Teaching a friend to jump trains from Washington to Richmond

After many years of solo riding, I was bringing along someone else for the first time — a coworker who had expressed an interest in riding freights.

We rendezvoused at the College Park subway station; I was curious whether the CSX southbounds still made their routine stop there to receive dispatcher clearance. Indeed, they did: one orange-juice train passed through while I was waiting for “Paul,” and a stack train was sitting there when he parked his car. All the southbounds were headed for Richmond, about the simplest route around here and the easiest from which to return by legitimate transportation.

We stood in that familiar grove of trees several hundred yards south of the units. About an hour passed and Paul expressed misgivings that the train would be going too fast for him to jump comfortably. There was no convincing him that it would accelerate far too slowly to be a concern; in any event I was curious what kind of hideout could be found farther north along the track.

It turned out to be a city park, inadequately fenced off from the right of way. Beyond the fence, though, we found refuge and a high embankment topped with overgrown grass. As we stood there, a northbound shot through town between us and our intended southbound.

I was astonished, having lazily assumed that our intended train was on the nearest track. “We got to move!” I blurted out. “If another train comes through, ours could pull out and we’d be cut off. There’d be no way to catch it!” As soon as the tracks were clear, we riskily crossed over between cars, only about 10 cars behind the engineer. Now we were between the train and a concrete wall, so nothing could block us from jumping the train whenever it decided to move out.

It finally did about 90 minutes after our arrival. I chose a pig, a truck trailer up on a flatcar. The ladder was on the rear end; I sat there beside the ramplike hitch until Paul climbed aboard.

“If we stay here, somebody’s going to call us in,” I shouted to him over the din of colossal machinery. We were seated beside the hitch and near the lethal, exposed wheel; it was essential to move up front and hide between the truck tires.

Paul looked at the narrow, planklike midsection of the car that you have to crawl over to reach the sanctuary of the tires and refused. I wanted to jump off in a rage — he was immeasurably raising our risk of arrest by staying here in the open — but I DID want to ride after my yearlong hiatus, so I left him back there and hurriedly scooted over the bucking, narrow length of the car up to the hiding place. Within a mile or two, we passed the Riverdale commuter platform, where railfans with cell phones and scanners were gaping at the train traffic. The entire D.C. area, with its dense population and many crossings, was an agony for me, as I wondered when some zealot would betray us. From time to time, I glanced back at Paul, who was still planted beside the hitch. Having refused to crawl up front, he was actually in more danger by sitting so close to the exposed wheel. Such are the tradeoffs of the sport: crawl and risk falling off, or stay back there and risk either being devoured by the wheel or being betrayed by some latter-day Vichy Frenchman.

I relaxed somewhat once we left the metro area behind. Out in the open country, there were no cars full of informants stacked up at the grade crossings. It was a spring day full of familiar sensory delights like the gentle warmth, the smell of diesel, even the gritty sting of cinders in the face. Already, my fingers were black with grease from grabbing the ladder, so I took care to wipe off any sweat with the back of my hand like a sharecropper. Quantico, Fredericksburg, and Ashland, where the train runs down the middle of the street, flashed by without interruption. We had scored a hotshot that yielded to no one once it got started.

I’d watched the mile markers, so it was no surprise when the Richmond Amtrak depot materialized on the right. I crawled back to rejoin Paul and to teach him the live dismount. If you ride imperiously into the yard, the only place for the safest, stationary dismount, you often find a reception committee sitting there in his Chevy Blazer.

My mind flashed back to a summer night in 1991, when a tramp named Clark and I had jumped off between Portland’s Brooklyn Yard and Union Station rather than be carried all the way to Vancouver, Wash. I had initially balked at the imposing speed of our freight, but eventually we leaped off in an explosion of flying backpacks and lived to hop other trains. Clark had taught me the art. Now, 11 years later in an unbroken transmission of knowledge probably dating back to the 1800s, it was my turn.

Hanging on to the ladder, I lowered myself to the ground and churned out several strides through the ballast. “You have to run with the train before letting go,” I instructed him, then I chinned myself back up to his level. “You got it?”

He shook his head slowly, unwilling to do the same. “It’s all right, George,” he replied. “There’s no need to get caught with me. I’ll catch up with you.”

There was no changing his mind; morally speaking, do you push neophytes to exceed their comfort level and maim themselves? Initially, I offered to stay with him on the ride into the yard, but then I reconsidered. He had greatly increased our chances of arrest by failing to leave his exposed position at the rear, and I selfishly figured that I had done enough by pointing out the Amtrak station and by demonstrating how to jump off. I bailed out, running until my train-fed momentum was spent, and tramped back to the station to wait out his return.

A little more than an hour later, he rejoined me. “No, there weren’t any police down there,” he reported. “There were a couple trains on the other tracks. I almost made eye contact with one engineer, but I don’t think he saw me.” He had indeed ridden all the way into Acca Yard, several miles south, and had jumped off only when the train was standing still. In addition, he confessed that one of the railfans up in D.C. had spotted him, but at least the gentleman had not bothered to turn us in. We ate at the neighboring restaurant and rode the luxurious cushions back to D.C., a far cry from my return by Greyhound in December 1999.

That was the end of my experiment in pedagogy; I had been curious what it would be like to bring someone along on a hoboing journey. This time, at least, I ended up having to heft someone else’s liabilities, an unwelcome burden in an activity with so little margin. Maybe I was fated to travel alone.