Since it first appeared in Canada in the 1850s, the caboose, with its cozy appearance and bright colors, has appealed to railway fans. But now the romantic railcar, hooked onto the end of freight trains like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence, seems destined to chug its way into Canadian history. On Dec. 14, in response to almost four years of lobbying on the part of CN and CP railways, the federal government’s Canadian Transport Commission—since Jan. 1 named the National Transportation Agency—decided to permit the railways to eliminate the caboose and replace it with an electronic monitoring device. But the decision has angered railway union officials, who say that safety standards have been compromised in the interest of saving money.
The caboose was always a favorite of railway workers, who invented affectionate nicknames for it including “the bonebreaker”—reflecting the little car’s rocking motion as the train rolled along—and “the monkey house,” a comment on the bustling activity resulting
from its once-multiple functions as crew quarters, storage area, observation post and gathering place for meals and conversation. Before the development of the air-brake system in the early 1900s, train crews could operate the rear brakes from the caboose. And from the cupola, an observation post on
With its cozy, bright appearance, the caboose hooked onto a train like an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence
top of the 35-to-46-foot car, the conductor watched the rest of the train for signs of dragging equipment, overheated wheel bearings, shifting freight loads or other faults that could cause a mishap. But in many ways the caboose has outlived its usefulness: trainmen are now housed in trackside lodgings, and front-end crews control all the
brakes from the locomotive cab. As well, electronic scanners located at regular intervals—in some cases, every 40 to 50 km—along CP and CN routes now monitor passing trains for dragging and overheated equipment. Said David Monaghan, director of the Canadian Railway Museum in Delson, Que.: “The caboose is defunct. It is a victim of technological change.”
The two railways estimate that they can save a total of $68 million a year by replacing the caboose with an end-oftrain unit, a monitoring device connected to the air-brakes pipe on the final car of the train. Railway officials, who say that they hope to start introducing endof-train units by summer, insist that no layoffs will result and that the caboose crew required under current union contracts—the conductor and sometimes a brakeman—will simply be relocated to the locomotive cab or second car. But their plans have met with fierce opposition from the 14,000-member United Transportation Union, which represents conductors and trainmen in Canada. Union officials argue that a machine cannot adequately replace an experienced conductor or brakeman, with their keen eyes and practised judgment, and that the elimination of their traditional vantage point could increase the risk of serious rail accidents.
Currently, the caboose crew must still
monitor brake-pipe air pressure from the caboose and, in an emergency, operate the brakes. But the end-of-train units can assume those functions. Fastened to the rear coupler of the last car, the boxlike unit transmits air pressure readings and other information by radio to the locomotive cab where they appear on a digital display. The system that CN and CP plan to install, the Digitair n,
designed by Montreal-based Dynamic Sciences Ltd., also has a feature that lets the engineer operate the brakes from the rear by radio signal in emergencies. The cost per train is about $15,000. But railway officials say that the money they will save on the cost of new cabooses—about $175,000—and maintenance for the 1,400 now in operation-destined to be scrapped or sold—
will more than make up for that investment.
Still, union officials contend that the railways have chosen to sacrifice safety in the name of cost. Said the union’s legislative director, Ronald Bennett: “You’re losing the ability of a human being to see danger and take action to prevent an accident before it happens.” As an example, union members have pointed out that the vantage of a caboose enables the crew to see potential dangers when the train is backing up at a level crossing. For their part, railway officials say that accident rates in the United States remain unaffected by cabooseless trains, now in wide use.
In Canada, the railways have tested end-of-train units on their trains over nearly one million kilometres of track. As a result of those tests, the transport agency has judged the system to be “sufficiently reliable.” Meanwhile, union officials have petitioned Transport Minister John Crosbie to review the Dec. 14 decision. Said the union’s Bennett: “There is more to a safe railroad than new technology.” Safety considerations aside, the decision to eliminate the caboose will see it eventually relegated to a nostalgic memory—or a miniature piece of memorabilia in a model train collection.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.