Hopping Freight Trains: The story of Rapid T

Hopping Freights and Living the Life of a Hobo

By Max Hartshorne

Hobo Stories: Rapid T rides the rails on freight trains as a hobo around the Eastern US. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Hobo Stories: Rapid T rides the rails on freight trains as a hobo around the Eastern US. photos by Max Hartshorne.

I met a man outside of our cafe in South Deerfield named Rapid T. He was unshaven and carrying a box of crushed Miller Lite cans. He had a bicycle with a pair of boots dangling over the handlebars. He told me that he was called a Rail Fan, and that he hops freight trains to get around all over the country.

There are many more people than you would think who get around this way, he said. They hop into freight trains and live the lives of the old time hobos, never settling down and living meagerly but totally on the road. One CBS TV show estimated that there are at least 1000 fulltime hobos riding rails across the US today.

Rapid T bummed a cup of coffee from me and told me about his life on the rails. He plans to travel to Greenfield today and get some free dental work done at a clinic he heard about at the Northampton shelter. He’ll ride his bike up there, look at the East Deerfield train yard and to find out where he will be leaving from when he takes another train.

He used to stay in hostels but now said they are hard to find. He told me about the life of a freight train rider…the secret is the grain car. “There is a little room you can get to from the outside, it’s a great place to sleep and you can fit your bike in there.”

When he was a young kid he studied trains and was in a train enthusiast’s club. He has Asbergers, ‘it’s the opposite of ADD, I find things I like to study that don’t really fit with most college courses.’ But the study of railroads is coming back. It was those early days of watching trains pass by that gave him the inspiration to live the hobo life.

Living on the Cheap

He told me more about living cheap, using the college bus system and the Pioneer Valley’s networks of shelters and free services. He stayed in a shelter in Northampton, and said it was just like a youth hostel. He uses his wits and the internet to get by, finding for example, the schedule for when trains depart on obscure railroad websites.

He lives on about $300 a month, and picks cans from the trash. “A good can picker can make more than $50 a day,” I make more than the people who work for you.” He prefers ‘canning’ to begging with a cup.

He’s 38, and took a couple of years to go to Ohio State studying education, in 2008. Since he left college he’s been traveling the rails. First to Huntington, West Virginia and doing mostly east coast trips. But he’s been to Montana and Portland and LA on freight trains. “The west coast police are much tougher than the east, the people are a lot more conservative. California liberals? Not to him.

“A lot of times the conductor will be cool with us riding back there, and he will be fine. Other times, well, railroad police do catch and prosecute hundreds for these violations. But I think that’s part of the thrill and the reason they keep going out.

Rapid T uses Google Earth to scope out railyard layouts, and says it’s helpful for somebody who does what he does.Tonight he said he’d go back down to West Springfield to catch a freight, or stay overnight in a laundromat. He looks for Labor Ready storefronts. They offer short term work in plastic mills, recycling, sorting cardboard etc. He’d work for a week or a day or so. You have to stand in line at 4 in the morning and hope to get picked, “It’s mostly hazardous work that no one wants to do.”

Sitting outside of the cafe, Rapid T relaxes during one of his journeys.
Sitting outside of the cafe, Rapid T relaxes during one of his journeys.

He gets by with these short term jobs, but he’s not above holding out a beggar’s cup either. “Some people with great apartments do nothing but stand there and beg. Northampton is a great hobo city, it’s so easy to make money panhandling,” he said.

Iowa is a sea of corn, you can actually see the curvature of the earth from up on top of the grain elevators. You can fall asleep with all of that corn going by as you travel by rail. You can tell where you are by smelling things….rubber and plastic in Akron, or Wonder Bread in Cleveland.”

Such are the experiences of living a hobo’s life, on the outside of what most people in ‘civilization’ are used to. No safe comfortable home each night–instead a new adventure.

Cumberland Farms’ Dumpsters

“I could live on nothing. Cumberland Farms throws away the whole sandwich in the plasticwrap. I can shower at the Y, you can pay $3-15 to take a shower. Woman are nicer in the south,” he said. He told me this after he told a woman passing by on the sidewalk that she looked great even without make-up. I distanced myself from his catcall.

“My mother wants me to work on their horse farm in Maryland, maybe meet some of these horsewomen who board their animals at their barn.” He’s a hobo and a writer, but they would prefer to have him off the road.

Younger Hobos

He said he’s seeing younger and younger people traveling the rails and on the roads with him. ‘The traditional hobo is usually a guy who’s 50-70 years old.

“I used to have a fear of trains, imagine that?” At age 20 he hopped his first freight. He was riding a bike from New Orleans to Jacksonville FL and in Georgia he came to a big train yard. He met a father and son in Waycross GA. The son was about 15. He was just 20. A black guy and his son who were heading for Georgia after a long separation in Florida. “They were trying to get to know each other, it was a rite of passage.”

Hopping a freight. photo courtesy the National Heritage Museum.
Hopping a freight. photo courtesy the National Heritage Museum.

The two showed him how to enter the grain cars at the openings on each end, and how to pull yourself up on the railings on the side of cars, underhand, not overhand.

In the Southeast coast, there aren’t a lot of places for trains to stop. He ended up in the port of Brunswick Georgia and found a box car, taking him to Savannah. It was his first experience riding in a freight train.

He hitchhiked back up the coast to Buffalo, where he shares a place with a friend. When he’s there he pays rent, but not while he’s on the road.

We talked about Warren Buffett’s recent investment in Burlington Northern. A 23 billion dollar bet, he’s taking some risk, but Warren’s also a train buff himself. Despite his rough life on the road, Rapid T is quite the student of railroad news, and had lots of information about topics like the advance of fiber optic lines running on railbeds across the US.

Winter is Better than Summer

He sleeps in shelters or outdoors, and prefers traveling in winter to summer. There are no bugs, no mosquitoes in the cold. He likes XC skiing. He wanted to travel to the Ozarks but the weird weather bringing big snow down south and less up north messed him up this year.

He is not married. He said that he will travel for now but when he’s older he’s going to travel for recreation. “The train club got me into this, all of these guys talking about their trips far and wide. Rather than wait for the service to come back he takes freight trains. Huntington West Virginia down through Lynchburg Va, Cliffton Forge, the old Cheseapeake and Oho line. A scenic line, the the passenger trains that do go pass by at night, so you can’t see anything.”

He takes Amtrak to get to places where he can catch a freight train. He has friends who have hopped freight trains in Europe. But their slow freight trains go as fast as our fastest passenger trains. The freights are so fast it’s hard to breath….it is damn hard to hop freights over there. Trains go 90 miles an hour here, say, an Amtrak train hauling freight goes about 10 or 20 miles per hour.

They are more uptight along the Southern US border. Bu if you’re a gringo, it’s ok, they are mostly after illegals. There are lines we avoid…like the one through Houston, northern Arizona is better but he avoids the Union Pacific route. The drug war makes it dangerous. The high line is Chicago St. Paul, Minot North Dakota the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway.

More Lumber Being Hauled

Rapid T.
Rapid T.

The freight is an indication of the economy…recently Rapid T’s seen a lot more lumber being shipped. He told me he’s on a hobo shitlist. He’s been giving information to the younger hobos on how to ride the rails. That makes the older guys unhappy.

“It’s like the Masons. People don’t want to share the secrets. A mystique, hobos should learn how to travel from other hobos…and not from the internet or a book.”

Rapid T tells newbies where the yards are, where to find the schedules for the intermodal trucks (who connect with freight trains in yards), crew change guides, things that help people find where the trains depart from.

“The attitude about people like me will change,” he said, “The rift between the young hobos and the older ones will get better.” He hopes to publish a book about his life as a hobo, and a guide to how to do it.

“You learn not to be shy of dirt or grime,” he added, about living this mobile lifestyle.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.
Max Hartshorne

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