Trainhopping – The Catwalk

Checking the trains.
Checking the trains.

There is a rule on the yards at night: be a ninja. Move silently. Stay in the shadows. Dress black. Don’t get fucking noticed. Both of us were on that mission now. Two assassins, sneaking up to their victim. Dusk was falling already. I was waiting near the rails with the backpack as Roy came back from a scouting tour. The hop-Out was amidst the yards. An exposed pallet stack standing on a free surface in the size of about 7-8 football fields. We had to get there somehow. It was the best spot to wait for a train. I also got soon why people were talking about a “Catwalk” on that yard.

Roy had researched the CrewChange information. There should be a hole in the walls through which you can get into the area. There was no hole. We had to find another way. There were two fences that we could climb alternatively. “They are very low there”, Roy said. Climbing fences is also more stylish that crawling through holes. “More style” had also a group of punks that we observed later as they stubbornly ran straight over the rails with their dogs. Amidst the floodlight of the train station. Seemed to work.

As we were talking about further plans I saw a car patrolling. “Down!” I barked towards Roy. Instantly we dived into the high grass. Security was around. Stay low and don’t be spotted. The car stopped 70m next to us, turned slowly and drove away. “Good call.” Roy said appreciatively. Time to get towards the Hop-Out. It was getting to hot here. We sneaked over some dead tracks arriving at the first fence that was already “prepared” by some train hoppers and easy to surpass. Again running over the tracks, another fence, a train rings out. Something is starting towards us. Bad timing, now fast! We jumped down a descent of coarse gravel arriving at the edge of a huge yard. Between us and the rail tracks was nothing promising to hide. About 700m of long, flat and untilled meadow, illuminated by huge floodlight lamps. In the middle of the meadow there was an unused tower with stacked pallets. That was the Hop-Out.


To my surprise the grass was high, reaching up to my bellybutton and provided excellent cover. Crouching we arrived safely at the tower. I had heard of that spot from other hoppers but never imagined what a beautiful spot that was. Besides the tower a stack of pallets was arranged in a way so that inside there was kind of a house with a sleeping surface for 4-6 persons. The grass had a flattened place. You know, like if you enter a cornfield as a child creating a bed at the expense of the farmers’ harvest. That was how this Hop-Out was like. Perfect cover, no (normal) human would ever come to that place and we had perfect sight on the tracks and any arriving train. Through the high grass you could perfectly sneak towards the cars.

We waited for our train, laying down a little. The stars were shining above. The moon hadn’t risen yet. I smoked a cigarette and Roy fell asleep. The Air cooled down but my new leather jacket gave me motherly warmth. An incredible night at a beautiful spot. At some point I also fell asleep. “Stefan!” Roy startled me out of my sleep. A train was arriving. The same short IM I had seen the night before. Definitely a Hot-Shot, but actually I didn’t want to hop that one. Roy was like: “We can do that.” Quickly we packed our stuff, back to ninja mode. “Keep yourself low!” I told Roy.

We went through the cars and found two that we could hop. But not together. There was not enough space. I squeezed under the footboard. Now we have to wait. The train started rolling. After 50m it stopped again. Waiting. I heard the Airbrake. Should be rolling soon again. Suddenly Roy came running: “Stefan, I think we shouldn’t do this! I checked the number and those containers are getting grounded in 5 hours!” What? No time to talk, speak straight. The train might start to roll at any second. Roy had phoned Tracey, the friendly computer voice that knows the goal of any wagon and container. A nice gimmick for professional hoppers.

As we ran back to the Hop-Out Roy was still on the phone checking another wagon at Tracey’s. “This one is going to South California! Let’s go back!” Ok, back onto the car. I was getting nervous. Again hiding, again waiting. And nothing happened. After 60 minutes several cars were cars came alongside the train. The personal disconnected the End-Unit. Very unusual. What was going on here? I watched the scenery and stayed at my spot. Usually a Crew-Change on an IM doesn’t take longer than 30 minutes. If even that long. And now the End-Unit got disconnected. My only chance was to stay down, not being spotted. If anything urgent, Roy would tell me. In the end we will have waited 3 hours for the train to start rolling.

Things I was told the day after. Roy was nervous. He had left the train running to the Front-Unit, checking it. As he was close he heard the airbrake. A pretty safe sign that the train is going to leave, rather suboptimal if your backpack is at the other end of the train. He was sprinting back as fast as possible. Trains can be long, sometimes longer that 1 km. At some time during his sprint, the Bull appeared checking the train with his car. Roy had to hide. Mega action, just to check the units because he didn’t trust Tracey. Still he made it and at around 4:30am we finally started rolling.

Our route was going straight through the salt lake desert. Close to the city boundary it was horribly stinking like rotten eggs but soon we were shooting into complete darkness straight through the salt lake. The track was unique. Only passable with the freight train. No road, no passenger train, just one track on a dam splitting the sea in half. To the left and right of us there was only water or dry salt surface. Above us an enormously clear starlit sky shining bright through the high plains. The crescent moon was rising, 2 days before the new moon. Still you could see the complete form of the trabant. It was rising behind the Rockies sweetening my already breathtaking view on my “double stack”. All together it was again a divine scenery. Train romance at its best.

I hadn’t eaten anything the whole evening because I had waited for that moment. Now I could open my supply bag. I had a can of tuna, dry bread, an apple and Chocolate-Cheesecake Cookies. Additionally Cigarettes and water. Warm wind was blowing. We passed a waiting train. Ha! We are the priority train and you are the pussies! I slipped into my jacket and sleeping bag and fell asleep.

The train is rocking you pretty much and it got pretty cold. My jacket was serving well but not my sleeping bag. Sunset. We had been rolling all night through. The first warm sunrays reached me and I tried to reanimate my frozen feet. At some point the second Crew Change. Before noon. Afterwards we rolled through the desert. The “double stack” had a pretty view but no sun cover. So I was sitting in the blazing sun with nothing to do. All day long. My gallon of water got warm, which was disgusting. But so did my can of ravioli, which was convenient.

On the train.
On the train.

A can of fish, two peers and several cookies later we rolled into our final destination after fabulous 16 hours. Usually this ride is supposed to take about 36 hours but we were on a really fast IM. Last exam was to get off the train safely. I had been warned several times about the destination. Many shady characters and cautious Bulls.

Additionally Officer Watson, the local Sheriff, with his pad at hand to give you a ticket for any wrongdoing. The whole train hopping thing was a game with fire for me anyway. I had to get a new US visa and if I got only a small fine somewhere my Alaska expedition would be cancelled. But that train hopping experience was definitely worth that. No guts, no glory.

Happy Hopping!
Happy Hopping!

We were rolling towards our goal. 50km prior to that, in the middle of nowhere a railroad crossing. Unaware of anything I sit on my car admiring the scenery. Suddenly an old man in front of me with a big camera. He spots me, I could see him twitching. He makes a nice picture of me. You can imagine how nervous I was for the last kilometers. If he was calling the cops on me? Will they catch us at the station? Tension. The train rolled into the yards. The brakes stop the huge steel monster.

Doesn’t even take 15 seconds. I was ready, everything packed. Roy jumped off his car and so did I. “Cut and run.” Two black dressed Trainkids. Covered in dirt we sprint in the twilight over the tracks. Reached the streets. Safety. Nobody had seen us. Mission accomplished. Up for a cold drink. Roy had been without water for the last 4 hours. And without shadow. We were both exhausted but so we were happy. 16 hours on the freight train. Like 16 hours in a cradle on a washing machine whilst a 7th grade earthquake is rampaging under your house. An awesome, wicked experience!

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