The end is near for the lowly caboose.That little boxcar linked to the back of a freight train, used primarily as an observation platform for railroaders, has all but been replaced by modern technology.The Alaska Railroad Corp. is one of the last railroads in the United States to use cabooses, but it is phasing out the cars as electronic monitoring equipment and automated switches are replacing the eyes, ears and muscle of trainmen.Decommissioned railroad cabooses now are a hot item for roadside coffee stands, storage sheds and cabins, fetching thousands of dollars apiece in surplus sales."That’s a good use for them," said Ernie Piper, Alaska Railroad’s assistant vice president of safety and operations.For more than 160 years, the caboose has been used as a lookout point for railroaders and as a place crews could eat, sleep and do paperwork. The jobs of brakemen, switchmen and flagmen who often rode in the last boxcar have been affected by automated switches and brakes and other equipment, resulting in cheaper, safer and more efficient operations, Piper said."The technology involved in running trains has improved vastly over the last couple of decades," Piper said.The demise of the caboose has not put anyone out of work at the Alaska Railroad, said Pat Flynn, railroad spokesman."Our freight traffic is increasing so there are jobs at the railroad for people whether they are at the front, back or in-between on the train," Flynn said.Alaska Railroad still uses cabooses on its work trains and on long gravel trains, where an extra set of eyes and ears still is preferred for monitoring cars ahead, Flynn said.The railroad’s work trains run backwards as much as they do forwards, and so a caboose is a useful in those operations, Flynn said.Trains moving fuel on the Alaska Railroad used cabooses for a time after a 1999 derailment north of Talkeetna at Gold Creek, where 15 cars left the track, five of them spilling more than 120,000 gallons of jet fuel.The railroad blamed the spill on a buildup of ice and snow on a manual track switch.Piper said the cabooses are no longer used because remote-controlled switches, including heated ones, have been installed along the line. It’s part of an ongoing $60 million program to be completed by 2004 to replace 694 manual switches that were kept open and free of snow by crews using shovels and brooms.Cabooses were used on the Whittier Shuttle, which hauled passengers and cars for 35 years. The train stopped operating in 2000 after an $80 million tunnel opened to automotive trafficOn the end of regular freight and passenger trains, cabooses now are more like rolling symbols of being behind the times for a railroad, Piper said."They’re like a canary in a coal mine. The fewer cabooses you see, the better we’re doing improving operations, safety and efficiency," Piper said. "The sooner we can get rid of them, the better off we are."The railroad March 18 sold one of its nine remaining cabooses to Chris Alexander, general manager of Alaska Metals Inc.Alexander paid $4,000 for the caboose, built in 1949 by the Pacific Car and Foundry in Renton, Wash.The 53-year-old caboose spent its entire working life in Alaska, along the 470-mile line, said Tom Burkquist, Alaska Railroad’s surplus sales department manager.The railroad was asking for a minimum bid of $7,000, but there were no takers. Burkquist said several people inquired about the caboose, including many from the Lower 48, but only Alexander submitted a bid.Burkquist said Alexander got a good deal."They’re going for $12,000 to $14,000 in the Lower 48," Burkquist said.The caboose, No. 1776, is unique because of its Bicentennial colors and theme, a popular practice with railroads in 1976, Burkquist said.Alexander said he intends to resell the caboose and has gotten interest from folks who want to turn it into everything from a gift shop to a coffee shack. One woman is interested in selling drinks from the roadside, and plans on naming it the "Juice Caboose.""Everybody sounds like they have a different use for it, and I know it sounds funny, but I’m going to make sure it finds a good home," Alexander said.Decommissioned Alaska Railroad cabooses in the past have been sold to the U.S. Coast Guard, which uses one for an office in Whittier, and to the Boy Scouts, which uses one near Talkeetna as a storage area, Burkquist said.Buying a caboose is one thing; moving it is another, said Mike Wilson of Fairbanks, who along with his wife, Susan, runs the Forget-Me-Not Lodge/Aurora Express.The Fairbanks bed-and-breakfast uses a caboose and seven other Alaska Railroad cars as rooms.It is a popular stay for railroad buffs, Wilson said.The Wilsons bought caboose No. 1068 from a Fairbanks attorney who purchased it from the railroad as a present to his wife.The caboose turned out to be trouble for the lawyer, Wilson said."It wasn’t quite what she had in mind," Wilson said.Wilson gave the lawyer $2,000 for the caboose, which came complete with a hobo."Some bum had been sleeping in there," Wilson said.Wilson said the caboose is 14 feet high, 41 feet long and weighs 52,000 pounds without the rail trucks."It’s stout, built in America when a nickel was worth five cents," Wilson said. "It’s not a piece of cake to move but it does make a good little room."