Freight Car Friday – Fruit Growers Express

21 03 2014

Fruit Growers Express is best known as an owner and operator of refrigerator cars used to haul produce from the American Southeast to the rest of the country. But in addition to building and operating reefers, FGE had other carbuilding operations as well.


The bright yellow Fruit Growers Express reefers stood out in any train. Many are preserved around the country including this one at the California State Railroad Museum.

Fruit Growers Express began as its own corporate identity on March 18, 1920. Formed as a result of an anti-trust lawsuit against Armour and Company which owned both the refrigerator line and many of the packing houses they served, FGE was owned by major railroads of the region.

Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia and Jacksonville, Florida, FGE had facilities and operations in most of the eastern states along the busy trunk lines of its owning railroads. Hauling produce was a very specialized and demanding business. Support of an “independent” company like FGE freed the railroads themselves from duplicating the heavy capital costs of the car fleet which was highly seasonal in demand.

insulated boxcar

In later years, FGE was a subsidiary of CSX. This insulated boxcar is one of many built by the company and leased to its parent.

FGE’s biggest competition came from the west. FGE partnered with Great Northern in 1923 to create the Western Fruit Express and open routes for Southeastern produce into the Northwest as well as to provide a little competition with western produce powerhouse Pacific Fruit Express. Burlington Fruit Express was a similar venture between FGE and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy in the Midwest.

In 1928, FGE created the National Car Company subsidiary to manage cars for the meat packing industry. Reefers in produce and dressed meat service may seem similar on the outside, but there were major differences in their construction and use and the two fleets were not interchangeable.


One of 113 cabooses FGE built for Conrail in 1978 is still at work for Norfolk Southern. The only cabooses built new for Conrail, they were the most likely to be retained for the limited needs which remain.

In addition to leasing and servicing its cars, FGE also built much of its own equipment. It should come as no surprise that the company’s main products were refrigerated cars; first ice-cooled cars and then mechanical reefers. Insulated boxcars became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

FGE built the cars and then leased them to its parent railroads. Cars on long-term lease could be found in FGE paint schemes with the railroad’s reporting marks, or painted for the leasing road with minimal if any FGE information. Other cars roamed freely in open interchange service in FGE’s own fleet. Maintenance on these cars was also performed by FGE at their own shops.

About that same time, with railroads losing produce shipments rapidly to trucks, FGE began to branch out into different types of construction to fill the gaps. In the 1970s, many railroads were facing a problem of antiquated cabooses which were in desperate need of replacement. FGE built bay-window cars for several parent roads. In hindsight of course, the long-term futures for caboose production were no better than that of mechanical reefers.

UP mechanical reefer

When FGE ended its mechanical refrigerator operations, remaining cars were sold to Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Rebuilt with new cooling units, many continue to roam the rails today.

Through the 1970s, FGE built insulated boxcars, cabooses and intermodal equipment for its own operations as well as several railroads – most of whom were owners of FGE. Refrigerated trailer on flatcar service was promoted as intermodal became popular. Ultimately, private carriers were able to fill the need more efficiently than FGE.

Today, some FGE products still roam the rails. When it sold its own reefer fleet in the 1990s, cars were sold to Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Modernized with new refrigeration units, many are still in service. While a few are still in service on local freights on Norfolk Southern and CSX, several more FGE-built cabooses of B&O, Conrail and L&N heritage can be found in parks and museums. What remains of FGE as a company is primarily paper – it is a wholly owned subsidiary of CSX.

Freight Car Friday – Wine Cars

14 02 2014

How about a big toast for Valentines Day? Wine is certainly not at the top of any railroad’s books when it comes to commodities moved by rail, but over the years wine has been shipped by rail in many forms and in many different types of cars.


Shipments of wine in tank cars were not unheard of. “Tank car wine” did imply a reputation for quality however.

Wine, especially the finer varieties, is not typically associated with large-scale mass production like other beverages. Of course bulk shipping is what the railroads do best. Nevertheless, railroads are still an economic alternative for larger shipments over greater distances. A good example is carload shipment of bottled wines bound for distributers from coast-to-coast.

While wine does not require refrigeration, railroads must still take care to avoid big swings in temperature during shipping. The car of choice for bottled wine shipments is the RBL or insulated box car. Shipments originating in big production areas like California or Western New York may be gathered and shipped by rail to distribution centers and warehouses across the country. From here the boxcar-sized loads are broken down and delivered by truck to smaller centers and markets.

wine box

Boxed wine? A carload of bottled wine is headed to a distributer near Harrisburg, PA.

But wine has, and still is, also shipped in bulk in tank cars. As you might guess, these are not always of the finest variety. “Tank car wine” has long been used as a term to describe a cheap wine suitable for cooking, or simply as a derogatory remark about the quality of whatever was being served.

Wine tank cars have taken many forms. Many featured multiple domes – up to six. Today’s cars share the now-common construction features of frameless designs and (usually) a single small loading hatch. And where once the wine companies commonly placed their names in bold letters on the sides of the tank, today minimal markings are standard.

wine train

The Napa Wine Train is the best known of many excursions that combine fine dining and the romance of train travel.

The Eastern Wine Company moved its famous “Chateau Martin” wines across the country in former milk cars. These cars look similar to a boxcar or reefer on the outside but contained a pair of glass-lined tanks in the insulated interior. The cars were easy to spot in their purple paint and bold graphics and lasted into the 1970s.

Today you can of course also enjoy your wine on board the train. Excursion railroads all across the country offer “wine trains” where you can sample fine wines and dining as you roll along in restored rail cars. So if you’re looking to surprise your sweetheart with wine and a train this year, might we suggest such an excursion instead of a bottle of “tank car wine?”

Freight Car Friday – American Car and Foundry

31 01 2014

Once a month throughout 2014 we’ll spotlight the history of one of America’s freight car builders here on Freight Car Friday. These companies have a rich history that is as interesting as the railroads they serve. American Car and Foundry (ACF Industries today) can trace its heritage back to 1899 and beyond with the inclusion of builders it has acquired over the years.

Early History

D&H boxcar

AC&F built D&H 19607 in 1907. In this era, cars were built in small orders to specific customer specs and wood was often the material of choice.

Like many of today’s large companies, American Car and Foundry’s family tree has roots in many different rail car makers. American Car and Foundry was created in 1899 as the consolidation of 13 railcar manufacturers. The history of these companies dates back as far as 1861. In 1898, their combined production was the equivalent of more than half of all of the freight cars not built by the railroads themselves.

AC&F’s predecessors had a wide range of specialties. Murray, Dougal and Company of Milton, Pennsylvania had produced the first tank car and continued to specialize in that field. The Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company of Jeffersonville, Indiana produced most of AC&F’s streetcars. Passenger cars came from the St. Charles Car Co. of St. Charles, Missouri. ACF continued to acquire other companies through the 1920s including well-known names like Brill and Jackson and Sharp.

The Cotton Belt operated as a railroad within a railroad for much of its life but has a loyal following nonetheless.

ACF was the largest builder of freight cars for the USRA in WWI – they would do even more for the effort in WWII.

In addition to manufacturing, like many builders AC&F also leased freight cars to the railroads and private car companies. For many decades, this was done through a subsidiary, the Shippers Car Line (SHPX reporting marks). In 1968 the SHPX reporting marks were replaced by ACFX, but in 1997 once again they returned to many of ACF’s modern leased tank car and covered hopper fleet.

During World War II, in addition to rail car production, AC&F became a major supplier for the war effort. The plant at Berwick, PA is reported to have been the largest producer of armor plating in the world at the time. AC&F built more than 15,000 tanks as well as parts for aircraft, other vehicles and artillery shells.

Post War

ACF centerflow

ACF’s Center Flow eliminated the center sill making unloading and cleaning the covered hoppers much more efficient.

Most modelers will recognize AC&F from their innovative designs of the latter half of the 20th Century. Cars like the Center Flow covered hoppers and tank cars are as common on model railroads as they are the prototype. But AC&F’s production included far more than just these models.

AC&F has had a hand in many freight car designs and production including boxcars, flatcars, intermodal equipment, even a few cabooses. AC&F worked with Southern Pacific, Wabash, L&N and Ford to produce the first 86 foot high-cube auto-parts boxcar in 1963.

Still, the company is no doubt best known for its covered hoppers and tank cars. The Center Flow design was patented in 1961 and while refined over the years the cars’ retain the same basic shape and features today. The 100,000 car rolled off the line in 1992 and production continues at a steady pace. ACF also produced several variations on the Center Flow including pressurized, refrigerated and insulated cars and the “Cannonaide” car which used compressed air jets inside the car to help unload stubborn contents.

tank car

SHPX 20212 is leased to OMYA. This 1999 ACF-built car caries the historic SHPX reporting marks and the ACF builders logo.

Starting in the 1960s, AC&F (officially renamed ACF Industries in 1954) began to consolidate operations in fewer assembly plants. At their peak, there were 16 ACF plants in 9 states. In some cases, closings meant consolidated operations at the larger facilities. In others, car production of that type ended completely. There were also facilities purchased by new companies such as the Berwick Forge and Fabrication Co. which kept production going under a new name and with new designs in Berwick, PA.

ACF has also shed most of its non-rail car production and leasing operations.



ARI built this modern Center Flow covered hopper. The builder’s initials are the biggest change in its design from ACF days.

ACF created a new railcar manufacturing division, American Railcar Industries (ARI) from its car repair and component manufacturing operations in 1994. ARI opened new plants in Arkansas and continues to build the familiar ACF-designed cars today.

ACF Industries LLC is still building freight cars today in their plant in Milton, PA. The 48 acre facility includes a 500,000 square foot manufacturing building and seven miles of track. Tank cars, very much in demand on today’s railroads, remain the number one product for the plant. Pressure vessels for non-rail use are built here as well. Check out this video to see how the ends of a tank car are pressed from flat steel inside the facility.

Corporate headquarters as well as the extensive research and testing facility for both ACF and ARI are still in St. Charles, MO.

Between the new cars rolling out of ACF and ARI today and the thousands of older ACF cars still roaming the rails, it is clear that this builder’s mark will be seen on the rails for a long time to come.

Freight Car Friday – Tracking Trains; Automatic Car Identification

13 12 2013

At any moment, there are tens of thousands of freight cars on the move across North America today, each with its own destination. A single freight train entering a yard may have cars for more than a dozen outbound trains. How do the railroads keep track of it all?

For a long time, it was all done by hand with paper forms physically handed from one yard operator to the next. The process to automatically track freight cars, and thereby their contents, began in the late 1960s. Today, the railroads have taken this process into the digital world. Shippers can find the location of their freight with the click of a mouse on a website. And while the role of conductors and office clerks remains, theirs is now a world of computer screens and servers, not row upon row of filing cabinets filled with carbon-copies.

ACI (Automatic Car Identification)

ACI tag

ACI tag

The first attempts at tracking cars were similar to the way a retail outlet tracks their inventory – a bar code. Unlike the black and white bars of varying thickness used on just about every product sold today, the ACI tags used a set of 13 bars in 12 combinations of 4 colors. There were color combinations for digits 0-9, a validation number and start and stop tags.

The tags were read from bottom to top. After the start code, there were four digits which corresponded to an assigned number for the railroad (or private owner) reporting marks. Then there were six places for the road number. Above that came a stop code and a validation number code.

The system was developed by KarTrak in the 1960s and in 1967 the Association of American Railroads mandated that the placards be applied to all equipment. This included freight cars, locomotives, maintenance of way, even piggyback trailers – anything that would pass the scanners and could be tracked. Tags were to be applied to everything by 1970.

covered hopper

This PTLX covered hopper, built in 1975 still has its ACI tag in 2011.

To implement this, the custom tags had to be fixed to everything in relatively short order. This is not as simple as it sounds when that equipment is scattered all across the continent. It was not uncommon for a general service freight car to stay away from home rails for more than a year at a time.

Once the cars arrived at a terminal with the tags, they had to be sent to the car shops for the application. Some tags were adhesive stickers which could be placed directly on the car. Most were applied to steel plates which were then riveted or welded on. This was especially true in colder months when the stickers apparently did not adhere well to the cold steel. Excessive dirt on the car also had to be cleaned for a good fit. And of course both sides of the car had to be tagged and at the proper height.


Zooming in on the PTLX car, the modern AEI tag can also be seen just below the side sill. Note the visor welded above the ACI tag to help shield it from the elements.

Once tagged, the cars could be read by trackside scanners. Scanners could read the tags at up to 80 mph and operators would have an accurate account of what was in each train and where any car in the system was located within minutes. Scanners were typically placed at the entrance to yards and junctions or interchanges where updates were most useful.

Unfortunately the system never reached its full potential for a variety of reasons. First, the tags were easily obscured by dirt (the railroads didn’t have the graffiti problem they face today fortunately.) They also frequently fell off from improper application or were burned off from hot loads (gondolas in hot steel service) or car heaters (hoppers.) And of course, despite the best efforts, there were many cars that never got their tags.


AEI tags can be a tool to uncover the original owner and number of older equipment.

By some estimates, the system only worked about 70% of the time at its peak. Railroads like the Union Pacific put car inspectors back at the entrance of yards to record the numbers of each car in passing trains as a backup to the system. The practice of adding and maintaining the tags was officially discontinued in 1978, although some railroads did continue to add tags to new cars and use the tracking equipment for a few more years for what it was worth.

While the tags weren’t maintained after 1978 (that is probably being generous!) they weren’t immediately removed either. Some can still be found on cars today, although the number of cars still in service from those years in shrinking rapidly. As cars changed owners the tags stayed the same. Even when repainting cars, the tags were often simply covered with the new paint – often only to have it peel off soon after. For the freight car historian, these can still be a great help to track a cars original owner and number.

AEI (Automatic Equipment Identification)

Same concept, different technology. Fast forward twenty years and railroads again turned to new solutions to help automate this immense challenge. Burlington Northern was the first to look at a new system in 1988. Theirs was based upon a similar concept already being tried by American President Lines for tracking containers.


The modern AEI tag is much more discreet but even more effective.

After several years of testing and committees by BN, other railroads and the AAR, standards were finally released in 1992. By the end of 1994, all of the rail equipment in North America was to be equipped.

AEI doesn’t use a visible bar code but rather an electronic reader. These are in some ways like the employee badges found in many places today which act as a key for coded electronic locks.

While they don’t need to open any doors, as the plastic tags pass the scanner, their identity is read and communicated to all parties. Like the ACI tags, these AEI trackers are to be applied to everything. They are much more discrete than the older version – just a small grey plastic module. They are usually placed near the frame or side-sill of the car.


An AEI scanner stands watch along Norfolk Southern’s mainline in Cleveland. The small white bars are the tag readers.

The new tags are not hampered by weather, dirt, graffiti or heat. Better still, they can be reprogrammed if the car changes numbers or owner. Today, if you look closely, you’ll find them attached to just about everything on the rails. Intermodal equipment is no longer covered under the plan. Railroads can however still identify the location of a trailer or container by locating the car upon which it’s loaded.

While these technologies are seldom noticed by the public – even the train-loving public – they have made a huge contribution to the success and efficiency of today’s railroads. Freight car technology is no longer simply a matter of types of steel or journal sizes. Railroads have learned to embrace all sorts of new technology to keep the trains rolling and the customers smiling.


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