Loco Motives

he Combat Railfans celebrate the new year on the fright side of the tracks

So, instead of hopping, Sarah flew into Phoenix and took a bus until she was within easy hitchhiking distance of the Jungle.

Sarah, a bright-eyed college graduate with a nose ring, who has logged 5,000 to 10,000 miles on trains, explains, "A boyfriend in college had ridden, so I knew people did it. As for being on the Internet, I'm super happy that there's information out there. I've met a lot of people in the hobo community through the Internet. I was a better, safer rider than I would have been if I hadn't gotten really good advice from people who have been doing this for years. I think it's a shame that people now want to exclude new riders from that information. I think it's an important source, so people who are riding are riding safely and respectfully.

"From my first ride, I realized that I loved it and I've just found every excuse possible to hook up with people and ride trains. The dangers of riding are very real, but my analogy is that people do dangerous things every day. People have learned ways to reduce the risk of the dangerous things that you do. And riding freight trains, you can reduce the risk. Still, there's no way to get around the fact that there's still considerable risk. It's always gonna be there. You're on something that is not meant to be passenger-safe, and there are people out there who are not friendly. So you can really reduce your risk by learning as much about how trains run and what they do, why they do what they do.

"When I ride, I'm always careful about the rides I choose. Even when I'm on a safe ride, I always pay attention. In terms of the people, I just never ride alone. I'm a woman, and for me, riding alone isn't an option. I've traveled around the world, so I think I have some good sense. There are total dangers, and I certainly don't advertise or promote riding trains, but if you're going to do it, I'll tell you how."

Another train-hopping trend is the weekend adventurer. These riders are likely to go train hopping short on experience, but long on equipment, like a scanner to monitor crew and yard activity, a cell phone for emergencies and rides, a video camera to record the event and a credit card to post bail if they're arrested.

The Combat Railfans videotaped a run from Roseville, California, north of Sacramento to Sparks, Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada and Donner Pass.

"We had the most beautiful seven-hour trip over a hill I have ever had," Bacardi remembers. "Smooth train, we got stopped out four times. Nobody saw us. . . . We get off at Sparks, literally got out of the boxcar, walked across the right-of-way, and grabbed a cab to Circus Circus for dinner and dancing. It was a mind-boggling trip."

A 70-minute video of the trip, Done Did Donner, is sold from the Combat Railfans' Web site.

"We put it out on the Internet, and we've actually had four real sales. We're thinking it was the FBI, ATF, Phoenix PD and UPPD [Union Pacific security] under assumed names," Bacardi laughs.

The Combat Railfans learned to how to hop freights from their greatest success story, "A#1."

"He had train on the brain so bad he actually became a hogger," Bacardi notes proudly.

A#1 admits, "I used to hobo and I'd take them with me. I used to average about 10,000 miles a year."

A#1 and his wife and toddler have driven to the Jungle from Nebraska, where he runs coal trains for the Burlington Northern and Sante Fe railroads.

"I started riding when I was 13," he recalls, smiling. "We'd walk on down by the railroad lines, and if we didn't want to walk home, we'd ride and hop off by the house and that was how it all started. I grew up by the tracks, and I've always loved trains."

He took his then-future wife train hopping early in the relationship. She loved it, but found it more than a little messy riding in dirty gondolas. He concedes that they are more likely to ride Amtrak these days.

"Well, I've got responsibility now," he says. "It's a whole different world when you're hoboing. You don't have any responsibilities. It's really great."

"I love my job," he hastens to add. "It's a challenge. We run 16,000 to 17,000 tons of coal. You have to think miles ahead. You use too much dynamic [the balance between speed and braking] and you can derail a train."

"Now that he gets paid to drive trains," Bacardi bemoans, "he'll call us from the unit on the mobile, and say, 'Hi, I'm in a 70 Mack diesel. What are you doing?' Screw you, I'm watching Laverne & Shirley."

Connecticut Shorty took to the rails just a few years ago. Shorty, whose father was a hobo and is buried at Britt, retired after 28 years as a senior administrator with a life insurance company for a life on the road.

"I'm going out for four or five weeks this May," Shorty says. "I'm going to meet Luther the Jet in Chicago, and we're going to ride the High Line. I won't ride freights by myself. I'm not foolish."

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