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!