Shipping the fridge

Today, the nation’s rail network is just 94,942 miles, less than half of what it was in 1970. Pity that, as there are a lot of things trains did faster, cheaper, and more cleanly than the trucks that by and large replaced them.

In the first half of the last century,  railroads used these and other advantages of steel wheel technology to provide services we tend to think of as modern, or in some cases even futuristic. The Pacific Fruit Growers Express delivered fresh California fruits and vegetables to the East Coast using far less energy and labor than today’s truck fleets. The rhythmically named Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific (a.k.a. the Milwaukee Road) hauled hundred-car freight trains over the Cascade and Rocky Mountains using electric engines drawing on the region’s abundant hydropower. The Railway Express Agency, which attached special cars to passenger trains, provided Americans with a level of express freight service that cannot be had for any price today, offering door-to-door delivery of everything from canoes to bowls of tropical fish to, in at least one instance, a giraffe. Into the 1950s, it was not uncommon for a family to ship its refrigerator to and from a lakeside cabin for the summer via the REA; thanks to the physics of steel-on-steel conveyance, appliance-sized items could be moved for trivially larger amounts of   money than smaller goods (think about that the next time you shell out an extra $50 to check a suitcase of dirty clothes on a domestic flight).

from “Back on Tracks,” by Phillip Longman, Washington Monthly, January/February 2009 :: via Ideas Blog

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