Life on the Rails

By: Anna Stump

Her tattered cardboard sign read, “Traveling and Homeless. Anything helps.” 23-year-old Kit had a far greater story to tell.

Kit was sitting on the street corner by Trader Joe’s on 400 South when I interrupted her from the book she was reading. Her backpack and ratty clothes made it evident that she called the street her home, but her grin revealed immense internal wealth and wisdom. Kit was a “train kid”, or so they call themselves. A community of dirt-bag travelers that jump trains and crave the thrill of the unknown. Kit is one of them, full of insight she was willing to share about the dangers of living life on the rails.

She traveled by train with her German Shepard/Chihuahua mix named Luna, a dog that she rescued from an abusive owner that is now her protective travelling companion. Born and raised in Chico California, she packed her bags and hopped the midline for Salt Lake City. She hopped the rails from California to Utah to be with a friend who was in critical condition, escaping death just by sheer luck. Kit travels by hitchhiking occasionally, but her favorite way to travel is by hopping trains- a method of transportation only suitable for the witty and badass.

Train kids have a world of their own, living life on the edge and always avoiding perpetual danger and potential arrest. They hide in the bathrooms of trains if they are lucky, but some are forced to stay hidden outside of the units on what she calls the “suicide deck.” She told me an urban legend about an old friend of hers who went inside of one of the units to rest for the night, sliding into the wheel-well like a meat grinder during his sleep. She laughed and said, “All that was left was a couple of dreads and a bunch of splattered blood.” I cringed.

Although traveling by train is a federal crime, most of the conductors are happy to let riders bum a ride if they stay hidden and cause no harm. Kit told me that the biggest concern for a rider is getting caught by the cops… or worse, by the FTRA Gang. The “Freight Train Riders of America” gang is a group of violent train pirates, in search of chaos and opportunities to kill or destroy for the thrill of it. In Burlington Northern, a retired railroad detective by the name of Bob White talks about debt collection as being one of the FTRA’s most frequent outlaw activities. ”’They come into a town and line up muscle work at taverns,’ said White, who is now a La Crosse County jailer. ‘They’ll break somebody’s leg to collect unpaid debts’”(Veldmar, 2007). These men have been linked to over hundreds of murders spread throughout the nation’s railroads. According to a newspaper published by the Columbian Publishing Company, “A famed member of the FTRA, Robert Silveria Jr., known as the Boxcar Killer, was arrested in California in 1996. He confessed to killing 28 fellow train riders and is currently serving a double life sentence in Wyoming.”

Kit told me that her fiancé had a gun pulled on him just last year by a member of the FTRA, and his only way to survive was to jump out of the moving train and hope for the best. These men often go without much risk of getting caught, and jump to the next train after committing a crime to escape arrest. Kit told me that these men wear black bandanas with a silver ring band and usually have “FTRA” or “Freedom” tattoos. She told me that you need to avoid the black bandanas at all costs, unless you want to be one more unsolved murder case.

The other train riders wear bandanas too, each color representing which rail line they travel on. She told me that the most experienced riders wear blue bandanas, which symbolize that the rider has been jumping on all three of the lines. These people typically have all train schedules memorized, and know where all the good hiding spots are. She exposed her neck to me, and said that she chooses not to wear a bandana because she has only been on 8 times.
Kit and her fiancé have plans to hitchhike to California when the snow starts to fall, trimming marijuana for ‘under the table’ pay while escaping the cold Utah winter. She will most likely continue to work up and down California’s coast until next summer, where her next train-hopping thrill awaits.