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 – B&O’s I-12 Caboose

27 12 2013

A caboose seems just the right way to bring the year to a close on Freight Car Friday. This year we take a look at one of the most iconic of these crummies, the B&O’s distinctive I-12 “Wagontop.”

In an era where railroads were often fiercely independent, it was not uncommon to see in-house designs for equipment. This was especially true for cabooses. On the Baltimore and Ohio, these unique designs were born out of more than just corporate pride – it was a matter of economic survival in the Great Depression.

The Wagontop Design


C-2445 has retired to Grafton, WV – a town as closely associated with the B&O as the “Wagontop” itself.

Amid the troubled years of the Great Depression, the B&O was faced with many problems. Two of the most pressing were a need for new freight cars (but with little funds for new purchases) and a work force in need of meaningful labor. The B&O could not afford to keep idle hands on the job, but at the same time did not want to see a valued labor pool sent home – nor morale of the workers retained drop any lower.

In 1934 the B&O’s Chief Mechanical Officer, John Tatum, devised a new car design that could solve both of these problems. Tatum’s design utilized the frames of old wood boxcars as a starting point. Steel support hoops – shaped in an upside down “U” were attached to the frame. Steel sheets were then attached to the sides of these hoops to form the sides and roof. This gave the cars a look similar to the classic covered wagon and the “Wagontop” was born.

The first experiments were with boxcars. Covered hoppers followed soon after. Through the remainder of the Depression, the B&O turned out more than 4000 Wagontop cars in its own car shops. The cars not only kept the workers employed, they could be built for less than the cost of new equipment. And the design itself proved quite valid – as durable as it was distinctive.

The I-12 Caboose

Following on the success of these revenue cars, the B&O applied the same design and construction principles to a new caboose. The first prototype cabooses were classed I-5. Shortly thereafter, construction began on a fleet of 100 similar I-12 cabooses in the Keyser, WV shops. These were completed in 1941. An additional run of 25 came by 1945.

B&O Caboose

The B&O’s “wagontop” cars featured bay-windows long before they became popular on other roads.

In addition to the distinctive Wagontop construction, these cars employed another design feature that was relatively novel for the time, the bay-window. While not the first examples of bay-windows being used on the side of the caboose, the B&O’s were the first to do so on a large scale. The company liked them so much that they became the standard on the line for future orders as well. It would not be until the 1960s that other roads took to the bay-window in a big way.

The lower height afforded by the lack of a cupola was accentuated by the short length of the I-12 as well. At only 30 feet in length, the I-12 was petite compared to standards on other roads. While they were short, they were also quite rugged. Their sturdy construction made them the caboose of choice in mountains where pusher locomotives were coupled to the rear of the train. This eliminated the need to put the caboose behind the locomotives or have the crew ride in the cab.


One of the more noticeable (and regrettable) additions to many of the I-12s later in their careers were rock guards on the windows.

Many of the venerable cars lasted well into the Chessie era. Unlike the early cupola-equipped cars of other roads, the view from the innovative I-12 was never compromised by new high-cube boxcars. While some of the details and crew comforts were upgraded (like the switch from coal to oil heat) the iconic look of the cabooses remained relatively unchanged over more than 40 years of service.

Today many of these classic cars have been preserved in museums and parks all across the former B&O territory. Lionel has reproduced this car as well and it will look right at home behind an EM-1, a set of Sharks, or even an SD40! It’s just one of many reasons why its hard not to love the B&O.

Freight Car Friday – Beyond the Rails

20 09 2013

After a long and useful career on the railroads, many freight cars find their way into a second job off the rails in their retirement. Trains have been used for a variety of functions, from restaurants and motels to storage sheds, even bridges. These can all make interesting modeling projects (especially for that old boxcar that’s fallen to the floor one time too many!)

caboose office

This caboose office was the inspiration for our own scrap yard caboose project.

We covered a few of these conversions in our Railroad Bone Yard modeling project. From a caboose-turned-office to reefer and tender storage sheds these projects required very little modification to the models. The same is usually true for prototype adaptations. While the train car serves a practical function, the owners often like to preserve its history. This is almost always the case in cars re-purposed as office, sleeping or eating spaces. While the inside of the car may be gutted and transformed into a functional space, the authentic railroad look of the exterior is a big part of the draw and charm – even if it’s no longer painted for the railroad to which it once belonged.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Boxcars and now intermodal trailers are common storage solutions. This one also forms part of a wall.

Although functionality may be the primary motive in purchasing these old rail cars, they have been a major savior to the rail preservation interests as well. Often unknown survivors of a “lost” car turn up in backyards or work sites. While often not in original condition, they are the best starting point for historic restorations. Take Camden and Amboy coach No. 3 as an example. Now the second-oldest surviving passenger car in the United States (the car is owned by the Smithsonian and on loan to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania) this 1836-built car toured with the John Bull to World’s Fairs and exhibitions all across the country. It was restored by the Pennsylvania Railroad after being discovered on a farm converted to a chicken coop.


Even within the confines of a museum some cars are put to creative use. The Pennsylvania’s “Queen Mary” flatcar’s deck has ample room for a concert stage in Altoona.

Even if they never return to the rails, these out-of-place trains are always a great find on a road trip across the country. The American southwest is dotted by dozens if not hundreds of retired 40′ Santa Fe boxcars and steel reefers being used as sheds. Caboose motels offer a unique overnight experience – even if the accommodations have been “civilized” over the original appointments. And those iconic cabooses show up in community parks just about anywhere the rails ran (and even in a few places they didn’t) since their widespread retirement in the 1980s.

You’ll even find some cars working hard in their retirement as part of a retaining wall or even the classic flatcar bridge. Beneath the Susquehanna River lays the twisted wreckage of hoppers and gondolas used to plug the whirlpool created by the infamous Knox Mine collapse in 1959.

So clearly a freight car’s utility goes far beyond the gauge of the rails! Do you have any favorite off-the-rails freight cars? Have you added any to your layout?

Freight Car Friday – F.R.E.D.

28 12 2012

We need something appropriate for the last Friday of the year. In 2011 we ended with the caboose, so this year let’s take a look at the little box that took its place. FRED (Flashing Rear End Device) may never share the iconic stature of the caboose, but it is still an integral part of freight railroading.


An EOT brings up the rear of a westbound CSX freight train.

Hard to believe, but the FRED has been around for more than forty years! First tested on the Florida East Coast in 1969, the device (also called an EOT or ETD for End of Train Device) caught on nationwide over the next two decades. While the caboose had become something special for all of us, for conductors and brakemen it meant a livelihood.

The loss of the caboose meant many cost savings for the railroad – most of them coming at the expense of labor. This transition saw the size of crews drop from an average of four to two. It was the single biggest threat to railroad jobs since the arrival of the diesel. But savings were badly needed by the railroad industry as a whole in the 1970s and 1980s and the jobs lost with cabooses were just one part of the overall picture as railroads streamlined their infrastructure and cut operating costs in every department.


The caboose is not gone completely. Trains like this local freight often carry a caboose if they need to make a long reverse run. This gives the conductor a safe platform to watch the rails ahead.

For many years, cabooses remained mandatory by state requirements. Virginia and Montana were the last to eliminate the caboose regulations in the United States in 1988 . They lasted a little longer in Canada.

In 1988, a new caboose cost $80,000. A new FRED cost $4,500. The Association of American Railroads estimated that cabooses cost the railroads $400 million / year to operate – that was nearly 25% of the $1.3 billion total profits of the industry in 1986. (Source: The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 1988)

 The Evolution of the EOT

Lionel EOT

Lionel has included working EOTs on some of our cars, like the Tank Train sets.

There is more to these boxes than just a flashing light. The EOT also monitors the pressure in the air line used to activate the brakes on the train. This information is sent to a screen in the cab via a radio signal.

More recently “Smart” EOTs have become available. These not only read and transmit data to the cab, they can also receive a signal from the locomotive to release the air from the end of the train. This provides both a faster and smoother stop and the drop in pressure works toward the middle of the train from both ends, instead of having to travel the entire length of the train. Many also carry a GPS transponder.


FRED does make an interesting subject for a night photograph. Here the EOT of an eastbound freight traces its path as a westbound approaches.

Early EOTs were battery-powered. A solar cell on the device was used to turn the flashing beacon off during daylight hours to conserve battery life. Today’s are powered by a small dynamo which works off of pressure from the air line. These are easy to spot from their distinctive, high-pitched “whirring” sound.

For many of us, a train just isn’t quite the same without a caboose on the end. It is doubtful that FRED will ever take the caboose’s place in our hearts or our popular culture, but it is definitely here to stay. At least until the next thing comes along…