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.



Freight Car Friday – The Juice Train

8 08 2014

Thirsty for a more efficient way of moving fresh product, Tropicana Products teamed with the railroads to create a novel service which remains one of the most distinctive unit trains to be found anywhere, the “Juice Train.” While the cars, the routes and even the railroads have changed since its inception, one thing has always remained constant; keeping “the Juice” moving is a dispatcher’s top priority.

Juice Train

The Juice Train highballs north on CSX on a late spring evening. The train has just crossed the historic Thomas Viaduct near Baltimore and its sweet contents will be on local delivery trucks by tomorrow morning.

The unique operation began in 1970 when Tropicana started shipping juice from its Bradenton, Florida processing plant north in large insulated boxcars. By 1971, 150 new dedicated cars from Fruit Growers Express gave the company enough equipment for several complete unit train sets. The roster was soon expanded to 250 cars, some with refrigeration units added to help maintain temperatures on the hottest days of the year when insulation alone wasn’t quite enough.

Initially the train used Seaboard Coast Line, Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac and Penn Central rails on its run from Tampa to Kearny, New Jersey. The last part of the run put the train under the catenary and GG-1 and E44 electric locomotives could often be found on the point.

modern Tropicana car

Tropicana’s newest cars returned to the white color of the first train but with today’s instantly recognizable trademark graphics. The satellite-controlled refrigeration units were but a dream when the original cars were delivered however.

Railroad mergers changed the names to CSX and Conrail. As Conrail rolled back its freight operations on the Northeast Corridor, the route shifted to the nearly parallel CSX, former B&O line north of Alexandria, Virginia before riding former Reading and Lehigh Valley rails. Because of the priority schedule of the train however, it will be rerouted if a derailment or major construction project prevents timely service on the normal route. It has run as far west as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on its trip north.

What started with just two 60-car trains a week has grown to as many as 10 weekly trains, including new runs to Cincinnati, Ohio. Train lengths can vary from as few as a few dozen cars to well over 60 depending on the season. In 1999, a new Jersey City, NJ facility was opened on the north end. A new facility in Ft. Pierce, Florida now sees connecting cars coming from the Florida East Coast Railway as well. And in addition to the New Jersey and Ohio unit trains there are several carloads of juice shipped daily to California’s City of Industry via CSX and Union Pacific – often on the head end of priority double-stack trains for fast handling.

insulated boxcar

Many of the older cars still carry the orange paint scheme. Note the small refrigeration units added below the floor of these insulated boxcars.

Empty cars returning south receive less priority but must still be moved efficiently to ensure a constant supply. At times the cars have returned in solid unit trains. Other times cars were sent back as they were emptied as part of regular mixed-train consists.

Even people who don’t know a lot about trains can easily relate to the taste of fresh orange juice. That makes the Juice Train the perfect marketing tool for all companies involved. And the freight cars themselves are really a major part of this train’s appeal.

CSX reefer

CSX owned reefers show up in the trains as well, some with Tropicana markings.

The Juice Train isn’t just a rolling refrigerator, it’s also a gigantic billboard. The large cars have worn a variety of paint schemes featuring the Tropicana logos – modern “billboard reefers” for sure! At times painted white, orange or even dark blue, the long train of bright cars with the familiar trademarks makes quite a statement as it rolls along its heavily populated corridor. In 2012 the train’s unique character made it the perfect subject for a promotional article and video for General Electric’s locomotives as well as CSX’s performance and service.

There have been several different types of cars used on the Juice Train since 1970, from insulated 50′ boxcars to modern mechanical reefers. In addition to Tropicana’s cars, leased cars from CSX and FGE have also been employed when needed during peak times. The initial order of cars came from FGE. Since then PC&F and Trinity have supplied equipment. Today’s train often includes a mix of the modern white Trinity cars along with some of the older PC&F and FGE cars in a mixture of the new white and older orange schemes.

Whether you enjoy studying freight cars, railroad operations or just a refreshing glass of OJ, the Juice Train is certainly a fun part of the railroad scene!

Freight Car Friday – Pacific Car and Foundry

11 07 2014

Pacific Car and Foundry, best known in its later years for its mechanical refrigerators and insulated boxcars, had its roots in the logging industry. The small company has had ties to major carbuilders and projects but for most of its history was a family business.

log car

It should come as no surprise that PC&F’s first freight cars would serve the logging industry.

The Pacific Car and Foundry name first appeared in 1917 as a result of a merger between the Seattle Car and Foundry Company and its top regional competitor, Twohy Brothers Company. The corporate history however dates back to as early as 1901 when William Pigott first established the Railway Steel & Supply Company.

This firms first railcars were logging disconnects. These cars were not much more than trucks which were placed beneath either end of a large log. The first skeleton log cars came in about 1908 under the Hercules trade name. These cars were much safer than the disconnects yet still had a much lower tare weight than conventional flat cars.

SP 691752

PC&F’s “Beer Cars” are one of their more common designs. For a view of the opposite side of this car, see last month’s blog on the subject.

Logging cars would continue to make up the majority of sales for the then Seattle Car and Foundry Company from 1911 through the merger in 1917. Total production had averaged less than 800 cars per year. Shortly after the merger however, the new United States Railway Administration delivered the company an order for 2000 boxcars.

In the 1920s, the company began to develop two different but successful product lines. Its Renton plant continued to turn out quality products in large quantities for the logging industry. Increasingly however, the trucks were of the rubber-tired variety. Meanwhile its Portland plant had developed a successful line of refrigerator rail cars.


Lionel reefer

A PC&F car originally built for Pacific Fruit Express served as the prototype for Lionel’s O and S scale models.

American Car and Foundry acquired PC&F in 1924 but the company continued to operate and market its cars under its own name. Pigott’s sons, William J. and Paul, bought the company back from ACF in 1934. That decade would challenge every car builder of course, but PC&F remained intact. Declining car sales were offset by ventures into other manufacturing and corporate diversification from the 1930s through the 1960s. Following ACF control, the primary railcar product remained reefers. Notable among the other operations was the structural steel division which produced steel for Seattle’s Space Needle and New York’s World Trade Center.


Although best known for insulated boxcars and reefers, PC&F also built cars for other service. This auto parts car is one example.

The third generation of the Pigott family, Paul’s son Charles, assumed control of the company upon his father’s death in 1961. In 1972, PC&F was reorganized as PACCAR, and Pacific Car and Foundry became a division within the company and continued to build freight cars until 1984. Although the company is no longer serving the rail industry, PACCAR remains a major supplier for its trucking competition.

Although they have been out of production for thirty years or more, many of PC&F’s boxcars and reefers can still be found roaming the rails. A few earlier examples of their craftsmanship have found their way into museums.

Freight Car Friday – Beer Cars

23 05 2014

As the days are getting longer and warmer, the thought of finishing this “Freight Car Friday night” with a cold beer is probably starting to sound pretty good! And chances are good that your beer had a ride on the rails on its way to the tap.


The brightly decorated “Billboard Reefers” advertised their wares as they traveled.

Compared to the history of brewing, railroads are just a young upstart. But the expansion of railroad networks in the Nineteenth Century had a tremendous impact on the making of beer. Like most other products, the ability to move large quantities of raw materials and finished goods over greater distances at reduced costs allowed brewers to grow from local blends to national brands.

Brewers could now buy barley by the boxcar – and ship their beer in new refrigerated cars to thirsty markets all over North America. It did not take long for the economies of scale to work in favor of those enterprising brew houses that could position themselves on a rail head.

beer car

Pacific Car and Foundry’s insulated boxcars like Southern Pacific 691752 are often referred to as “Beer Cars” and are commonly seen in this service.

Rightfully proud of their name and heritage, brewing companies were among the first to treat the cars which carried their products as traveling billboards. The era of the “Billboard Reefer” saw elaborate graphics applied to the sides of the wooden cars. Beer advertising ended with prohibition and the ICC outlawed the advertising arrangements for a completely different reason in 1934.

Following the repeal of prohibition however, the beer was once again rolling on the rails, albeit in more demur rolling stock. Temperature control is of critical importance to the brewing companies. Improvements in freight car designs in the 1960s, specifically insulated boxcars, helped railroads retain at least some of the long-haul shipments. Just as the rails had once opened new transportation avenues, the growing interstate highway system was now making trucks an increasingly attractive option, especially on short – medium distance runs.

tank car

A string of tank cars carried beer concentrate from Colorado to a bottling plant in Virginia. The tank cars caught the attention of rival companies and even found their way into national television commercials.

Although mechanical reefers could be used, the insulated boxcar is usually the vehicle of choice for beer today. The insulation works both ways sometimes. Not only does it keep the contents chilled when traveling through hot climates, it can also prevent it from freezing in the winter. In particularly hot or cold times, railroads have to take extra care to keep the cars moving to prevent spoilage.

The raw materials for brewing also still regularly arrive by rail. One of the more interesting moves was Coors’ shipment of wort (concentrated beer) from Colorado to a bottling plant in Virginia. A new facility has made this shipment unnecessary. Coors also operates its own interplant railroad in Colorado, complete with special covered hoppers equipped with pneumatic doors and timers that automatically release the proper amount of material in time with the brewing process.


The Manufacturers Railway’s cars were finished in an attractive color scheme, but one that blended well into the rest of the railyard. Given the highly-desirable contents carried within, this may have been a wise disguise!

Coors isn’t alone in its railroad operations. The Manufacturers Railway in St. Louis was owned by Anheuser Busch, although its attractive paint schemes had no mention of its brewery ties. The railroad served the famous brewery from 1887 to 2011 and has since been taken over by FTRL.

Whether your preference is bright billboard reefers or today’s discreet covered hoppers and insulated boxcars, a brewery can be an interesting addition to a train layout. Over the years, there have even been train-themed brews which could inspire some interesting and appropriate models for your “micro brewery.” And as always, please enjoy your beer and trains responsibly!



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 – Wine Cars

14 02 2014

How about a big toast for Valentines Day? Wine is certainly not at the top of any railroad’s books when it comes to commodities moved by rail, but over the years wine has been shipped by rail in many forms and in many different types of cars.


Shipments of wine in tank cars were not unheard of. “Tank car wine” did imply a reputation for quality however.

Wine, especially the finer varieties, is not typically associated with large-scale mass production like other beverages. Of course bulk shipping is what the railroads do best. Nevertheless, railroads are still an economic alternative for larger shipments over greater distances. A good example is carload shipment of bottled wines bound for distributers from coast-to-coast.

While wine does not require refrigeration, railroads must still take care to avoid big swings in temperature during shipping. The car of choice for bottled wine shipments is the RBL or insulated box car. Shipments originating in big production areas like California or Western New York may be gathered and shipped by rail to distribution centers and warehouses across the country. From here the boxcar-sized loads are broken down and delivered by truck to smaller centers and markets.

wine box

Boxed wine? A carload of bottled wine is headed to a distributer near Harrisburg, PA.

But wine has, and still is, also shipped in bulk in tank cars. As you might guess, these are not always of the finest variety. “Tank car wine” has long been used as a term to describe a cheap wine suitable for cooking, or simply as a derogatory remark about the quality of whatever was being served.

Wine tank cars have taken many forms. Many featured multiple domes – up to six. Today’s cars share the now-common construction features of frameless designs and (usually) a single small loading hatch. And where once the wine companies commonly placed their names in bold letters on the sides of the tank, today minimal markings are standard.

wine train

The Napa Wine Train is the best known of many excursions that combine fine dining and the romance of train travel.

The Eastern Wine Company moved its famous “Chateau Martin” wines across the country in former milk cars. These cars look similar to a boxcar or reefer on the outside but contained a pair of glass-lined tanks in the insulated interior. The cars were easy to spot in their purple paint and bold graphics and lasted into the 1970s.

Today you can of course also enjoy your wine on board the train. Excursion railroads all across the country offer “wine trains” where you can sample fine wines and dining as you roll along in restored rail cars. So if you’re looking to surprise your sweetheart with wine and a train this year, might we suggest such an excursion instead of a bottle of “tank car wine?”

Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars that Changed the World: The Reefer

5 04 2013

Freight cars are apart of our everyday life, whether we realize it or not. As part of a global transportation network, trains carry the goods and raw materials that make life as we know it possible today. But every now and then a car comes along that changes the way we live and work. Throughout April, we’ll be highlighting some of these cars each Friday.

The Reefer


The reefer changed our diet and our production.

Although the addition of insulation and ice to a boxcar may not seem like a major revolution – the effect advent of refrigerated rail transport had sweeping impacts on agriculture, diet and the health of the industrialized world.

Until the invention of the iced refrigerator car, the diet of the average person was limited to what could be grown locally in season, or preserved through the rest of the year. Farming and food production was generally also a local or regional business. Just as refrigeration at home would change the way we prepared and stored food, so too would refrigerated transit change the way society as a whole could consume crops from around the world.

straight line map

Railroads and shippers took great pride in their reefers, often given them bright or elaborate paint schemes.

With the advent of the reefer, and the system of icing stations needed to support it, people in northern climates could enjoy fresh oranges, bananas, lettuce, lemons, tomatoes, etc. nearly year round. Processed beef could be shipped around the continent. And economies of scale would come to impact agriculture the way they had shaped the manufacturing industries.

The cars came about just in time for the fertile growing fields of California to be connected to the rest of the country by rail. In the heartland of the country, cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis became hubs for beef and brewing.

Meat Reefer

Reefers used in meat service were specially equipped and usually owned by the packing company.

In the days before roads and refrigerated trucks became strong competition, railroads not only gathered the harvest for delivery to these large hubs, they also distributed it to individual towns and retailers along the right of way. From big city produce markets to less-than-carload deliveries at small towns and even the daily “milk runs,” the railroad and the reefer fed America.

The reefers themselves became highly specialized to serve specific commodities. The needs of the dressed beef industry for example were very different from fruit growers or even fisheries. And then there were the insulated boxcars preferred by shippers of canned goods and other commodities.


Mechanical reefers replaced the labor-intensive icing process, but the technology wasn’t enough to keep all of the produce on the rails.

Eventually, mechanical refrigeration took the place of ice. Refrigerated trailers replaced the reefers for short-haul deliveries and more. Today, many of the refrigerated shipments by rail are on trailers and containers in intermodal trains. The reefers have not vanished from the scene, but their visibility is greatly reduced.

Today we take the reefer for granted, but the dining options we enjoy every day were luxuries just 150 years ago. While railroads changed our lives in many ways, perhaps none was more profound than at the dinner table.