Train Basics ABCs Of Railroading Now that’s a toilet: Answering nature’s call on the railroad

Now that’s a toilet: Answering nature’s call on the railroad

By David Lustig | February 26, 2024

| Last updated on February 27, 2024

A 20th century invention used by many railroaders

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Toilet on the go

blue portable toilet pulled on railroad
When you have to go, you have to go. This spike-pulling crew takes its portable bathroom along for the ride. St. Paul, Minn., in July 2019. Scott Hartley

They appear to be almost everywhere and go by many names, few of which can be mentioned at the dinner table. Nobody really wants to talk about them, yet they are an essential part of the industrial scene used by many railroaders.

They exist due to the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration requiring companies of all stripes to provide employees with safe and sanitary toilet facilities. The portable toilet is not just an enclosed method of taking care of business away from indoor civilization. Not only is it required by various federal and state laws, but when properly installed and maintained it is safe, sanitary, and eco-friendly.

Researching this article, I found numerous companies specializing in portable toilets and was amazed at the variety and sizes that are available.

Whatever you need

There is, of course, not only the ‘regular’ portable toilet which seems to pop up almost anywhere such a facility is required, but ones equipped with sinks, flushable toilets, ADA-compliant models, and those affixed to a towable trailer for those cases where normally there would be need. An example might be new construction or a derailment where crews will have to work in the middle of nowhere for an extended period. And in some cases, you can find a solar-powered model equipped with built-in lighting, and multiple toilet models ready for big crowds.

Really fancy ones can be brought in for bigwigs and celebrities. Upper-end frills can include incandescent lighting, heat, tiled floors, mirrors, fans, and music!

They are a science all their own

Portable toilets are not connected to local water systems and usually carry onboard chemicals that hold and break down the waste in holding bins. Usually, they are scented, sometimes not.

While they look hastily put together, they are carefully designed not to leak, provide ventilation, and most importantly be as sanitary as possible.

As a footnote, yes there is an established process to take care of them when their holding tanks are full. The portable toilets can be drained on-site or easily replaced by a fresh one.

This proves once and for all that one person’s waste can be another person’s career.

green portable bathroom on side of tracks with train passing
Standing sentry along the right-of-way, this Southern California portable bathroom can be a welcomed sight for crews away from civilization. David Lustig


5 thoughts on “Now that’s a toilet: Answering nature’s call on the railroad

  1. The retention toilets have not yet been on passenger trains for 100 years. At least until the mid 70’s Amtrak was using cars that dumped directly to the track.

  2. Just harken back 100 years ago when passenger train toilets cautioned you NOT to flush the toilet while the train was in the station, and you could otherwise flush when the train was running! That must have been a nasty thing for the track maintenance crews to encounter back then when doing their work!

  3. Actually, Brian, a very few high-end models actually have bathing facilities…mainly in the motion picture business. No matter what you call it, it’s still better then shaking the bush (a referrence to Cool Hand Luke).

  4. These are toilets not “bathrooms.” In houses, etc. we have our toilets located in our bathrooms. But, these portable toilets do not have bathing facilities.

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