Few people will ever have the opportunity to ride in a caboose across the country at the end of a long freight train. However, members of the Grand Canyon chapter of the National Railway Historical Society got to experience something similar last month as they rode to Grand Canyon on a 1978 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe caboose.
The chapter participated in its third “Caboose Hop” on Sept. 13, the first such event since 2000. The group has tried to make it an annual event, but skipped it for two years because the railway was busy with its centennial celebration in 2001 and the NRHS national convention in 2002.
The caboose, which is owned by the chapter, normally sits on display behind steam locomotive No. 18 at the Williams depot. She has been open to the public for special events such as “A Day out with Thomas.”
Although fully functional, she rarely sees the open rail. Through an agreement with the chapter, Grand Canyon Railway uses the caboose occasionally on work trains, providing accommodations for maintenance of way crews when working on the line. The caboose was also used in January 2002 for a Ford commercial that aired in the United Arab Emirates.
The special train was pulled by Grand Canyon Railway’s No. 2134, a rebuilt GP-7 diesel electric locomotive built in 1954 for Santa Fe Railway. Chapter members remarked it was historically accurate, with an ex-Santa Fe locomotive and an ex-Santa Fe caboose on a former Santa Fe branchline.
“For this railroad, it’s somewhat rare”, said conductor Mike Brooks. “All our equipment came from somewhere else.”
The only other ex-Santa Fe equipment that the railway operates is a flat car and a small fleet of water cars.
The use of the locomotive was donated by the railway. Chapter members volunteered time to serve as the train crew.
Ervin White worked the controls in No. 2134. Not only is White the chapter president, but also the trainmaster for the railway. Likewise, Brooks serves as a night carman in Williams, working into the early morning to make sure the Grand Canyon Railway passenger cars are ready to make their 10 a.m., departure for Grand Canyon. His previous duty assignment ended at 3 a.m., that day, barely giving him the eight hours rest time required by federal law before embarking on the special excursion.
Passengers rode the “Caboose Hop” with only a minor monetary concern of purchasing their own meals at the Canyon.
At one time, cabooses were common at the tail end of every freight train. They were used as quarters for the train crew, providing a place where they could eat, sleep and watch over the train ahead of them looking for problems among the cars.
Train crews commonly had five members — engineer, fireman, conductor and two brakemen. Today, cabooses have been replaced by an electronic device at the end of the train that communicates via radio with the engineer in the locomotive.
“Economics ... railroads figured that they could do the same job with two guys that they did before with six,” Brooks said.
Today’s trains have only two crew members, an engineer and conductor who both ride in the locomotive. Occasionally, a junior conductor will be added for training purposes or when the train is going to stop en route and change cars.
The NRHS “Caboose Hop” departed Williams just after 2 p.m., and met the regular Grand Canyon Railway passenger train at Imbleau, 52 miles away. The special arrived at the Grand Canyon depot around 5 p.m., pulling into track No. 1.
Chapter members saw that as history in itself, as the track had only been used by Grand Canyon Railway a handful of times. It was out of service from the time the Santa Fe abandoned the line until the railway completed its depot platform restoration project late last year.
Crew, guests and equipment were all posed for a series of photos before a two-hour layover and dinner break. Chapter members intended to eat at El Tovar, but discovered that both El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge had been booked for months due to the Grand Canyon Music Festival, which was being held the same weekend. Instead, most members sat to a brief meal at the Maswik cafeteria, then ventured to the rim prior to sunset. The return trip was made in near darkness.
Brooks said riding a caboose on a passenger excursion is not the same as it would have been at the end of a freight train.
‘Everyone glorifies cabooses, but freight conductors hated getting stuck on a caboose,” Brooks said. “They knew they were in for a long, rough trip. Your at the end of a 100-car long whip. It’s hot, and it’s dirty. It wouldn’t be all that enjoyable.”
However, for the 20-something passengers on board Sept. 13, the journey would be one not soon forgotten.