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SIOUX CITY -- It's almost the end of the line for the iconic caboose, a railroad relic brushed aside by modern technology.

"The caboose has gone the way of railroad nostalgia; it's not coming back," said Matt Merc, executive director of the Siouxland Historical Railroad Association, which chronicles the region's extensive train history.

For close to 150 years, crews used the caboose -- with its large windows and tall cupola -- to look for signs of trouble and handle activating switches and rear brakes. Oil lamps were used to communicate between the engine and the rear car.

It was also where the conductor kept track of papers for deliveries and pick-ups.

Those jobs are now down electronically. Rail sensors monitor cars for fires, axle problems and dragging items. The information is relayed to the engineer, who uses radio technology to control brakes.

The caboose's role as a rolling office also is no longer needed.

"Technology took over the main areas of paperwork," said Mark Davis, a spokesman for Union Pacific Corp., which operates about 32,000 miles of tracks. "Train crews would monitor where the trains were and where to drop cars off. It's all done on computers now."

Many cabooses were taken off the nation's rails and scrapped, but some survive in museums, parks and private collections. Two are on display at the Milwaukee Railroad Shops at 3400 Sioux River Road in Sioux City, which the Siouxland Historical Railroad Association operates.

Fewer still remain on the rails, Davis said. Cabooses today are mostly used if a train has to go backward for an extended period of time and the engineer wants someone in back to see where the freight cars are going.

Even in those cases, the caboose is losing ground since many freight companies prefer to use a second engine in the back, Merc said. The engine also doubles as an extra source of horse power.

"It's always sad to see things like (the caboose) get thrown to the wayside, but that's progress I guess," Merc said.

Merc said he still hears the occasional comment from visitors at the Milwaukee Railroad Shop who wonder what happened to the caboose. In most cases, people have either forgotten about the caboose or don't know what it is, he said.

"Some young kids have never seen a caboose on the end of a train," he said. "They've been gone for so long. They are an interesting piece of history for our kids."

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Nate Robson is the education reporter for the Journal. He writes about issues impacting local school districts and colleges.

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