We need something appropriate for the last Friday of the year. In 2011 we ended with the caboose, so this year let’s take a look at the little box that took its place. FRED (Flashing Rear End Device) may never share the iconic stature of the caboose, but it is still an integral part of freight railroading.
Hard to believe, but the FRED has been around for more than forty years! First tested on the Florida East Coast in 1969, the device (also called an EOT or ETD for End of Train Device) caught on nationwide over the next two decades. While the caboose had become something special for all of us, for conductors and brakemen it meant a livelihood.
The loss of the caboose meant many cost savings for the railroad – most of them coming at the expense of labor. This transition saw the size of crews drop from an average of four to two. It was the single biggest threat to railroad jobs since the arrival of the diesel. But savings were badly needed by the railroad industry as a whole in the 1970s and 1980s and the jobs lost with cabooses were just one part of the overall picture as railroads streamlined their infrastructure and cut operating costs in every department.
For many years, cabooses remained mandatory by state requirements. Virginia and Montana were the last to eliminate the caboose regulations in the United States in 1988 . They lasted a little longer in Canada.
In 1988, a new caboose cost $80,000. A new FRED cost $4,500. The Association of American Railroads estimated that cabooses cost the railroads $400 million / year to operate – that was nearly 25% of the $1.3 billion total profits of the industry in 1986. (Source: The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 1988)
The Evolution of the EOT
There is more to these boxes than just a flashing light. The EOT also monitors the pressure in the air line used to activate the brakes on the train. This information is sent to a screen in the cab via a radio signal.
More recently “Smart” EOTs have become available. These not only read and transmit data to the cab, they can also receive a signal from the locomotive to release the air from the end of the train. This provides both a faster and smoother stop and the drop in pressure works toward the middle of the train from both ends, instead of having to travel the entire length of the train. Many also carry a GPS transponder.
Early EOTs were battery-powered. A solar cell on the device was used to turn the flashing beacon off during daylight hours to conserve battery life. Today’s are powered by a small dynamo which works off of pressure from the air line. These are easy to spot from their distinctive, high-pitched “whirring” sound.
For many of us, a train just isn’t quite the same without a caboose on the end. It is doubtful that FRED will ever take the caboose’s place in our hearts or our popular culture, but it is definitely here to stay. At least until the next thing comes along…