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.
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.
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.
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.
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.