Text read by Mary Peters

“Train Doc” is a 72-year-old American, a Veteran of the Vietnam War and a highly respected member of the community who knows or has heard of him and his guidebook.

Train Doc had a very strict upbringing which led him to join the Army. To him, it seemed a ticket to adventure and freedom. He was sent to Vietnam where he spent 2 1/2 years. The adventures came; the freedom was an illusion.

He returned to the United States in the early 1970s but couldn’t hold down a job for more than six months. He would start a new job and at the same time, launch a countdown to the last day of work. The closer the day came, the happier he was.

At some point, he gave up and embarked on an old American tradition, Train Hopping or Freight Hopping as it is also called. This tradition goes back to the 1930s, during the Great Depression when people in search of work would illegally ride on freight trains and cross the entire United States. They became known as Hobos.

The culture still exists today, but for different reasons. Today’s Hobos are fiercely protective of their status. “We’re safe because we are invisible” or “If you truly respect us, leave us alone” are the sentences journalists get to hear if they want to learn more.

Train hopping is a lifestyle. It is a protest because it provides freedom from consumer culture. True Hobos reject what America has become, a consumerist nation with police violence and an out of control pandemic.

It was some time in the late 1980s, and “Train Doc” had spent his time crisscrossing the United States. By then, he had collected a large quantity of information that he thought would be useful to his fellow Hobos. He started writing it down. Then, the story goes, he managed to break into MIT in Boston to make several photocopies. The first edition of the Crew Change Guide was born.

Rule breakers also have rules. You cannot buy the Crew Change Guide. Instead, copies are handed by those who know and trust each other. Sometimes, copies were hidden on pirate websites in the Dark Net, but they were quickly removed. Modern-day Hobos are also tech-savvy.

The Crew Change Guide is exactly what it says: a guide. It provides a general idea. You will need to figure out a lot of things on your own when you get to your destination. In fact, it is “everything but 100% accurate”.

The guide is a comprehensive guide of what and where to eat, where and how to access trains and other small details. It is written in small letters. The text is tightly packed on several pages. The guide is organised around where trains stop for shift changes. It helps you find these stops, gives top priority to safety and covers the entire United States.

The Crew Change Guide is written in special code. “HF” is “hole in the fence” and “RU” is “railroad underpass”. A text may read: “Train leaving EBD may leave GEO NBP” which translates as “The train leaving east may be leaving the yard, going north”.

Of course, the HF might be repaired by the time you get there. Nowadays, there is also a “team of editors” who will update the information. At some point. And perhaps, maybe, you will get your hands on the updated Crew Change Guide. But only if you know how. Do not bother looking on Amazon.

The practical information in the Crew Change Guide is important, but the Guide has high symbolic value. It is the Bible for those people who view capitalism as oppressive. The fundamental problem of the guide is that it is never up to date, but it has a mythical value. Owning one is precious.

The future of the guide is in serious jeopardy. American railway companies have implemented “Precision Scheduled Railroading”. Trains are longer, there are fewer trains and their scheduling has become more efficient. In the process, over 20.000 people have lost their jobs and the Crew Change Guide has become 80% obsolete.

Will it succumb to “progress”? Train Doc would simply say, “it just needs updating”.

Open chat
Scan the code
Can I help you?