Milk cars blur the lines between tank cars and reefers. They’re a little bit of both – and have come in many shapes and sizes.
Through the first decades of the 20th Century, the railroad was often the most efficient way for rural farmers to get their products to urban markets. The daily “milk run” was a regular train on just about every branchline. Operating like a local passenger train, the milk train would make a stop at every station along the line, often including small flag-stops, to pick up milk by the can or carload. The train often included a coach for passengers and sometimes carried mail, express or other less-than-carload traffic as well. In the 19th Century, “market cars” often carried other local produce to markets as well.
The most extensive and notable milk train operations were found on the New England railroads like the Rutland, Boston and Albany, Boston and Maine and others. But milk trains could be found in much of the country – anywhere there was milk production.
To haul the milk, railroads used a variety of equipment. Small lots were often carried on board baggage and express cars, loaded on station platforms. Carload quantities typically rode in special cars equipped with one or more insulated tanks. In some cars, these tanks were housed inside a larger carbody. Others looked like inverted bathtubs on a flatcar. The tanks were generally smaller than those used for other materials.
Shipping the milk required temperature controls – keeping the milk cool but not frozen – and fast transit times. The latter were a challenge given the many stops typically required along the milk runs. As roads improved, farmers generally shifted to truck transportation as opposed to the more labor and time-intensive rail movements. Since most of these milk runs were generally short-hauls, and required a significant overhead, most railroads did not put up much of a fight.
Despite their relatively low-profile on the railroads, the “milk run” certainly worked its way into popular culture and even the vernacular language. These trains were after all the livelihood of rural America for generations. And of course, a milk run on your layout would be perfect for this Christmas season – perhaps with a flatcar of cookies to match! Santa will certainly appreciate that under the tree.