Six Tips to Catching Out and Hopping the Rails

train1BW.jpg Illustration by: Aimee Van Drimmelen

By Tim Mcsorley

Riding the rails has always held an air of romanticism and adventure; images of sitting on the edge of a boxcar, riding into the sunset, not knowing or caring about the final destination. To top it off, the ride is free. And while many trainhoppers will tell you it is the best way to explore the vastness of Canada, they are quick with words of caution. Life may be sweet once you’re on the train – getting there is the hard part…

1. Be a Ninja:

Stick van Skate rode the rails for 10 years, but stopped in 2001. Things haven’t been the same since that fateful September, he says. Security crackdowns have lead to a more hostile – and dangerous – environment around trainyards, at least for trainhoppers. “It used to be that folks would wave ‘bye to you,” he says, with train workers turning a blind eye. Nowadays, trainhoppers need to skulk around the yards trying to pass unseen. “You’re not going to want to do this if you’re not willing to be a ninja, and sneak around.” Trespassing in a trainyard is a federal offense, so beware – while before you could get away with a fine, you now risk landing a criminal record.

2. Be Afraid, Be Safe:

If you discover your inner ninja, remember to put your safety first. Movies show running after a train and hopping being simple as jump rope. “It’s all about being afraid, and being able to conquer that fear without being stupid,” explains van Skate. Never get on, or off, a moving train. A false move can result in a lost foot, and even death. The momentum of the train causes anyone or anything falling off to be yanked underneath. If you do jump on and off, keep two things in mind: speed and baggage. It’s easy to underestimate a train’s speed. Only jump on if you can see the individual bolts in the wheels; if they are just a blur, the train is going too fast. Getting off is difficult, since there is no sign-post for speed; try to get off the train as close to the station as possible. If you jump on with a bag in tow, make sure it is on the arm facing the direction the train is coming from: if the train is going left to right, make sure the bag is on your left arm. If you begin losing your grip, you can easily let the bag slide off your arm with the momentum of the train. If it is on your right shoulder, the momentum could drag you with it under the train.

3. Know Your Trains:

An important safety aspect is getting on the right kind of train. Many carry dangerous loads that can shift and crush a stowaway. The best trains are “hotshots”: pulled by four engines, they are high priority trains going straight to their destinations with short stops every eight hours for crew changes. Look out for hotshots hauling 48s (double-stacked cargo containers that can go on a boat, train or truck), grain hoppers (for shipping grain and dry goods), and empty gondolas (open topped cargo containers; never get in a loaded one, since shifting cargo can easily pin or crush you).

4. Know Your Stops:

The golden rule is to know where crew changes will happen. They come every eight hours or so, and are where you can slip on or off. Careful, though: these stops are also inspected twice, both by outgoing and incoming crews.

5. Be Patient:

Trainhopping is a waiting game—waiting for the right train going in the right direction. Getting on any old train can get you lost, or, worse, stuck in a trainyard you can’t escape without being seen. Also, once you stop in a railyard wait an hour to get off to make sure inspectors have moved on.

6. Stay Connected:

The best way to figure out how to ride the rails? Talk to the folks who do. Find a veteran hopper that you can turn to for mentorship. A cell phone and radio scanner can also be useful. You’ll rarely know what time you’ll pull into town, so it’s helpful to ring up a friend on a cell phone to come get you. Tune into the rail workers’ signal with your scanner to check if they’ve spotted you. There are also signposts along the way that automatically announce the marker number you are passing—know your marker number and you know where you are. It may be one more thing to carry, but it can pay off in the end.