied to a migratory worker or homeless vagabond, often penniless. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States during the last decade of the 19th century. Unlike 'tramps', who work only when they are forced to, and 'bums', who do not...

s." It continued to be widely used by those unable to afford other transportation, especially during times of widespread economic dislocation such as the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

. Today, the practice is forbidden by statute
Trespass is an area of tort law broadly divided into three groups: trespass to the person, trespass to chattels and trespass to land.Trespass to the person, historically involved six separate trespasses: threats, assault, battery, wounding, mayhem, and maiming...

 in all states in the U.S., though it is still practiced. In modern day usage, hopping a freight train is also known as "catching out" or "hopping out."

Many railroads take a strict view of people hopping freight trains, and employ railroad police
Railroad police
Railroad police are different from one country to another. Their roles in some countries are not different from that of any other police agency in others they are more related to a type of security police. They are all commonly responsible for the protection of railroad vast networks of...

, also known as "bulls," in an attempt to prevent the practice. Among other duties, railroad police are charged with preventing trespassing on railroad property, which includes freighthopping. Railroad police officers typically patrol in utility trucks, SUVs
Sport utility vehicle
A sport utility vehicle is a generic marketing term for a vehicle similar to a station wagon, but built on a light-truck chassis. It is usually equipped with four-wheel drive for on- or off-road ability, and with some pretension or ability to be used as an off-road vehicle. Not all four-wheel...

 ("bullmobiles"), or even standard police car
Police car
A police car is a ground vehicle used by police, to assist with their duties in patrolling and responding to incidents. Typical uses of a police car include transportation for officers to reach the scene of an incident quickly, to transport criminal suspects, or to patrol an area, while providing a...


Decline of freighthopping

In recent decades, the traditional role of hobos as itinerant workers has fallen off. Most itinerant workers in modern times have automobiles and drive between jobs, alternatively they may use public transportation, and live in many types of temporary housing. As seasonal agricultural work became the province of immigrant workers, and other seasonal work became increasingly lucrative, freighthopping became mainly used by the homeless population and thrill-seekers.

On many freight trains the traditional boxcar has given way to more secure plug door
Plug door
A plug door is a door designed to seal itself by taking advantage of pressure difference on its two sides and is typically used on pressurised aircraft...

 cars or intermodals
Intermodal freight transport
Intermodal freight transport involves the transportation of freight in an intermodal container or vehicle, using multiple modes of transportation , without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. The method reduces cargo handling, and so improves security, reduces damages and...

. Containerization
Containerization is a system of freight transport based on a range of steel intermodal containers...

 makes freight trains far less accessible than in the past. Even flatcars are becoming increasingly open; these bottomless cars are known as "suicide rides" or "suicide cars" by freighthoppers. Bottomless "grainers," "48s," "piggy backs," and other such cars can still be ridden, but as the name implies they are not to be underestimated and can easily lead to the riders' death or dismemberment if they are not careful. This shift in freight train production has been successful in making life harder for freighthoppers, but it has not destroyed the hobo lifestyle entirely.

Safety concerns

Hopping a freight train can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Freight trains are much faster and more secure than in the heyday of hoboing. Freighthoppers may face adverse weather conditions and develop dangerous symptoms such as frostbite
Frostbite is the medical condition where localized damage is caused to skin and other tissues due to extreme cold. Frostbite is most likely to happen in body parts farthest from the heart and those with large exposed areas...

 and hypothermia
Hypothermia is a condition in which core temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions which is defined as . Body temperature is usually maintained near a constant level of through biologic homeostasis or thermoregulation...

. Additional hazards include being jostled off the train, arrested, or attacked by another hobo. According to author and journalist Ted Conover
Ted Conover
Ted Conover is an American author and journalist. A graduate of Denver's Manual High School and Amherst College and a Marshall Scholar, he is also a distinguished writer-in-residence in the of New York University...

, a large percentage of modern-day hobos are ex-cons, and violence is not uncommon among the transient population.

See also

  • Train surfing
    Train surfing
    Train surfing is riding or climbing on the outside of a moving train. This activity is illegal in many countries and is prohibited by administrative law.-History:...

  • Hitchhiking
    Hitchhiking is a means of transportation that is gained by asking people, usually strangers, for a ride in their automobile or other road vehicle to travel a distance that may either be short or long...

  • Itinerant
    An itinerant is a person who travels from place to place with no fixed home. The term comes from the late 16th century: from late Latin itinerant , from the verb itinerari, from Latin iter, itiner ....

  • Boxcar Betty
    Boxcar Betty
    Boxcar Betty was a fictional hobo and IWW organizer in the early 20th century, popularized by a Great Depression-era book by Ben Reitman. The IWW were among the first to organize itinerant workers, and some of their most dedicated organizers were homeless themselves...

  • Emperor of the North Pole
    Emperor of the North Pole
    Emperor of the North Pole is a 1973 American film starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and Keith Carradine. It was re-released under the shorter title Emperor of the North, and is better known under the latter name....

  • King of the Road (song)
    King of the Road (song)
    "King of the Road" is a 1964 song written and originally recorded by country singer Roger Miller.The lyrics tell of a hobo who despite being poor revels in his freedom, describing himself humorously as the "king of the road"...

  • William T. Vollmann
    William T. Vollmann
    William Tanner Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, short story writer, essayist and winner of the National Book Award...

Further reading

  • Uys, Errol Lincoln. Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move During the Great Depression (Routledge, 2003) ISBN 0-415-94575-5
  • "Riding the Rails", American Experience
    American Experience
    American Experience is a television program airing on the Public Broadcasting Service Public television stations in the United States. The program airs documentaries, many of which have won awards, about important or interesting events and people in American history...

    PBS series.

External links

  • Hobo Letters Letters from boxcar kids who rode the rails during the Great Depression
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