Friday, January 23, 2015

Express refrigerator cars

Awhile back I introduced the topic of modeling the “Coast Mail” train which operated on SP’s Coast Line. You can read that introductory post at: . The train wasn’t officially called the “Coast Mail;” the real name of the train was pretty dull, just “Passenger” in the timetable, but it was widely known in the 1950s as the Coast Mail. In the present post I discuss the express reefers that sometime ran in the train.
     I know from my presentations over the years, when I describe Pacific Fruit Express operations, that many people have misconceptions about express refrigerator cars and how they are operated. Some folks are also confused about what they are used for. This post is intended to clarify those points.
     The answers on these points do depend on era. Before 1920, there were relatively few reefers specially built and equipped for service in passenger trains (which is the core of the ARA and AAR definitions of what an express refrigerator is). If equipped with ice bunkers, the commonest arrangement, these cars were classified as BR. Any freight refrigerator could be equipped for passenger service (and that was the usual procedure before 1920), but specially built cars became the norm for this service in the 1920s.
     In 1918, the four big express companies, Wells Fargo, Adams Express, American Express, and Southern Express, were combined into a single entity, American Railway Express, and many newly built BR cars were lettered for ARE, just as were baggage cars which carried express. But ARE remained a private company. In 1929, 86 railroads combined assets to purchase all the assets of ARE and create a new agency, the Railway Express Agency or REA, which was owned by the railroads. Its reporting marks were REX. Railroad baggage cars were soon relettered for REA if in express service. Express reefers, previously leased to ARE by railroads and continued under lease to REA, largely were released back to their owners in the 1930s as leases expired.
     But REA continued to direct operation of these cars, through a pool of express cars. This pool varied over the years, but typically most railroads (and PFE) did place their BR cars into pool service. This meant that REA directed operation of the cars. If a shipper needed a BR car to load, he did so through REA, not through PFE or his local railroad, though the railroad’s local agent would have handled express matters in addition to railroad matters.
     The cars remained in their original ownership (railroad or PFE), and the owners were responsible for all but minor running repairs. Financially, freight charges paid by shippers (or consignees) included a fee to REA along with mileage payments for use of the cars; the latter went to the owners, and all icing fees went to the providers of the service. The pools meant that any car in the pool could, in principle, be assigned anywhere in the country it was needed. A Santa Fe car could be loaded in Boston, a Seaboard car in Seattle, or a PFE car in Florida. But the maintenance needs of the cars meant that most of the time, they operated approximately in their home territory.
     Below is a list of the participants in the REA pool in 1953. Of the 2500-some cars in the pool, over 1600 were REX-marked cars, with a number of railroads also participating, along with PFE and also a leasing company, Chicago Freight Car Leasing, which contributed converted troop sleepers made into express reefers.

Note that several member railroads of Fruit Growers Express (PRR, SAL, ACL, NC&StL, GN) all had contributed express cars to this pool. This table, by the way, is Table 5-4 from the PFE book, page 101 (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000).
     How should model operations reflect these details? As stated above, it was possible that pool cars from anywhere could show up in a particular location — an ACL car might be loaded in California — but more typically California BR loadings would take place in PFE or ATSF cars, and of course in REX cars.
     As most modelers know, express reefers were used for cargo which needed extremely rapid delivery, or was of especially high value, or both. One obvious cargo of that type is the first harvest of any season, whether cantaloupes, cherries, or other fruit, or something like the first salmon of the year. On the SP, cut flowers were shipped from California to the Midwest during much of the year in express reefers. Modelers can devise cargoes to fit these categories.
     My own car fleet contains mostly PFE express cars, but I do have a few non-PFE cars, which I operate sparingly. I have one REX car, which is Walthers’ version of the essentially standard car built by General American for many buyers in the 1920s. I also have an old Ambroid kit, one of my first kit-built freight cars, for a GN express reefer, and both Milwaukee and NP express reefers (note that neither was in the REA pool). For really faraway owners, I also have a brass car from NJ International for New York Central (also not an REA pool participant). Its deep side sills make it a distinctive car.
     Here is an example of an REX car being loaded at my Phelan & Taylor packing house in East Shumala. This is the Walthers model.

And similarly, here is PFE 799, recently rebuilt without the top fascia board and thus freshly repainted, shown being picked up at Coastal Citrus in Santa Rosalia. The car is a brass import from WP Car Company.

     What’s this about a PFE rebuild, you may ask. In the PFE book (reference citation above), it’s explained that these cars were built without ice hatch platforms, but received them in the early 1930s. That was about the only visible change until the 1950s, when the cars were approaching 30 years in service, which is a long time for cars with wood superstructure framing. In late 1953, rebuilding began on 83 of the cars, which received steel superstructure frames and, incidentally, new side fascia boards which were very narrow (see photo above). But most PFE express cars at that time were older cars, some fairly deteriorated. I have one model with that appearance, shown here at the head end of an eastward Coast Mail on my layout.

The model is an upgraded Athearn express reefer, with new sill steps, ice hatch platforms, and brake gear.
    I only occasionally have car requests from my packing houses for express reefers, but they make a nice change when they are needed.
Tony Thompson


  1. Were express reefers ever delivered directly to a consignee's siding, for example a grocery warehouse?

    1. Yes, Charles, they certainly could be. An entire carload of, say, fresh cherries would only be appropriate for a regional wholesale grocer, but of course those did exist.
      Tony Thompson

  2. I use express reefers to complicate matters for my reefer turns. A red-hot order for special lettuce from Scatena Bros. An express reefer goes out in the 1st Aurora Reefers turn. It must be set out immediately upon arrival. I learned from a packing house manager that a reefer could be loaded in 3-4 hours if necessary. So the turn does all its other work and waits until 4 hours elapse. It then returns the exprfr to Valley Springs for immediate interchange. Makes the crews think, breaks their routine.

    1. Interesting idea, Bill, and one with definite realism. I too have heard of last-minute requests for a BR car, and naturally there might not be one available. But if available, the process you describe sounds about right.
      Tony Thompson