How To Prototype Railroads Last days of the last car on the train: the caboose

Last days of the last car on the train: the caboose

By Bryson Sleppy | September 7, 2023

| Last updated on January 22, 2024

We rarely see cabooses in active service anymore, why is that?

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Cabooses (no, not cabeese) were a common occurrence on freight trains throughout most of the 1900s, yet we rarely see them today. Why is that? When did they stop operating? Where did they go? And lastly, how can I model the last days of the caboose on my layout?

Five colorful model cabooses go into a tunnel on a mountainous train layout
Cabooses used to bring up the rear of every freight train on the rails. What happened to them? Can you still model them on a modern layout? Bryson Sleppy photo


In one word: technology. Advances in technology meant that the jobs of the conductor and brakeman in the caboose were obsolete. Roller-bearing trucks started replacing solid-bearing trucks at the end of World War II, drastically reducing the threat of hotboxes. Wayside detectors, such as hotbox and dragging equipment detectors, were placed throughout the system, eliminating the need for eyes in the back of the train. Signal systems like Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) and block signals, as well as hand-held radios, took most of the rear brakeman’s job away on road trains. The final nail in the coffin was the introduction of the End of Train device (EOT). This device monitors different factors, such as brake pressure, and has a flashing red light warning of a train’s presence. Newer, smarter EOTs can even send GPS signals and apply emergency braking to the train.

Two model red cabooses sit in a rail yard
Even though the extended vision caboose on the left is more modern that the caboose on the right, the end-of-train device took over the job of both in a short amount of time. Bryson Sleppy photo


The Florida East Coast began using EOTs in 1969, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the rest of the country caught on. The use of the end-of-train device was codified in the 1982 United Transportation Union (UTU) national agreement. Cabooses were leaving the railroads en masse by the mid-1980s. The railroads retained a few of their cabooses for jobs such as transfers, locals, and as living quarters. Check out seven unorthodox uses for cabooses here.

A model yellow caboose between a locomotive and freight car
Many railroads used homebuilt transfer cabooses for transfer and local jobs and some are still in use. Purpose-built cabooses were converted to shoving platforms or for other specific duties such as railroad police cars. Bryson Sleppy photo


Unfortunately, a majority of the cabooses around by the 1980s were sent to the scrap yard. Lines of cabooses could be seen at major yards with only one destination in sight. As mentioned above, the railroads kept some cabooses for various specialty uses. Many wound up in the hands of railroad museums, businesses, and private collections. Athearn recently announced a run of caboose-turned-businesses, due to release in 2024.

A model white and red caboose sits in a scrap yard
This Soo Line caboose sits in Wisconsin Iron & Steel’s scrap yard on the Milwaukee, Racine & Troy staff layout. Judging by where it sits, destruction is imminent. Bryson Sleppy photo


This is the fun part; how can you model cabooses on your layout during this transition period? Sparingly. Since the railroads had no use for major servicing facilities, a caboose track on your layout may only need to hold one caboose. The transition between cabooses and EOTs was quicker than the transition between steam and diesel, but if you model the mid-1980s, it could be prototypical to have some road trains run with a caboose and some with an EOT. To prototypically model the era, but still display cabooses that you have, you could place them all on one yard track. And if you model the modern era, cabooses are still used as shoving platforms and in excursion service. The caboose modeling possibilities are virtually endless.

A model red caboose leads a shove of hoppers
This repurposed caboose has had its windows blanked out and ends reinforced to become a shoving platform. This is just one way that you can model caboose operations on a modern layout. Bryson Sleppy photo

3 thoughts on “Last days of the last car on the train: the caboose

    1. Switch crews with extended (shoving) reverse moves will utilize a shoving platform to increase brakeman, or, now a days, conductor safety. They have a place to stand instead of hanging off the side of the car on the grab irons. they can also have a “tail hose” valve to whistle grade crossings and apply brakes from the end of the cut of cars.

  1. When I travel on Amtrak traveling between Orlando, Florida and New York City to visit relatives and friends I see plenty of small towns in the South where our train passes through that have preserved cabooses next to their stations and on town squares and local parks The cabooses are well preserved and have been restored to their former glory and now serving a new role as museum pieces and preservers of railroad history. Model railroaders can do the same on their layouts by setting up a display track next to the town station or even in a park or town plaza and have a model caboose or two on display for the town citizens to enjoy and also preserve a bit of history in minature scale. Joseph C. Markfelder

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