About the Santa Fe Historical Society

Reefer Operations on Model Railroads

with an emphasis on the ATSF

March 17, 2003

Types of Reefers

A reefer is a reefer is a reefer - right. Wrong. As the October, 2002, issue of The Dispatcher's Office states, "there was no such thing as a refrigerator car suitable for general service." Reefer users could be divided into at least four broad groups.

  • Meat reefers had special meat rails for handling sides of meat and brine-tank refrigeration to enable lower temperatures. Most meat reefers were owned or leased by meat packers.
  • Dairy and poultry producers required refrigeration and special interior racks.
  • Fruit and vegetable reefers were generally used for long distance shipping. This need tended to be seasonal and included FGEX, PFE, WFEX and SRDF reefers.
  • Manufactured foods such as canned goods and candy as well as beer and wine that did not require ice but did need protection of an insulated car. Remember that no beer and wine was produced between 1920 and 1933. The AAR classified non-refrigerated insulated boxcars as reefers.

In addition there were both freight and passenger express versions of many of these cars.

Santa Fe offered 9 different forms of ice service to fruit and vegetable shippers. Services varied as to who was responsible for precooling, icing, and re-icing the cars. Also the cars had various combinations of air circulating fans, steel floor racks, dry floor racks, cubic capacities, bunker sizes, collapsible bunkers or sliding doors. Many shippers would not accept substitutes. Some examples:

  • Wine - 50' cars
  • Citrus fruits required standard 40' cars with 9,000 pound bunker capacity. About 70% of cars for oranges must be fan-equipped.
  • Dry wood and steel floor rack were required for cardboard carton shipments.
  • Certain fruits, such as grapes, tree fruits and melons required fan cars but with 10,000 pound bunkers. Grape shippers generally requested steel floor racks and sliding doors to help with the use of a fork lift truck.
  • Potatoes and onions did not require fan cars and could use lower bunker capacity, though some shippers did request fan cars..

The 1950 AAR codes list 11 types of reefers:

  • BR - Passenger express reefer.
  • LRC - Special car type: heavily insulated, designed primarily for the transportation of Solid Carbon Dioxide.
  • RA - brine tank refrigerator, primarily for meat.
  • RAM - RA equipped with beef (Meat) rails.
  • RB - Beverage, Ice, Water or Vinegar refrigeration. Much like RS but without ice bunkers.
  • RCD - solid Carbon Dioxide refrigerator.·
  • RP - mechanical reefers with independent power.
  • RPA - mechanical reefer powered by mechanical drive from car axle.
  • RPB - mechanical reefer powered by generator from car axle.
  • RS - ice bunker reefers.
  • RSM - RS with beef (meat) rails.

The 1941 edition of SFRD Circular 2-J, Rules and Regulations Governing the Handling of Perishable Freight, lists 15 types of reefers.

Since I am modeling the ATSF in 1950-53, my expertise excludes mechanical reefers and focuses primarily on reefers for perishables and the Armour packing plant in Emporia.

Prior to 1940, most reefers had wood bodies, wood sides, steel ends and roofs. This was partly because wood was such a good insulator. All steel cars began in 1936 but did not take off until after WWII. Ice reefers continued in service until the early 70s.

Mechanical reefers were developed around 1950, but they cost twice as much to build. Railroads were slow to make that change. At the same time they were being developed, the frozen food industry was blossoming requiring lower temperatures for reefers and more precise control of temperatures. The same technology that made mechanical reefers possible, made mechanically refrigerated highway trucks possible, thus leading to a massive decline in rail reefers.

The predominate use of reefers were for moving produce. Most railway owned reefers were in produce service. Meat packers primarily owned their own reefers, predominately 36' reefers. Most slaughterhouses were in the Midwestern states and shipped their meat to the large metropolitan areas east of the Mississippi. In the 70s, many packing plants and railroads teamed up so that meat was loaded into refrigerated highway trailers and loaded on TOFC flats at the packing plan for initial movement to distribution points.

In 1930, reefers reached their peak with 181,000 in service. That dropped to 127,200 in 1950 and 80,000 by 1980. Another interesting statistic compares the private ownership to railroad ownership. In 1930, 78% were privately owned, 85% in 1950, but only 16% by 1980. Armour, one of the major players early on, had 12,000 reefers in 1900 - 20% of the national fleet at that time. In 1950, 70% of the cars were owned by 5 companies:

  • Pacific Fruit Express (UP/SP controlled) - 38,840 cars
  • Santa Fe Refrigerator Dispatch - 14,514 cars
  • Fruit Growers Express - 12,063 cars
  • American Refrigerator Transit (Wabash & MP primarily) - 11,457 cars
  • Merchants Dispatch (NYC controlled) - 9,690 cars

Billboard reefers were outlawed by the ICC in 1934. There is a very informative article on this in the October 2002 The Dispatcher's Office.

Keith Jordan has supplied a roster of ATSF Ice Reefers. For a PDF file of these:

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