Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Love/Hate Relationship of Bunk Car Life

CN bunk car past its prime (Trackside Treasure collection)

Recently, the over-named 'If You Work[ed] On The Railroad Railfans Welcome' Facebook group, of which I'm a member, hosted an interesting [and long] discussion on the vices and virtues of living in railway Maintenance of Way (MoW or MW) bunk cars. I've selected the most factual, fascinating and/or funny comments for this post, lightly editing them for style. I've previously published a post on the love/hate relationship of caboose life

Until I publish a post perfectly portraying photography of the panoply of CN and CP boarding cars, some of which illustrate this post, the comments herein give some of the plusses and minuses of the accommodation. A consistent theme is the thrifty railways' re-use of revenue coaches and house cars for workers' lodging near work sites. Once those fleets rolled their last mile, 'white fleet' pre-fabricated ATCO-style modules on flat cars, truck-hauled trailers, or motels near the work sites became more common.
CP Service cars at London (Trackside Treasure collection)


There are some parts of railroading that you cannot explain in words. You can try to tell how it was living in a bunk car with others, but mere words never tell the true experience. ​Bunk car life had to be lived to understand the meaning of the words. As bad as it was, the worst time was in the middle of the summer. There was not much sense in even trying to sleep before the sun went down. Even then it was still warm. You could not beg a breeze on those hot nights. ​During the winters it felt good to get back to the bunk car. It might have been the first warm place all day. Sleeping was much easier in the winter. By the time you got off work there was not much daylight left. ​I never remember being cold during the night. It was easy to throw on another blanket. Some say they woke up with snow on the covers. That never happened to me. Where you could not get a breeze in the summer, the wind never seemed to stop during the winter. ​Bunk car life was a part of railroading best remembered years after the fact.I still miss the bunk cars! My asst. foreman Manuel asked if he could stay in my room during December while I was on vacation. Later he called and asked if he could repaint it. I said sure. When I got back the Olive Drab was now bright red and green. Merry Christmas! 

As a gang foreman I had my bunk car to myself!

I rode our bridge gang outfit cars during a move on my first year - 1968. They put our cars in a small 4 track yard with boxcars on the tracks on either side overnight, so there was no breeze or power. It was also right in the middle of the Ft Worth stockyards. There were two packing plants - Swift and Armour - immediately to the east of the tracks and the cattle pens were immediately to the west. There was a wooden overhead ramp onto the killing floor of the plant. Oh, and it was the first week of July. Between the heat, dust, and the smell of the cattle pens on one side and the packing plants on the other side, along with the constant noise from cattle mooing and tramping across the ramp, it was the most miserable night I ever spent on the railroad - and there were plenty of miserable nights in 42 years.

They had a separate shower car with lots of them, hardly used. Mine did in the middle with toilets, foreman had his own room, next was the kitchen, showers, bunks for 8 men. I remember waking up with a warm head and snow on my feet. Wasn't a good car. Best one was my foreman's car--it was closest to the shower car.

My home away from home for 18 years.

Lived in them in the early 80's. Lucky enough that we only had 3 or 4 guys per car. Seniority got you your own room. Lot's of time stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

When I hired on they had those white trailers that they put at sidings and small yards! Anywhere they could get power and propane bottles. Sometimes out in the middle of nowhere! They were small and had 4 men per trailer 2 bunks at each end with bathroom and kitchenette. We were always against a siding or spur track so good luck getting much sleep as trains went by all night or even shuffled cars in and out!

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NS still uses them. Hillbilly railroad. 

Camp cars - spent many nights tie, surface gangs 1975-1989 Conrail N.E. Division.

We had two old Pullman cars with an old wooden sides wash car in the middle. 1975 Buffalo Div. Chicago main line B&B.

I remember my 1st stroll thru the camp cars. A friend and I were new hires looking for some empty bunks. Between the looks, the upkeep and the stench, we were washing up in Lake Erie and sleeping in the truck until the next week when we got paid and could afford a room to rent!

I lived in the wooden version of these. Hauled water and stored it in a drum. Oil space heater, you could see the frost lines on the walls from the steel bracing. Remember to kick the sack tight against the door or the wind blows right through. At least the roof didn’t leak in mine.

Spent my first 2 years on a 120-man rail gang, first year was the old camp cars, all heated by coal, second year we got brand new camp cars electric heat and all. It was rough but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Did stay in a bridge gangs passenger coach with bunks that folded down from the ceilings. In Omaha, NE yards would wake up with a small snow drift on top of your sleeping bag. But it was free -  when you are on $2.00 a day expenses it was like a Hilton.

We at Waycross Car Dept. used to build those box cars for rail Gangs sleeping cars, dining cars, cooking cars, tool cars. On SCL RR. In 1970’s!!

I was a Mopac Bridge guy. Our bunk cars were really pretty good. We had good central heat and air conditioning semi private bunk areas and the Foreman had a private room. Toward the end of the bunk cars we had cable connections and a phone.

You had a better car than us. Ours was an old coach. We did get a shower car just as I was leaving the gang in ‘68. Our foreman had his own car that he and his wife stayed in.

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The SLSF/Frisco bunk cars the bridge gang used were transformed passenger cars. They would tie up close to my house. I had a couple relatives that worked that gang and when by our house I'd go hang out there in the evenings. Those cars had an unforgettable smell I can still remember... Creosote and sweaty clothes I guess.

Lived in them, from 1987 until 1998 we did have air conditioners and heaters, still a hard life. Condensation running down the walls if you didn’t have the heater on.

And how could we forget all the train traffic rolling by as you try and sleep. Not to mention, most sidings where we set up are less than 12'' feet apart, and the joints being pounded just next to you.

We always moved at night - no or little sleep.

Just remember moving them from one siding to another and getting a great meal afterwards!

Those old style camp cars started to disappear in Montana, around that time. Then when BN evolved from district to regional gangs, around 1980, the "camp cars" appeared, which were box cars with a heater and four sets of bunk beds. The regional steel gangs consisted of 60 to 70 men, including a cook and a camp tender. They called them co-op gangs because the cook would shop for provisions, feed everyone three meals a day, then deduct each man's share from their pay. We had a cook car, a dining car, a shower car, a water car, six or so camp cars, and then a few cars with air conditioned camp trailers for the foremen. Each gang had their own Roadmaster, who usually stayed in motels. Porta-johns were as good as it got, and we seemed to always camp on sidings, between crossings. We did get to know a lot of small Montana towns. One of the camp tender's assignments was to make sure the small town bar owners knew we were coming - so they could stock up!

I spent a short time in the MW department for the last of the Penn Central in 1975 and the beginning of Conrail in 1976 near Washington D.C. I never stayed in the camp cars that were occasionally stationed at Ivy City or Bowie, but if we happened to be there around mealtime, they had no qualms about feeding us too. Those guys were some good cooks!

Accurate description of bunk car life, especially in the summer months. Always fun too when parked in a siding that was about 15’ from the mainline. Praying that those suckers were going to stay on the tracks.

Subhuman conditions, and if they all thought they could get away with it today they all would be still in service.

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I remember losing a MOW employee to a fire in his sleeper/boxcar about 1988 or so.

My dad was a line man and I remember him putting newspapers between his blankets to keep warm. In the bunk car in the winter waking up with their work boots frozen to the steel floors of the cars.

Coming from a small farm in Central MN, a RR job was a great job. In 1970 the wages weren’t bad compared to farm wages. Living in a Bunk car wasn’t bad.

The sound of a train on the Main Line was sleeping music. We worked hard and we played hard!!! The key was we were younger and stronger and looking for a way to make a living!!!

Most of my bunk car nights were spent in a nice remodeled baggage car with good guys. One of the best spots was in Lincoln, NE next to Husker stadium. We tried hosing down the car to cool it down after work.

My job was caboose interiors carpenter until the gang cars showed up on the West Coast in spring. I built stairs and outhouses, fixed doors and windows, made foot lockers and closets. I got more thanks for improving living conditions on gang cars than I ever got fixing a caboose.

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In the bunk cars everyone was eating together and seemed like a tighter group.

Years ago our union was in negotiations when the subject of camp cars came up. The employees preferred camp cars to hotels.

Occupied bunk cars from '68 to '74. Old Pennsy coaches with upper and lower sleeping berths. Cold cement floors. A kitchen car with one long table for everyone to have room to sit. Usually breakfast and supper. Lunch was delivered in the field. A baggage car was our tool room and we had a wire spool as our poker table. Winters gave us frozen water lines to deal with, and summers were hot as could be with little ventilation. Some of the guys would sleep on the ground outside instead of fighting the heat, or listening to camp car romances found at local bars for half the night!! Always something different every day.

They were truly awesome I like them better than the hotel.

Mere words can't describe...

CP mini-box Service car (Tim Reid photo)


Remember those days well - always fought for bottom bunk or you would die of heat up top. Had old cattle cars and long coach cars we had in northern Ontario. Lot of fun was had them days.

I always grabbed a top bunk - you didn't have everyone sitting on it hanging out.

When first started on CP, we were parked on a siding next to the main line. A train would go by in the middle of night at track speed. Talk about a rude awakening !

In the 1970s with CN some gangs were still using Red Fleet cars. In 1977, our welding gang consisted of a white fleet. Utility gang had all white fleet cars. Tie gang had red fleet cars.  Only two times I ever stayed in gang cars - first time in old red fleet gang cars for 2 nights, flagging for weldamatic in 77. In 82 when me and my welder were destressing behind RCO, did that for a month, otherwise we were on expenses. Working in Northern Ontario, we had a self-contained personal white fleet gang car. Generator was mounted on the same car as our white fleet. Later they gave a proper Gen car. When started the Rivers Sub, we were all expenses. In 79 I was thermite welding for PIP. They had gang cars sitting on the ground.

I was on the rail gang as a thermite welder a few years ago and if you weren't lucky enough to get a hotel you were on the fleets. I think they still use those white fleets in northern Ontario. It's crazy. In the west it all depends if there's available hotels or not. They still use them at CN. If you're taller than 6ft you're in trouble.

CN 61179 commissary car 'Sioux Lookout Auxiliary' and white fleet car at Belleville, June 1999

Spent time in them all. Red Fleets, White Fleets, Off Track CN Grainline Camps, and motels while on small gangs.. All good...also section bunk house, some didn’t have running water, but at least saved on hotels, no living allowance those days! Even at that, these were high living after living in the red fleets.

Just one big room, 6 beds, oil heater in center of room, wash basin, can’t remember what kinda water supply though. Lived in White Fleet trailer in Nokomis, had water, oil furnace, no rent to pay …. On gangs I think we were charged $2.10 a day for meals if living in gang cars.

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Gang 17, Keith Oliver foreman - drank like a fish and sledding gang in The Pas, Manitoba Jack Bar foreman - those cars were stinky. One thing - good food and excellent cooks.

Was in the white fleet 77-80 northern Ontario had one of the last CN railway cooks  at 70 cents a meal. Great times guns & beer gas car ride to nearest town for more bullets & beer when we ran out signals the game climbing poles in winter digging in the summer.

My first summer job for CN I spent living in boarding cars in Prescott, Ontario. There were 25 mostly French-Canadian guys on the gang. We had our own cook and dining car and we ate like kings. Quite an experience for a kid that had never been away from home. I got a real education that summer, no books involved.

1980-1990 Lived in bunkcars - Gang 106 Sled Gang, 65-man crew and Ballast Gang107, 10-man crew. We had 2 wash cars and if you were you late lining up for a shower, too bad. Or you would run out of water. You would have to wait for the tanks to be filled, then wait for the water to get hot. And at supper time frickin hot diner cars, Those were the good ol' days.

CP Service cars (Tim Reid photo)

Running extra...

Coming soon May 27th - changes to VIA Corridor schedules. Can't wait to see these blanks get filled in. Changes include the long-awaited "re-introduction" of VIA No 641, colloquially known locally as the "early morning train".

Did somebody say Morning Train? Sheena Easton seems to say come for the catchy sax riff, stay for the views of British interlocking signalling in her 1981 music video. Not only Dolly worked 9 to 5!

Did somebody say Early Morning Rain? Gordon Lightfoot tells us it's easier to hop a freight train than it is a jet plane. Well, that's plane to see!

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