Technology kicks once-ubiquitous caboose into retirement

Posted: Wednesday, April 17, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The end is near for the lowly caboose.

That little boxcar linked to the back of a freight train, used primarily as an observation platform for railroaders, has been all but replaced by modern technology in the Lower 48.

The Alaska Railroad is one of the last U.S. lines to use cabooses. But the state-owned line is phasing out the cars as electronic monitoring equipment and automated switches replace the eyes, ears and muscle of train crews.

Decommissioned railroad cabooses now are a hot item for roadside coffee stands, storage sheds and cabins. They fetch thousands of dollars apiece in surplus sales.

"That's a good use for them," said Ernie Piper, Alaska Railroad's assistant vice president of safety and operations.

For more than 160 years, the caboose has been used as a lookout point for railroaders and as a place crews could eat, sleep and do paperwork.

The jobs of brakemen, switchmen and flagmen who often rode at the end of the train have been affected by automated switches and brakes and other equipment, resulting in cheaper, safer and more efficient operations, Piper said.

"The technology involved in running trains has improved vastly over the last couple of decades," Piper said.

The demise of the caboose has not put anyone out of work at the Alaska Railroad, said Pat Flynn, a railroad spokesman.

"Our freight traffic is increasing, so there are jobs at the railroad for people whether they are at the front, back or in-between on the train," Flynn said.

Alaska Railroad still uses cabooses on its work trains and on long gravel trains, where an extra set of eyes and ears still is preferred for monitoring cars ahead, Flynn said.

The railroad's work trains run backward as much as they do forward, so a caboose is useful in those operations, Flynn said.

Trains moving fuel on the Alaska Railroad used cabooses for a time after a 1999 derailment north of Talkeetna at Gold Creek, where 15 cars left the track, five of them spilling more than 120,000 gallons of jet fuel.

A buildup of ice and snow on a manual switch caused the derailment, the railroad concluded.

Cabooses are no longer used because remote-controlled switches, including heated ones, have been installed along the line, Piper said. It's part of a $60 million program to be completed by 2004 to replace 694 manual switches that were kept free of snow by crews using shovels and brooms.

Cabooses were used on the Whittier Shuttle, which hauled passengers and cars for 35 years. The train stopped operating in 2000 after an $80 million tunnel opened to automotive traffic.

At the end of regular freight and passenger trains, cabooses now are more like rolling symbols of being behind the times for a railroad, Piper said.

The railroad sold one of its nine remaining cabooses to Chris Alexander, general manager of Alaska Metals Inc., on March 18.

Alexander paid $4,000 for the caboose, built in 1949 by Pacific Car and Foundry in Renton, Wash.

The caboose spent its entire working life in Alaska, along the 470-mile line, said Tom Burkquist, Alaska Railroad's surplus sales department manager.

The railroad was asking for a minimum bid of $7,000, but there were no takers. Burkquist said several people inquired about the caboose, including many from the Lower 48, but only Alexander submitted a bid.

Burkquist said Alexander got a good deal.

"They're going for $12,000 to $14,000 in the Lower 48," Burkquist said.

The caboose, No. 1776, is unique because of its Bicentennial colors and theme, a popular practice with railroads in 1976, Burkquist said.

Alexander said he plans to resell the caboose. Interested buyers say they want to turn it into everything from a from a gift shop to a coffee shack. One woman is interested in selling drinks from the roadside, and plans on naming it the "Juice Caboose."

"Everybody sounds like they have a different use for it, and I know it sounds funny, but I'm going to make sure it finds a good home," Alexander said.

Decommissioned Alaska Railroad cabooses have been sold to the Coast Guard, which uses one for an office in Whittier, and to the Boy Scouts, which uses one near Talkeetna as a storage area, Burkquist said.

Buying a caboose is one thing; moving it is another, said Mike Wilson. He and his wife, Susan, run a Fairbanks bed-and-breakfast that uses a caboose and seven other Alaska Railroad cars as rooms.

It is a popular place for railroad buffs to stay, Wilson said.

The Wilsons bought caboose No. 1068 from a Fairbanks attorney, who had purchased it from the railroad as a present to his wife.

The caboose turned out to be trouble for the lawyer, Wilson said.

"It wasn't quite what she had in mind," Wilson said.

Wilson gave the lawyer $2,000 for the caboose, which came complete with a hobo.

"Some bum had been sleeping in there," Wilson said.

The caboose is 14 feet high, 41 feet long and weighs 52,000 pounds even without the rail trucks.

"It's stout, built in America when a nickel was worth five cents," Wilson said. "It's not a piece of cake to move, but it does make a good little room."

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