Any shipper might choose to seek advice from the local railroad agent, who of course would advocate moving the shipment as far as possible on the rails belonging to his employer. But the final choice did remain with the shipper. And any shipper who moved much traffic by rail had someone on the payroll, whether full-time or as part of other duties, who functioned as a traffic specialist and chose routings. Experience with good or poor service from some particular combination of railroads in moving a cargo would obviously be kept in mind, next time a routing was chosen.
This photo of a PFE reefer block heading eastward on the Southern Pacific can be seen as a typical train, the cars of which all had waybills showing specific routings to destination. That is even true for the ones which were later diverted to other destinations—they still had an initial destination and routing. It’s SP photo X-1911-7, it was taken in the fall of 1947, and most visible cars have ice hatches latched open in ventilation service. (If you’re not familiar with the “ventilation”process, there is some background in one of my earlier posts, at: http://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2013/07/modeling-open-ice-hatches-on.html .)
There isn’t space here to explore the subject of diversions, but in brief, shippers were allowed to change the final destination of a shipment, while en route, without charge (PFE allowed up to three free diversions). Thus a California shipment might be waybilled to “PFE agent, Kansas City,” with the expectation that the destination farther east (with the best prices) would be chosen while the car was moving toward Kansas City. By the time the car arrived, that PFE agent would issue a new waybill, for example to a wholesale market in Cleveland.
It is worth mentioning that routes specified on waybills had to be “approved routes,” for which there was a tariff in place. Entire books of these approved routes, regularly updated, one for each region, might occupy a foot or two of an agent’s or traffic specialist’s bookshelf. East of the Mississippi, there were so many railroads, intersecting so closely, that almost any geographically reasonable route would likely turn out to be an approved route. But in the western part of the United States, this was not always true, and one would pull out the relevant book and see if one’s planned route was in fact an approved one.
This is not to say that railroad agents did not have a voice. They were free to tell a shipper their opinion, and as the local representative of the railroad the shipper used, would certainly be listened to. But if a shipper had had a bad experience with a shipment routed via the XYZ Railroad, you can bet that future cargoes would travel elsewhere. This could even extend to the local railroad. There were certainly instances, as railroaders can tell you, of a shipper whose siding was served by the ABC Railroad, but bad feelings had developed with that railroad, and accordingly routings were chosen so that cars left the ABC at the very earliest opportunity.
In perishable territory, the refrigerator car companies, such as PFE or FGE or SFRD, would have their own local agents, separate from railroad agents, whose job it was to help shippers get their product to market. Here too, of course, the shipper had the final choice. As mentioned, in the far west, there were not too many options, but east of Chicago, more choices were available, and more variation in quality of cargo handling existed.
In the interviews I did for the PFE book (Pacific Fruit Express, 2nd edition, Thompson, Church and Jones, Signature Press, 2000), several PFE people told me that they strenuously advised shippers to not use the Pennsylvania Railroad any more than absolutely necessary, because PRR had such high rates of perishable damage claims (actually, the highest of any American railroad, per ton-mile). Their total tonnage moved was one of the highest, or the highest, of any American railroad for many years, but the ton-mile measure allows comparison of railroads with each other, regardless of total tonnages. And incidentally, the New York Central did not have much better of a reputation for perishable handling than the PRR.
So what railroad did the PFE people recommend? First and foremost was the Erie, which had developed fast train schedules and good connections out of Chicago, and more important, actually operated according to those schedules. Making an attractive schedule was easy; delivering it was not necessarily easy at all. And in fact, the Erie advertised itself this way.
This image is from the “Freight Progress” issue, page 178, of Railway Age for May 25, 1940.
Where the routing was applicable, PFE people also recommended the Nickel Plate. Other eastward roads from Chicago preferable to the PRR or NYC were the Grand Trunk and, to a lesser extent, the Wabash and B&O.
In choosing routing to place on model waybills, these historical connections are useful to remember. Even though most layouts have insufficient geographical extent for waybill routings to come into play, they are still part of the story.