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Freighthopping or train hopping is the act of surreptitiously boarding and riding a railroad freight car. In the United States, this became a common means of transportation following the American Civil War as the railroads began pushing westward, especially among migrant workers who became known as "hobos". 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. For a variety of reasons the practice is less common today, although a community of freight-train riders still exists.
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Typically, riders will go to a rail yard where the trains "crew change" (switch out crew). They will either know from other riders of a spot to hide and wait, or they will find one themselves. Depending on the size and layout of the yard, riders may have to get on the train while it is moving; doing this is known as "catching on the fly". Furthermore, riders must figure out which way trains are going, either by calling the company's internal tracking number or by knowing which tracks go where. Riders occasionally will wait at "side outs", places where there are two parallel tracks and trains pull aside for others to pass.
Cars and trains are divided several ways with regards to riding. There are "IMs" (intermodal containers, also called "hotshots" or "double stack"), "junk" (mixed cars) and coal. Within these three groups some cars are "rideable" and some not: Boxcars, Grainers and Gondolas are some of the rideable "junk" cars. On IMs, riders usually stay in the metal beds in front of or behind the shipping containers, "48/53 wells" or under tractor trailers "pig in a bucket" (when trailer is on metal platform with large holes cut in the bottom. On coal, riders often get into "DPUs" or "rear units", which are the engines put on the back or middle of the train on long coal loads. Riding in the empty or full coal containers is also possible. Riding on other cars, such as the small exposed porch of a tanker for example, is called riding "suicide".
Freight-train riding has the reputation as being very dangerous and, to some degree, lives up to it. According to author and journalist Ted Conover, a large percentage of modern-day hobos are ex-cons and violence is not uncommon among the transient population. This view contrasts with the established tradition of manners and hard work among "traditional hobos". Where train hopping is illegal, there is an inherent chance of arrest and/or ticketing. The amount of security and the attitudes of authorities vary greatly depending on the location. Increasing security has also presented a problem for train hoppers, though the establishment of legal protection for vagrants has led to a decline in the beating and maltreatment for which 'bulls' (railway security men) and brakemen became infamous.
Riding the rods
In the 1900 to 1920 days of wood frame freight car construction, steel truss rods were used to support the underside of the car in order to provide it with the strength to carry heavy loads. There could be four or more of these truss rods under the car floor running the length of the car, and hobos would "Ride the Rods." Some would carry a board to place across the rods to lie on. Others would lie on just one rod and hold on tightly. Riding the rods was very dangerous. When a train moved at high speed, the cars could bounce and rock violently if the track was rough, and rock ballast might be tossed up which could strike a rider.
In popular culture
- 1973 – Emperor of the North Pole (loosely based on Jack London's The Road).
- 1985 - The Journey of Natty Gann
- 1985 – Runaway Train
- 1999 - Shiba Travel
- 2003 - Shiba Travel: Romi Adventure
- 2007 – Into the Wild
- 2008 - Shiba Travel: Mountain
- 2010 - Taiko Drum Master
- 2011 - Little Star and the Animals
- 2014 - Divergent (film)
- 1907 – The Road, by Jack London
- 1958 - The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
- 1984 – Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes, by Ted Conover
- 1993 – Hopping Freight Trains in America, by Duffy Littlejohn
- 1996 – Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
- 2013 - The Adventures of Space and Hobo by Ken Birks. Follow these two Vietnam Vets as they hop freight trains and hitchhike from one city to another while looking for the next free ride to nowhere in particular as they navigate through the spiritual maze of the early 70's.
- 1961 – "Hobo's Lullaby," written by Goebel Reeves, performed by various people including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger
- 1964 – "King of the Road", by Roger Miller
- 1966 - "Early Morning Rain," by Gordon Lightfoot
- 1974 - "The Watchman’s Gone" by Gordon Lightfoot
- 1989 – "Here Comes Your Man," by the Pixies
- 1991 - "Never Tire of the Road," by Andy Irvine
- 2007 - "Sergeant Small", recorded on the album On the Fly by Irish folk band Patrick Street
- 2010 - "Hidamari no Uta", by Le Couple
- 2011 - "Vampires are poseurs," by Ramshackle Glory
- 2013 - "Sergeant Small", recorded on the album Parachilna, by Andy Irvine & Rens van der Zalm
- 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 PBS series.
- Hobo Letters Letters from boxcar kids who rode the rails during the Great Depression