The caboose had many nicknames among railway workers: crummy, cab, van, doghouse, hayrack, waycar, conductor’s van, and even “brain box” or “brains box”. Modern CNR employees call it the cab or caboose while CPR employees call it the van as do CN eastern lines employees.
The caboose is the conductor’s home and office. The conductor is responsible for the entire train, except the locomotive. The conductor and engineer work together to keep the train on schedule. The conductor must know exactly who and what is on his train, how many, the origin and destination of each item or passenger, etc.
The conductor is assisted by one or two brakemen (or trainmen as they are known on passenger trains). They throw switches, couple and uncouple cars, check brakes and make sure the train runs safely. The head end brakeman rides in the locomotive cab and the tail end brakeman or “brakie” rides in the caboose with the conductor. In the days before the installation of air brakes, brakemen had to climb on the roof of the train to manually set and release the brakes.
The conductor and the brakeman ride in the cupola, which is the raised portion on the roof of the caboose or on its side. They look down the length of the train to see or smell “hot boxes”: overheated axle bearings that could catch fire or seize up and cause a derailment. They also look for dragging equipment, shifted loads, fires, loose straps, or hoboes.
If anything out of the ordinary is detected, the conductor signals a stop with his lantern or pulls the emergency brake. The problem is fixed by the train crew or the car is set out on a siding to be repaired later.
As the train travels, the station agents along the line receive new orders for the train by telegraph. The train order board is displayed to the approaching train, telling the train crew to pick up orders. Train orders are copied and put in a metal bracket on a wooden hoop. These orders are passed to the locomotive crew and caboose crew using this hoop. The orders are read and reread and then carried out by the crew, since each end of the train received the same orders.
During the early days of railroading, conductors and brakemen saw the caboose as their home away from home. Each crew would often bring personal belongings from home. Conductors made their own symbol to put on the roof of their caboose to help them find their “home” in a crowded rail yard. At the end of a day’s work, the caboose was taken off the train and set out on a siding. The crew would eat and sleep in it overnight and be put on another train the next day.
Each caboose came with three benches with mattresses stored underneath, a coal bin, a stove for heating and cooking, a sink, water for drinking and washing, a conductor’s desk, and an ice block refrigerator. The caboose also had a first-aid kit, stretcher, switchman’s hand lanterns, and a flag/flare kit.
Newer cabooses have no beds, but do have an electric refrigerator, heaters, an oven, a toilet, lockers, an eating table, and a conductor’s desk.
Eventually, the caboose was phased out. In February, 1988, the Canadian Transport Commission gave permission to Canadian railways to replace the caboose with the new end-of-train unit. The conductor moved into the locomotive cab with the engineman and front-end brakeman. By the fall of 1988, CNR and CPR began the removal of the caboose from active duty. Trains are now operated by a conductor and locomotive engineer both located in the cab of the locomotive.