Freight Car Friday – PFE R-70-20 Reefers

12 09 2014

Often our Freight Car Friday features focus on broader topics. This week we devote our blog to one specific class of car – the prototype for our Lionel and American Flyer reefers.

Pacific Fruit Express


Lionel’s upcoming American Flyer PFE reefer represents a car following the split of the company with SPFE markings and a Perishable Fruit Express logo over the UP shield.

Created in 1906, Pacific Fruit Express grew to operate the largest fleet of refrigerated rail cars in the world. By the 1970s, their fleet was more than double the size of their nearest American competitor. Consequently it should come as no surprise that the company was a leader in the field of refrigerator car design and utilization.

PFE was owned jointly by Southern Pacific and Union Pacific. Depending on the financing behind a particular order for cars, the reefers could be seen with PFE, SPFE or UPFE reporting marks. The emblems of both companies were displayed on the sides of the cars until 1978. In that year, the company was split with cars going into each railroad’s respective operating fleet.

In addition to the cars, PFE maintained its own ice making and loading facilities and car shops and, until 1961, built most of the company’s equipment in-house.

Evolution of the Mechanical Reefer

PFE was not the first to develop the mechanical reefer. That credit belongs to Fruit Growers Express. The lag in development however has little to do with the management at PFE and much to do with the differences between Florida and California oranges. Florida oranges are more favorable for juicing and this juice concentrate needs to be shipped at a freezing temperature which requires mechanical refrigeration. California’s produce on the other hand was still overwhelmingly being shipped fresh, for which icing did just fine.


Burlington Northern owned cars identical to the PFE R-70-20. Some are still in service for BNSF.

PFE’s first mechanical reefers came in 1952. The switch to mechanical reefers didn’t happen overnight however. The last ice reefers were delivered five years later in 1957. Nearly 1500 ice cars were still on the roster in 1975 and some lasted as long as 1980 in ventilator service for loads requiring ventilation in cool weather without refrigeration. The switch to mechanical refrigeration was partly a matter of cost efficiency and also in part due to a shifting in the types of produce being transported by rail to increased numbers of bulk, frozen foods over fresh produce. The latter was increasingly moving by truck but also generally decreasing as a part of the American diet overall. (Interesting how a study of freight cars can provide a look into so many things!)

As is nearly always the case, when the needs of the customers changed so too did the PFE car fleet. Mechanical reefers grew larger to handle greater capacities and maximize the efficiencies of rail transport. Whereas the overwhelming majority of iced reefers were 40′ long, 50′ mechanical reefers were more common beginning in the 1950s and grew to nearly 57′ in 1963. Capacity of the 57′ reefers was nearly double that of the older 40′ cars.


Jumping ahead to 1969, we arrive at the prototype for our O and S scale models. The R-70-20 represented the last major design change for PFE reefers. The class designation stands for Refrigerator – 70 tons nominal capacity – 20th chronological design. These cars were built at Pacific Car and Foundry’s Benton, WA facility. PC&F supplied 1200 cars in 1969 and an additional 1200 in 1970. That second order was evenly split between SP and UP with the UP cars being given the class R-70-21.

Lionel reefer

After assets were divided, Union Pacific painted their cars in bright yellow.

The R-70-20 offered several design changes from the previous models. One was an increase in the width of the doors from 9′ to 10′ 6″. This was done to make it easier for fork lifts to load / unload the car without damaging the car sides. The door tracks required special attention to ensure that a single worker could still open the heavy doors by hand. (Failing this, workers were commonly known to use their forklifts to open the car doors causing frequent damage.)

Another change in this design was the roof. Previous cars all had a lightly peaked roof. The R-70-20 is rounded, but tapers to a flatter profile with rounded corners near the car ends. Changes to the number and patterns of stiffening ribs on the roof is one of the small detail changes found in subsequent designs.


After being rebuilt with new refrigeration units, UP’s fleet took a coat of white and wore ARMN reporting marks.

The initial order of cars used either Keystone or Hydra-Cushion underframes. Both types would be used in subsequent classes as well. Visually the only spotting feature is a conical vent in the center of the underframe on the bottom of the Hydra-Cushion cars.

The R-70-20 was also the first class of PFE reefers to be delivered new with the new ACI car reader tags installed.

The only other significant change to subsequent classes (R-70-22 through 25) was substation of Type F couplers on UPFE cars. More obvious than structural or mechanical changes were alterations to the markings on the cars reflecting the corporate evolutions of the period.

The initial order of R-70-20 cars came with PFE reporting marks with white letters on a small black square. This was done to improve their visibility on the orange car. Both the UP and SP heralds were used. It is interesting to note that the UP shield was always closest to the mechanical, or “A” end of the car, so they swapped places on the left / right sides. Both the heralds were in the new “silhouette” version with the UP having full “UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD” lettering. On the other side of the car, “PACIFIC FRUIT EXPRESS” was spelled out in large black letters with the first letter of each word in white with black outline.

All total, the R-70-20 through 25 classes would include 3800 cars on PFE. Subsequent orders would see small changes to all of these graphics and the reporting marks. After the split, reporting marks on the first cars were also changed by adding an S or U as appropriate. Stickers were also applied over the other road’s herald, again with much variation to make car spotting and modeling more interesting!


BNSF cars can also be found in brown. Note that whatever color the railroads painted the sides, roofs were traditionally kept white.

Complete repaints started coming in the 1980s with UPFE cars getting repainted yellow with full UP markings. Southern Pacific retained Pacific Fruit Express as the name of the division operating independently within the company. SPFE cars were typically repainted white with a great variety in lettering styles and colors.

Many cars were sold or scrapped as the need for mechanical reefers was further replaced by trucks during the coming decades. What was left of the two fleets was reunited in 1996 through the UP-SP merger.

Starting in the early 2000s, with the cars now having more than 30 years of service behind them, the remaining reefers were given significant overhaul. The most obvious change to the cars came with the replacement of the diesel refrigeration units with more modern and efficient versions. These mount vertically on the inside bulkhead and look like the units applied to refrigerated trailers. The installation also requires the removal of the last roof “panel” over the unit.

While PFE helped drive the design and purchased the majority of these cars, similar reefers were also sold to other companies. The second-largest fleet of these cars would come to be owned by BNSF, tracing its roots to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern. BNSF’s cars too have undergone a similar rebuilding in the past decade.

The basic body style – with the large plug door, tapered side posts terminating short of the lower sill and roof line and rounded roof with tapered ends – became a common trademark for PC&F insulated boxcars as well. In spite of their age, rebuilding and retirement to the large-scale shift of perishable loads to refrigerated trucks, the familiar face of the R-70-20 continues to have a presence on railroads to this day.



New Product Previews!

8 09 2014

In lieu of putting the spotlight on one new upcoming product, this week we thought you’d enjoy a look behind the scenes at some of the pre-production samples that have come through our offices in the past few weeks.

Please note that all of the photos shown here are of pre-production models. There could be some differences between these and final production. Some are a little further along in the process than others, but we know you’re anxious to see what’s coming. Check our shipping schedules for delivery updates and look for these new trains at your favorite dealer in the near future.


Let’s start with our Dealer Exclusive train sets! We have four decorated samples to share, starting with the 6-81029 C&WN Windy City Freight Set.


The 6-81028 Marquette Freight Set features bold colors.


The 6-81030 UP Gold Coast Flyer Set has classic style.


The 6-81025 Pocono Berkshire Set rounds out our sampling of these great train sets.

PM 1225

Scale steam fans should look forward to the arrival of the Berkshires. This is a deco sample of PM 1225. The locomotive performs and sounds amazing on our test track!


A little further out, but just as exciting, the new Heavy Mikado is taking shape. This is a pre-production test sample.


Here’s a first look at the all-new GLa hopper for our Pennsy fans. Also a pre-production sample, these models pack a lot of detail into a small car.


From one extreme to the other – here’s a pre-production sample of the new 4-door 86′ high cube boxcar. The black plastic makes it hard to capture the fine rivet detail and other features of these fine freight cars.

Freight Car Friday – Instruction Cars

5 09 2014

It’s that time of year! Time to go back to school! For railroaders, with continuing education and certification an essential tool in working safely, sometimes the school and the teacher come to them.


The Reading’s “LEMTU,” or Locomotive Engineer Mobile Training Unit, is typical of instruction cars converted from passenger equipment. This interesting car is preserved today by the Reading Company Technical and Historical Society.

Instruction cars are classrooms on wheels. They can take many forms, often converted from older passenger or freight cars, and can be used to teach many things. Some cars were more like lecture halls with rows of seating with a projector and large screen at one end. Others take a more hands-on learning approach with simulated locomotive control stands, brake equipment, safety devices and hardware. Having the classroom come to the workers is often much more effective educationally and monetarily than requiring employees from across a wide system to travel to a central training location.


The interior of the LEMTU includes two complete control stands for diesel locomotive training.

Used most often by the railroad’s own employees, these cars sometimes serve a more public audience. Haz-Mat training cars travel the country today to teach first responders how to handle an accident on the rails.  Familiarization with the types of fixtures they’ll find on a tank car can make a world of difference. Cars can also be used to show shippers the proper way to load, unload and secure their products as well as providing safety tips for working around rail equipment.

Similar to instruction cars, many railroads maintain an exhibit car for public outreach as well. Filled with information about the railroad’s history and business, the cars also do an important job in educating about safety around trains and tracks and even employment information. Part education, part marketing, these cars are often scheduled to visit communities or museums as part of larger events.

tank car

Sponsored by the railroad and chemical industries, this tank car is fitted with multiple loading and unloading devices for training. The car travels with a converted boxcar and caboose.

A classroom isn’t very useful without a teacher. In most cases today, the instructors travel separately from the cars and stay in local hotels. Some modern cars travel with an accompanying caboose, converted to an office for the instructor. It was common for older cars to include an office and living space for the instructor as well as the classroom space. Accommodations were basic but included a bed, sink and toilet, desk and limited personal storage space.


Converted from an RPO and finished to match passenger cars of its day, this Pennsylvania Railroad air brake instruction car has been restored to working order at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Equipment for the instruction cars often comes from retired revenue freight or passenger cars. Coaches, baggage cars, Railway Post Offices, boxcars, tank cars, flat cars and cabooses have all been used. Sometimes the conversion shows little change on the outside other than special paint and lettering.


A two car training set from TTX is on its way to its next class. Both cars are converted from auto rack flatcars. One features multiple trailer hitches, the other enclosed instruction space.

Classes are usually held in or very near a large rail yard. Typically the car will be spotted on a little-used track near where the students can park and walk to the car without crossing active rails. “Blue flag” protection is used to make sure no other trains use the track while the cars are spotted there for class. Extra steps or ladders may be used to make it safer, especially for non-railroad employees, to get on and off the equipment. Typically the cars will be in town for a day or two so that multiple classes can be held, training or certifying everyone in that area. Then it’s off to the next yard or town.

Adding an instruction car to your model railroad could be a fun way to add a little variety to your rolling stock and create an interesting scene on one of your yard tracks. So look over your rule books and get your No. 2 pencils sharpened – school is on its way!

Happy Labor Day

1 09 2014

Happy Labor Day from all of us at Lionel!

The roots of the national Labor Day holiday actually have a strong connection to railroads. You can learn more about the connection in this earlier blog post!

Enjoy your holiday!



Freight Car Friday – 1905 Common Design Hoppers

29 08 2014

We recently looked at the Pennsylvania Railroad’s GLa hoppers, the inspiration for Lionel’s upcoming new models. These well-designed cars were also the inspiration for many prototype railroads as well.


The 1905 Common Design cars came from a variety of builders, but all shared similar traits and heritage. The plans shown here are from Standard Steel Car.

With an urgent need for an enormous quantity of steel coal cars, the Pennsylvania Railroad had to farm out production across several builders. No single company at the time could have produced all of the cars needed fast enough to meet the railroad’s demands. A consequence of these actions was that most of the major steel car builders now had copies of the new design which they were more than happy to repurpose for other customers.

The cars which followed are today collectively referred to as the “1905 Common Design.” 1905 because this was the year the new hopper designs were first delivered. “Common Design” because they had all emerged from the same drawings and shared in common most of the major design elements. They were not however a truly uniform “Standard Design” such as the later USRA cars which were all built to exactly the same plans. Despite overwhelming similarities to the PRR’s GLa, different builders and customers did make subtle changes to their cars. Still, there is enough uniformity within this family that it is worth linking them together through the common design description.

The 1905 cars found homes on railroads of all sizes, from the B&O to the P&WV.

The 1905 cars found homes on railroads of all sizes, from the B&O to the P&WV.

Production of cars of this general size lasted for several decades. Most of the major Eastern and Midwestern roads had at least a few, if not a few thousand, on their roster. For most, these would be their first all-steel hoppers, replacing wood hoppers or gondolas.

In most cases, cars differed in major dimensions from the PRR GLa by five inches or less in any category. Construction details were also very similar. The most common and obvious differences were changes in the end sills and posts, brake wheel and grab iron or ladder placements, and hopper door hardware.

These cars fell neatly in a time of freight car construction where new standards for construction and safety equipment were being refined and made universal. The Railroad Safety Appliance Act had started the process in 1893, but revisions in the law were still being made as late as 1910. Through collective organizations like the Master Car Builders’ Association, standards for everything from hand-holds to the printing of dimensional data and reporting marks were being standardized across all common-carrier railroads. The 1905 Common Design hoppers both reflect those changes and helped implement them as railroads realized the benefits of shared designs.

These standards allowed a more safe and efficient interchange of cars between railroads. The improvements in these steel cars over the older wooden cars meant greater payloads and longer service lives. Many of these cars would serve the railroads as late as the 1940s.

The 1905 hoppers are an important chapter in freight car history, but they are far from the end of the story. These cars cleared a path for similar developments with other car designs in the years leading up to World War I. It was during the War that the cars would take the next step towards a truly standard design under the auspices of the USRA. We’ll look at those cars and see their roots in these 1905 Common Design and the PRR’s GLa in the coming weeks.

New Product Spotlight – American Flyer Diesel Sounds Boxcars

25 08 2014

Are some of your American Flyer locomotives sounding a bit too quiet? Now you can add realistic diesel RailSounds to any American Flyer train simply by coupling up to one of the new RailSounds boxcars!

6-48870 Great Northern - Steam

6-48870 Great Northern – Steam

These boxcars feature the same great RailSounds you’ll find in our new diesels and steam locomotives. Simply couple the boxcar behind your locomotive and enjoy the same rich sounds you’ll get from our current releases in a train from any era. Diesel engine / steam chuff sounds are in sync with the speed of the train and the horn / whistle and bell is controllable by your conventional transformer.

6-48871 Erie - Steam

6-48871 Erie – Steam

Boxcars feature a holder for a 9 volt battery. Installing a battery will allow your sounds to continue even as you pass over switches, crossings or dirty track. A volume control knob is also included in the car so you can adjust the sound to your taste.

6-49064 New Haven - Diesel

6-49064 New Haven – Diesel

The diesel boxcars are available in New Haven and Union Pacific. Steam sounds cars come decorated for Erie and Great Northern. All feature metal frames, opening doors, and die-cast metal trucks with operating couplers and will negotiate an S-36 curve. Cars retail for $169.99. See your favorite American Flyer dealer to order yours today!

6-49065 Union Pacific - Diesel

6-49065 Union Pacific – Diesel

Freight Car Friday – Gunderson Freight Cars

22 08 2014

Nelson Gunderson arrived on the shores of what would become the state of Washington with literally nothing but the clothes on his back after his ship wrecked off the coast. It is ironic that the company which would later bear the Gunderson name would become such a powerful player in, of all things, transportation.

New Image

Gunderson’s most prevalent contribution to the freight car scene today are its numerous double-stack well cars. These cars have come a long way from their first prototypes.

The company that grew into a leader in railcar production, among other things, started with Nelson’s sons Al and Chet. The brothers’ first business ventures surrounded wheels, rims, and automotive parts. In 1936, they began building trailers for the logging industry. In 1941, they built their first ship – a tug boat for a ferry on the Columbia River.

During WWII, Gunderson built a variety of supplies and parts for the Navy. Their first payment for building landing craft at a newly constructed plant arrived just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to contracts, the war also brought challenges in obtaining materials and labor. Gunderson began welding schools to train the workforce it needed during the war – a practice that was retained and even expanded in peacetime.


With decks that convert from 2 to 3 levels, the MultiMax represents the cutting edge in auto transport.

Following the war, maritime production continued at the heart of Gunderson’s business. A substantial truck construction, sales and maintenance division remained as well. The company also ventured into water and fuel tanks, dry docks, leaves and canal gates, and structural steel. There were many experiments, failed attempts and missed opportunities along the way, but Gunderson always found success when they needed it and never failed to stop looking for the next opportunity.

Gunderson’s big break in the railroad industry came with an order for 150 steel underframes for the Southern Pacific in the 1950s. The company quickly realized that these “small” projects (compared to shipping barges, tug boats and tankers at least) were profitable and fast – meaning lots of repeat business. The SP liked the product they were getting and continued to up the order – by the end the project had grown to more than 2000 frames.

twin stackIn 1960, Gunderson went from supplying underframes to building the entire car with an order of 200 drop-bottom gondolas for the Union Pacific. The drop-bottom gon is not an easy car to build and when the newcomer to the industry pulled it off, the railroads took notice. Soon Gunderson was expanding their car shops and taking in orders.

The Gunderson’s brothers left the company in the 1960s, with the corporation itself sold to FMC. But the name was changed to the Marine and Rail Equipment Division (MRED) but its reputation for quality continued. Car production expanded through the 1960s and 1970s. The company was an early proponent of welded car construction. It also capitalized greatly on the boxcar boom of the 1970s. FMC production peaked 6.027 freight cars in 1979.


The boxcar boom and bust of the 1970s and 80s helped boost and nearly broke the builder. Thirty years later, the cars and company are both survivors.

In 1980 however, the bottom dropped out of the boxcar market. In 1982, the company built a total of just 25 railcars. Rather than throw in the towel, FMC simply continued its tradition of looking for the next big thing. It found it in the intermodal market.

FMC introduced an innovative new intermodal car in partnership with the Santa Fe. Itel later bought the rights to the car and more than 700 more were built for them. These new cars featured 10 articulated platforms, each of which was little more than a frame and a pad for a trailer’s tires. The lightweight car reduced weight and the articulated joints reduced the amount of coupler slack in the train.


Gunderson’s centerbeam flatcars were for the lumber industry what well cars were for intermodal.

In 1984, FMC partnered with Greenbrier to design and build a new double stack well car. As all of this was taking shape, FMC sold off the division. Greenbrier would be the primary shareholder. The Gunderson name was formally returned the company after the transaction with permission from the family. At first there was strong resistance from the railroads to the new double stack cars. Concerns over a high center of gravity and the requirement of higher clearances created real operating challenges for the railroads. With pressure from the container shipping companies however, the railroads began buying the cars. One look at the railroad scene today is all the proof you need of their success.

In addition to intermodal equipment, Gunderson was an early builder of new center partition flat cars or “center beams” for the lumber industry. The new cars greatly reduced loading and unloading times as well as damages while increasing capacity compared to conventional boxcars.

The Gunderson AutoMax is the largest auto rack on the rails.

The Gunderson AutoMax is the largest auto rack on the rails.

And so from the lows of 1982, by 1987 the company commanded a 50% share of the total freight car market for well cars and centerbeam flats. Soon new boxcar and gondola designs were added. In the 1990s, the Husky Stack well car emerged as the new mainstay of their intermodal sales. The Auto-Max articulated autorack came along in 1997. In 1999, the company marked the milestone of its 100,000th railcar.

Today Gunderson continues as part of Greenbrier’s larger family of railcar builders. It’s marine operations also continue to build a variety of craft – completing the circle nearly broken off the shores of Washington more than 130 years ago.