Train hoppers' adventure ends in arrest

by john lynch for the longview (tx) news-journal
march 14, 2003

University of Texas students Shawn Patrick Rice and Joseph Donald Seiler wanted to do something different for spring break this week.

No beach trip for them. Not a trip to Disney World or Six Flags. No binge drinking or Girls Gone Wild would do for the 20-year-old college students.

They wanted to take a train ride. And it couldn't be just any trip - they wanted to ride the rails the way the hobos do.

Seiler said he had been thinking about hopping a train for some time.

"I owed it to myself to try it," he said.

"It was a lot of fun," Rice said from his Austin home Thursday. "We were planning on roughing it."

But they didn't plan on going to jail. Discovered on a Union Pacific hopper car Tuesday, the duo were arrested in Longview on trespassing charges the day after jumping a train in Austin. Both were freed Wednesday morning on $500 bond.

The pair got farther than they thought, Rice said. He and Seiler caught a train in Austin, changed trains in Taylor and headed toward Palestine. Rice said they fell asleep on the ride and woke up in Texarkana.

"We weren't prepared to go north," he said. "We were kind of shocked and it was really freezing."

Seiler said they originally hoped to reach Dallas where friends would drive them home or they could catch a ride back from the Fort Worth train yard.

"We were kind of lost for the most part," he said. "We didn't have a whole lot of plans."

The pair didn't bring much with them. Jail records show they were carrying about $56 between them, with credit cards and a cell phone. They also had their homework, Rice said.

"Even on spring break, it's really hard not to do homework," he said.

Seiler said the pair did not meet any other hobos, but saw signs, like clothing and food, that they might be following in the steps of other transients. A broom found on one car was used to sweep out a dusty car that had held kitty litter, he said.

He said he believes some train yard workers knew what they were up to and turned a blind eye. But that came to an end when they reached Texarkana, police reports show.

According to arrest reports, a Union Pacific train engineer saw the pair hanging around the switching yard in Texarkana. As his train passed AEP-SWEPCO's Pirkey power plant in Harrison County, someone saw the pair riding on a hopper car and called the train officials.

Rice and Seiler reached the end of the line shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday at Longview's Union Pacific yard, 905 Pacific Ave., when the train pulled in and police were waiting to take them into custody.

A night in the Gregg County Jail was also an adventure, they said.

"A couple of liberals from Austin," Rice and Seiler weren't sure how they would be received behind bars, said Rice, a philosophy major.

"Everybody was really friendly," he said.

Seiler said the other inmates, most held on tickets, seemed to admire the pair's adventures. Fellow detainees showed them the ropes, he said, telling them how to make phone calls and collect their meals.

"Everyone in the cell with us was more than kind," said Seiler, who has a double major in English and linguistics. "There was a real sense of camaraderie."

The pair said they enjoyed their adventure, but don't have any plans to ever do it again.

"It's a real rush... to all of a sudden find your legs hanging in mid-air as you pull yourself into a boxcar," Seiler said.

But riding the rails is dangerous, they said. To prepare, they carried a copy of the how-to manual, "Hopping Freight Trains in America," a cult classic for train enthusiasts and would-be hobos.

"It's commonly referred to as the bible on the subject," author Duffy Littlejohn said. "It was designed for the person who would like to do it, and also for the armchair aficionado."

But Littlejohn minces no words to describe the risks.

"In an altercation with a boxcar, you are going to be railroad pizza," he said Thursday in a telephone interview from his Zephyr Rhoades ( publishing company in Silver City, N.M. "I spend a lot of time on safety in the book."

Train-riding is a sport that requires athleticism and preparation, said the 49-year-old Littlejohn, who estimates he's ridden more than 500,000 miles on freight trains. But's it's cheaper than other extreme sports like rock climbing and hang-gliding. Riders don't need much more than comfortable durable clothing and sturdy boots, he said.

Littlejohn has also written a collection of non-fiction short stories about freight-car riding and publishes the memoirs of a Depression-era train rider. He said "Hopping Freight Trains" sells mainly to males between the ages of 15 and 25. He estimates about half of those buyers, attracted to the romance of the rails, might actually jump a freight.

"It's always been a romantic thing," he said. "I can't fault kids for being attracted to this."

Union Pacific has a reputation for prosecuting train riders, Littlejohn said, but he hopes local authorities go easy on Seiler and Rice. They face a maximum punishment of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"In the large scheme of criminal activity, this is probably one step above a traffic ticket," said the former lawyer.

Union Pacific officials did not return a call seeking comment.