What is a Caboose?

A Kaminsky

They were always the signal that the train was about to go through the crossing and they have become American icons. The caboose on a train served a purpose at one time, but now have largely disappeared from mainline railroads.

Though most caboose were painted red to increase their visibility, some bore the livery colors of their rail line.
Though most caboose were painted red to increase their visibility, some bore the livery colors of their rail line.

In the simplest terms, a caboose was the last car of the train, where the conductor and brakemen rode. The brakeman was responsible for making sure the brakes worked properly, for applying the brakes on each car, making sure the couplings were secure, and watching for problems throughout the train, such as a load shifting, or track problems. The train crew didn't need to stay with the passengers, but needed separate quarters so their comings and goings would not disturb the passengers. On a freight train, the caboose provided the only sleeping quarters on the train. It began as a shed nailed to a flat car, but eventually, an actual railroad car was manufactured that was safer and more suited to its purpose.

As evidenced in the line from the song, "Little red caboose, chug, chug, chug," the car was usually painted red, often for visibility. It also provided a window either on top or to the sides, so the brakeman had a better view of what was going on with the train. Different kinds of cabooses were manufactured to meet various railroading needs, but they all served essentially the same purpose. The origin of the word name, however, is a mystery. Some say it is a version of the Dutch word kabhuis, for the main sailing compartment on a ship. Some say it comes from the French camboose which has essentially the same meaning as the Dutch word. In any event, "caboose" has entered the language, both as the word for its actual object, and in American slang, as a word for a woman's derriere.

Carrying a caboose was law on U.S. railroads until the 1980s and the introduction of the Flashing Rear End Device (FRED). The FRED negated the need for a the final red car, since its blinking red light serves as a warning for a train ahead, it sends signals to the engineer that the couplings are sound and the load is distributed properly. Since it was no longer needed and only added weight to the train, the car began to disappear.

A train with a caboose is a rarity nowadays. Sometimes they are included on special trains, when nostalgia is the aim of the excursion. They also may serve as crew quarters on repair trains. Still, when watching a train go by, it just doesn't seem complete without the funny little caboose bringing up the rear.

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Discussion Comments


When my husband bought a model train, the first thing I asked him was, "Does it have a caboose?" Of course, it did. He thought I really wanted one with a whistle, which was nice, but I also definitely wanted a caboose.

Even if I can't see a caboose hitched to a real train these days, I can have my husband set up our model train and see one there. I think those of us who miss the caboose most do so because it is tied up in our childhood memories. Most kids loved to watch a train go by, and seeing the caboose was an important part of that experience.


I miss cabooses! I remember sitting at crosses as a child and my dad telling me to watch for the caboose. We waved at the engineer in the cab and always looked for the caboose. It was sad when they were no longer on the ends of the trains.

I understand why the railroads stopped using the caboose, but I surely do miss seeing them. They always seemed to be a necessary part of the train. It just wasn't a real train without the caboose. I am always excited if I pass by the rail yard in our town and see a caboose on the tracks. As the article said, it's probably for some train crews, but I still like to see them.

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