A refrigerator car (or "reefer") is a refrigerated boxcar, a piece of railroad rolling stock designed to carry perishable freight at specific temperatures. Refrigerator cars differ from simple insulated boxcars and ventilated boxcars (commonly used for transporting fruit), neither of which are fitted with cooling apparatus. Reefers can be ice-cooled, come equipped with any one of a variety of mechanical refrigeration systems, or utilize carbon dioxide (either as dry ice, or in liquid form) as a cooling agent. Milk cars (and other types of "express" reefers) may or may not include a cooling system, but are equipped with high-speed trucks and other modifications that allow them to travel with passenger trains.
Reefer applications can be divided into five broad groups: 1) dairy and poultry producers require refrigeration and special interior racks; 2) fruit and vegetable reefers tend to see seasonal use, and are generally used for long-distance shipping (for some shipments, only ventilation is necessary to remove the heat created by the ripening process); 3) manufactured foods (such as canned goods and candy) as well as beer and wine do not require refrigeration, but do need the protection of an insulated car; 4) meat reefers come equipped with specialized beef rails for handling sides of meat, and brine-tank refrigeration to provide lower temperatures (most of these units are either owned or leased by meat packing firms); and 5) fish and seafoods are transported, packed in wooden or foam polystyrene box with crushed ice, and ice bunkers are not used generally.
After the end of the American Civil War, Chicago, Illinois emerged as a major railway center for the distribution of livestock raised on the Great Plains to Eastern markets. Getting the animals to market required herds to be driven up to 1,200 miles (2,000 km) to railheads in Kansas City, Missouri, where they were loaded into specialized stock cars and transported live ("on-the-hoof") to regional processing centers. Driving cattle across the plains also caused tremendous weight loss, with some animals dying in transit.
Upon arrival at the local processing facility, livestock were either slaughtered by wholesalers and delivered fresh to nearby butcher shops for retail sale, smoked, or packed for shipment in barrels of salt. Costly inefficiencies were inherent in transporting live animals by rail, particularly the fact that about sixty percent of the animal's mass is inedible. The death of animals weakened by the long drive further increased the per-unit shipping cost. Meat packer Gustavus Swift sought a way to ship dressed meats from his Chicago packing plant to eastern markets.
Attempts were made during the mid-1800s to ship agricultural products by rail. As early as 1842, the Western Railroad of Massachusetts was reported in the June 15 edition of the Boston Traveler to be experimenting with innovative freight car designs capable of carrying all types of perishable goods without spoilage. The first refrigerated boxcar entered service in June 1851, on the Northern Railroad of New York (or NRNY, which later became part of the Rutland Railroad). This "icebox on wheels" was a limited success since it was only functional in cold weather. That same year, the Ogdensburg and Lake Champlain Railroad (O&LC) began shipping butter to Boston in purpose-built freight cars, utilizing ice for cooling.
The first consignment of dressed beef left the Chicago stock yards in 1857 in ordinary boxcars retrofitted with bins filled with ice. Placing meat directly against ice resulted in discoloration and affected the taste, and proved impractical. During the same period Swift experimented by moving cut meat using a string of ten boxcars with their doors removed, and made a few test shipments to New York during the winter months over the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR). The method proved too limited to be practical.
Detroit's William Davis patented a refrigerator car that employed metal racks to suspend the carcasses above a frozen mixture of ice and salt. He sold the design in 1868 to George H. Hammond, a Detroit meat packer, who built a set of cars to transport his products to Boston using ice from the Great Lakes for cooling. The load had the tendency of swinging to one side when the car entered a curve at high speed, and use of the units was discontinued after several derailments. In 1878 Swift hired engineer Andrew Chase to design a ventilated car that was well insulated, and positioned the ice in a compartment at the top of the car, allowing the chilled air to flow naturally downward. The meat was packed tightly at the bottom of the car to keep the center of gravity low and to prevent the cargo from shifting. Chase's design proved to be a practical solution to providing temperature-controlled carriage of dressed meats, and allowed Swift and Company to ship their products across the United States and internationally.
Swift's attempts to sell Chase's design to major railroads were rebuffed, as the companies feared that they would jeopardize their considerable investments in stock cars, animal pens, and feedlots if refrigerated meat transport gained wide acceptance. In response, Swift financed the initial production run on his own, then — when the American roads refused his business — he contracted with the GTR (a railroad that derived little income from transporting live cattle) to haul the cars into Michigan and then eastward through Canada. In 1880 the Peninsular Car Company (subsequently purchased by ACF) delivered the first of these units to Swift, and the Swift Refrigerator Line (SRL) was created. Within a year the Line’s roster had risen to nearly 200 units, and Swift was transporting an average of 3,000 carcasses a week to Boston, Massachusetts. Competing firms such as Armour and Company quickly followed suit. By 1920 the SRL owned and operated 7,000 of the ice-cooled rail cars. The General American Transportation Corporation would assume ownership of the line in 1930.
Live cattle and dressed beef deliveries to New York (short tons):
|(Stock Cars)||(Refrigerator Cars)|
|Year||Live Cattle||Dressed Beef|
Source: Railway Review, January 29, 1887, p. 62.
19th Century American Refrigerator Cars:
|1880||1,000 est.||310||1,310 est.|
|1885||5,010 est.||990||6,000 est.|
|1890||15,000 est.||8,570||23,570 est.|
|1895||21,000 est||7,040||28,040 est.|
|1900||54,000 est.||14,500||68,500 est.|
By the turn of the 20th century manufactured ice became more common. The Pacific Fruit Express (PFE), for example, maintained 7 natural harvesting facilities, and operated 18 artificial ice plants. Their largest plant (located in Roseville, California) produced 1,200 short tons of ice daily, and Roseville’s docks could accommodate up to 254 cars. At the industry’s peak, 13 million short tons of ice was produced for refrigerator car use annually.
The typical service cycle for an ice-cooled produce reefer (generally handled as a part of a block of cars):
Refrigerator cars required effective insulation to protect their contents from temperature extremes. "Hairfelt" derived from compressed cattle hair, sandwiched into the floor and walls of the car, was inexpensive but flawed — over its three- to four-year service life it would decay, rotting out the car's wooden partitions and tainting the cargo with a foul odor. The higher cost of other materials such as "Linofelt" (woven from flax fibers) or cork prevented their widespread adoption. Synthetic materials such as fiberglass and polystyrene, both introduced after World War II, offered the most cost-effective and practical solution.
The Topeka, Kansas shops of the Santa Fe Railway built five experimental refrigerator cars employing liquid nitrogen as the cooling agent in 1965. A mist of liquified nitrogen was released throughout the car if the temperature rose above a pre-determined level. Each car carried 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of refrigerant and could maintain a temperature of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (−30 °C). During the 1990s, a few railcar manufacturers experimented with the use of liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) as a cooling agent. The move was in response to rising fuel costs, and was an attempt to eliminate the standard mechanical refrigeration systems that required periodic maintenance. The CO2 system can keep the cargo frozen solid as long as 14 to 16 days.
Several hundred "cryogenic" refrigerator cars were placed in service transporting frozen foodstuffs, though they failed to gain wide acceptance (due, in part, to the rising cost of liquid carbon dioxide). Since cryogenic refrigeration is a proven technology and environmentally friendly, the rising price of fuel and the increased availability of carbon dioxide from Kyoto Protocol-induced capturing techniques may lead to a resurgence in cryogenic railcar usage. Cryo-Trans, Inc. (founded in 1985) has since dedicated 200 of its refrigerated cars to wine transportation service.
The cars (outfitted with state-of-the-art fiberglass insulation and axle-driven fans for internal air circulation) traveled throughout the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific systems, where they were displayed to promote PFE's post-World War II modernization. Though both units remained in service over 15 years (#45698 was destroyed in a wreck in May 1962, while #44739 was scrapped in 1966), no additional aluminum reefers were constructed, cost being the likely reason. Also in 1946 the Consolidated Steel delivered the world's only reefer to have a stainless steel body to the Santa Fe Refrigerator Despatch. The 40-foot car was equipped with convertible ice bunkers, side ventilation ducts, and axle-driven circulation fans. It was thought that stainless steel would better resist the corrosive deterioration resulting from salting the ice. The one-of-a-kind unit entered service as #13000, but was subsequently redesignated as #1300, and later given #4150 in 1955.
#4150 spent most of its life in express service. Cost was cited as the reason no additional units were ordered. The car was dismantled at Clovis, New Mexico in February, 1964.
The units, rated at 100 short tons (90.718 t) capacity (more than twice that of the largest conventional refrigerator car of the day) were economical to load and unload, as no secondary packaging was required. Apples, carrots, onions, and potatoes were transported in this manner with some success. Oranges, on the other hand, tended to burst under their own weight, even after wooden baffles were installed to better distribute the load. The Santa Fe Railway leased 100 of the hoppers from ACF, and in April, 1972 purchased 100 new units. The cars' irregular, orange-colored outer surface (though darker than the standard AT&SF yellow-orange used on reefers) tended to collect dirt easily, and proved difficult to clean. Santa Fe eventually relegated the cars to more typical, non-refrigerated applications.
Fruit and meat transportation in refers was not common in Japan. For fruits and vegetables, ventilator cars were enough due to the short distances involved. Meats need very low temperature, therefore transportation was by refer ships, since Japan's major cities are near the sea.
Refrigerator cars were damaged severely in WWII, and occupation forces condemned many refers for their food supply. Allied forces used them in an American fashion, so the ice bunkers were fully utilized. Supplies were landed primarily at Yokohama, and reefer trains ran from the port to US bases around Japan.
In 1966, JNR developed "resa 10000" and "remufu 10000" type refers that could travel at 100km/h (this was very fast in the sense of Japanese freight trains). They were used in fish freight express trains. "Tobiuo"(Flying fish) train from Shimonoseki to Tokyo, and "Ginrin"(Silver scale) train from Hakata to Tokyo, were operated.
In 1960s, refrigerator trucks had begun to displace railcars. Many strikes in the 1970s resulted in the loss of reliability and punctuality, important to fish transportation. In 1986, the last reefers were replaced by reefer containers.
Most Japanese reefers were four-wheeled due to the small traffic demands. There were very few bogie wagons in late years. The total number of Japanese reefers numbered approximately 8,100. At their peak, about 5,000 refers were operated in the late 1960s. Mechanical refrigerators were tested, but did not see widespread use.
There were no privately owned reefers in Japan, as compared to US practice. This is because fish transportation were protected by national policies and rates were kept low, and there was little profit reefer ownership.
Standard refrigerated transport is often utilized for good with less than 14 days of refrigerated "shelf life": avocados, cut flowers, green leafy vegetables, lettuce, mangos, meat products, mushrooms, peaches and nectarines, pineapples and papayas, sweet cherries, and tomatoes. "Express" reefers are typically employed in the transport of special perishables: commodities with a refrigerated shelf life of less than 7 days such as human blood, fish, green onions, milk, strawberries, and certain pharmaceuticals.
The earliest express-service refrigerator cars entered service around 1890, shortly after the first express train routes were established in North America. The cars did not come into general use until the early 20th century. Most units designed for express service are larger than their standard counterparts, and are typically constructed more along the lines of baggage cars than freight equipment. Cars must be equipped with speed-rated trucks and brakes, and — if they are to be run ahead of the passenger car consist — must also incorporate an air line for pneumatic braking, a communication signal air line, and a steam line for train heating. Express units were typically painted in passenger car colors, such as Pullman green.
The first purpose-built express reefer emerged from the Erie Railroad's Susquehanna Shops on August 1, 1886. By 1927 some 2,218 express cars traveled America's rails, and three years later that number was 3,264. In 1940 private rail lines began to build and operate their own reefers, the Railway Express Agency (REA) being by far the largest. In 1948 the REA roster (which would continue to expand into the 1950s) numbered approximately 1,800 cars, many of which were World War II "troop sleepers" modified for express refrigerated transport. By 1965, due to a decline in refrigerated traffic, many express reefers were leased to railroads for use as bulk mail carriers.
For many years, virtually all of the perishable traffic in the United States was carried by the railroads. While railroads were subject to government regulation regarding shipping rates, trucking companies could set their own rate for hauling agricultural products, giving them a competitive edge. In March 1979 the ICC exempted rail transportation of fresh fruits and vegetables from all economic regulation. Once the "Agricultural Exemption Clause" was removed from the Interstate Commerce Act, railroads began aggressively pursuing trailer-on-flatcar (TOFC) business (a form of intermodal freight transport) for refrigerated trailers. Taking this one step further, a number of carriers (including the PFE and SFRD) purchased their own refrigerated trailers to compete with interstate trucks.
The final chapter has not, as many have predicted, been written for the refrigerator car in America. The dawn of the 21st century has seen the first significant reefer orders since the early 1970s.
In 1970 Tropicana orange juice was shipped in bulk via insulated boxcars in one weekly round-trip from Florida to Kearny, New Jersey. By the following year, the company was operating two 60-car unit trains a week, each carrying around 1 million U.S. gallons (4 million liters) of juice. On June 7, 1971 the "Great White Juice Train" (the first unit train in the food industry, consisting of 150 one hundred short ton insulated boxcars fabricated in the Alexandria, Virginia shops of Fruit Growers Express) commenced service over the 1,250-mile (2,000-kilometer) route. An additional 100 cars were soon added, and small mechanical refrigeration units were installed to keep temperatures constant. Tropicana saved $40 million in fuel costs during the first ten years in operation.
|RA||Brine-tank ice bunkers||RPB||Mechanical refrigerator with electro-mechanical axle drive|
|RAM||Brine-tank ice bunkers with beef rails||RPL||Mechanical refrigerator with loading devices|
|RAMH||Brine-tank with beef rails and heaters||RPM||Mechanical refrigerator with beef rails|
|RB||No ice bunkers — heavy insulation||RS||Bunker refrigerator — common ice bunker car|
|RBL||No ice bunkers and loading devices||RSB||Bunker refrigerator — air fans and loading devices|
|RBH||No ice bunkers — gas heaters||RSM||Bunker refrigerator with beef rails|
|RBLH||No ice bunkers — loading devices and heaters||RSMH||Bunker refrigerator with beef rails and heaters|
|RCD||Solid carbon-dioxide refrigerator||RSTC||Bunker refrigerator — electric air fans|
|RLO||Special car type — permanently-enclosed (covered hopper type)||RSTM||Bunker refrigerator — electric air fans and beef rails|
Note: Class B refrigerator cars are those designed for passenger service; insulated boxcars are designated Class L.