• What was in all those "mail cars"?

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This forum is for discussion of "Fallen Flag" roads not otherwise provided with a specific forum. Fallen Flags are roads that no longer operate, went bankrupt, or were acquired or merged out of existence.

Moderator: Nicolai3985

  by bill haithcoat
OK---here is the background my question. Back in the "old days" before Amtrak some passenger trains were really heavy on mail. (these would ly not usually be the train names which have been picked up by Amtrak) There were trains, all around the country, that had, maybe 2 or 3 or 4 passenger carrying cars but maybe 10,12, 15, etc mail and baggage cars.

So, I know what an RPO(railway post office) car looked like. And I know that checked baggage could be taken care of with one car, even half a car sometimes.

So, what the heck was in those other mail cars?

How did it differ from freight?? I guess freight was grain, coal, automobiles, appliances,, etc.

I know there were refrigerator cars, at least in freight but maybe some passnger trains had them? I guess that was food products?

I know caskets traveled in baggage cars, but I guess they could be taken in some of the other cars also. But what was in all those MANY 10 or 15 or more "mail cars" that quite a few trains carried? Was that all bulk large packages or something? What?

  by Lehigh Valley Railroad
Well, Fast freight cars could be told by the truck, they look like passenger trucks. There couls have been Milk in those reefers.

It differed from freight by they needed the quickest service and a hotshot passenger train could do that.
  by bill haithcoat
Thanks Lehigh Valley, that helps clarifiy specifically about the reefers.

But about some of the other, maybe I am being too narrow in my definiton of an RPO,( in which first class mail was sorted). I am thinking of the car with the funny looking window patterns.

But maybe mail was sorted in some of the other cars as well? So many cars had two double doors on each side. Was first class mail in them also? Is there a distinction between letters and bulky boxes, I guess? Maybe I am answering my own questions but I will still appreciate input.
  by eddiebear
Mail and express trains carried just that.

Besides the Railway Post Office cars which had Postal Transportation Service employees sorting mail, railroads also carried bagged First Class mail that came already sorted out at a postal facility, other lower classes of mail and parcel post. Cars destined to large on-line points had cars that were set out of regular trains and worked by a postal truck or postal contractor on a siding.
Other cars had Railway Express matter, some of which was similar to parcel post. As the Post Office increased size limits on what could be sent parcel post, Railway Express began to lose business. Railway Express also had passenger equipped refrigerator cars which carried fresh fruit before the season began in Northern climes (Massachusetts). Like strawberries (which don't appear until late June up here), peaches (which aren't picked here until late Aug), etc. The rise of the supermarket chains and methods of distribution killed that traffic.
Railroads in the Boston area had paper trains. These ran every day from Boston and left around 2 am or so and bundles were dropped off at local stops or on the fly. The Boston & Albany's was #3 which only carried passengers Springfield and West. The New Haven had paper trains to Providence which lasted into 1960s and the Cape. Boston & Maine had one on each main route. The Sunday trains were bigger. B & M's Sunday #65 left "A' House in East Cambridge early Sunday morning. It cutoff baggage/paper cars at Waltham, South Acton (for Maynard & Concord), Fitchburg for local delivery and Cheshire Branch and finally Athol. By the time #65 hit Greenfield it was down to about 3 cars and accepted psgrs for the run to Troy.
The paper business didn't fit in with the B & M's conversion to self propelled equipment so it vanished by 1960.
In 1977, when the B & M took over the CONRAIL commuter operations out of South Station, the MBTA still received a small source of income from delivery of Boston Globe newspaper bundles to Franklin carried in the corner of a conventional coach!
Railroads also carried corpses in baggage cars at tariff rates. Someone from B & M Passenger Traffic Dept. once told me that there was a rate for coffin in baggage car and attendant in coach or Pullman to accompany the remains. A hearse at the station with two well dressed men meant someone was coming home by train for the last time.
  by bill haithcoat
Eddie Bear, many thanks for the good, complete answer. Your posts have been helpful to me before. Have a good day.

Guess I just wasn't curious about this aspect of railroading when I was a child.

  by Aa3rt
Bill, et al, I have watched railroad videos and asked the same thing myself-what was in those cars? During railfanning forays to Westfield, NY in the late 1960's/early 1970's I used to see mail and express trains on the PC (old NYC) between Buffalo and Cleveland. These trains were usually a mixture of Flexi-Vans, baggage and RPO cars and express reefers, usually with a rider coach on the end.

A number of factors combined to cause the end of these trains including the pre-sorting of mail (rather than in RPO's) and, of course, the rise of the interstate highway system, providing the flexibility of delivering to a customer's door, rather than having to pick up express packages at a railroad station or REA office.

BTW-there is a good discussion in the Amtrak forum right now on a related topic, in a thread titled "Postal Service Trains".

This was a fascinating aspect of railroading and I'm sorry I didn't see more of it before the advent of Amtrak.
  by coalmine
New Haven and B&A paper trains were listed as scheduled departures in Boston Terminal Co. (South Station) A&D books. Ralph Fisher's book on the B&M, Vanishing Markers is the title, IIRC. has some first-hand information about B&M paper trains. BTW, I remember seeing all sorts of off-line baggage cars at South Station back in the day including ones from Southern Pacific, Southern, and MP; PRR cars were very common along with, of course, New HAven and NYC cars. If you can find consist books from the period, they list where these cars went and what mail they handled. BTW, South Postal Annex was right beside South Station.

work safe

  by Aa3rt
During a quest for some information I stumbled across this photo of the type of mail train I remember from my days as a youthful trainwatcher:

http://www.sessions-station.com/N.Y.C/N ... _1962.html
Last edited by Aa3rt on Thu Jan 12, 2006 2:06 pm, edited 2 times in total.

  by SRS125
The U.S. Post office has a nice history time line on there web page that covers how the mail was run cross the country by horse, train, truck, and plane. There is also a video that can be found on the History Channel web site as well that covers an extensive history about railroads and there major play in moveing the U.S. Mail as well.