U.S., Amtrak: The baggage car has the potential to revolutionize passenger train travel with a better way of creating supporting revenue

It’s the early years of Amtrak in 1975 and the Southwest Limited, forerunner brand of today’s Southwest Chief is taking on both mail and baggage at Albuquerque, New Mexico. A baggage car doesn’t look impressive from the outside, but if the inside is used properly it’s close to the same thing as printing money. Internet photo.

By William Lindley, Guest Commentator; September 9, 2022

The lowly, lonely baggage cars. They have the potential not just to amplify the viability of our passenger trains, but — with a little innovation — to revolutionize how we ship packages across town and across the globe. What’s old can be new, with a modern twist that promotes financial and logistics efficiency without offending the host freight railroads and bolsters the need for new passenger trains.

A Missouri-Kansas-Texas/MKT combination baggage and Railway Express Agency car in 1961. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Let us begin with some perspective. To give an idea how large a part of total revenues mail and express were when trains – not planes and trucks – moved the nation and the world, in 1898 the New York Central Railroad earned $2,938,558 in mail and express as compared to $12,861,011 for passenger revenue and $27,257,246 for all freight transportation; in other words mail and express were almost 10% of the combined non-passenger rail revenue. (Source: Statistics of Railways in the United States, 1898, Interstate Commerce Commission)

Before UPS Stores or any other pack-and-ship stores, America moved its small packages by the Railway Express Agency and at the end REA Express from 1918 to 1975. Green, gold and red were the colors Americans recognized. When Federal Express was started by Fred Smith and expanding, it was the unused REA Express federal licenses he acquired to begin widespread FedEx operations. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Railway Express Agency from the beginning operated a nationwide fleet of green trucks that were as ubiquitous on American streets as FedEx, UPS and Amazon delivery vehicles are today. This truck is in Georgia, awaiting restoration. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A local Railway Express Agency agent in his Texas office in 1939. The office safe was an important part of every REA office. Wikimedia Commons photo.
REA: The symbol of dependable service. This circa 1930s promotional artwork and slogan for the Railway Express Agency was framed and hung in conspicuous places. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A Long Island Rail Road baggage and express car, built in 1928. Railroad Museum of Long Island internet photo.

Even as late as 1968, according to the Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment,

• Railway Express Agency [1] still operated 2,134 express (standard and refrigerated) cars, over and above cars owned and operated by the various railroads.
• New York Central, counting conservatively, had 640 baggage and express cars in their fleet.
• Louisville & Nashville Railroad had a fleet of 175, plus sixteen horse cars.
• Even the Long Island Rail Road — a “commuter” line first established in 1834 — had a fleet of forty cars, mostly in combination with express, mail, or passenger compartments.

[1] Historical note: Railway Express Agency supplanted American Railway Express, which in turn was formed in late December 1920 from the original companies: Adams Express Company, Southern Express Company, Wells Fargo, and American Express. The final two names may sound familiar, continuing to this day solely in the financial sector along with another early rail-related company, Western Union, which The New York Times has described as the world’s largest money transfer business.

A typical Western Union telegram. Before cellphone texting, before emails, before fax machines, and before telephones, there were telegrams. Founded in 1851, Western Union became America’s first Big Tech Monopoly, constantly buying or merging with competitors to eliminate competition. A Western Union telegram could be happy or sad; the military heavily used telegrams in World War II to inform relatives of family military members who were wounded or missing in action. Telegram senders paid by the word to have Western Union process a telegram. The Pullman Company provided Western Union telegram blanks in every Pullman sleeping car. Passengers could write a telegram and hand it to the car porter and it would be transmitted from the next station stop. Above, Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona was advising a constituent of funds approved from a local project. Carl Hayden, a Democrat, served in the House of Representatives from 1912 to 1927 and in the United States Senate from 1927 to 1969. He was born in 1877 and died in 1972 at the age of 94. Arizona Memory Project illustration.
A familiar site at every train station and many city locations. Wikimedia Commons photo.

In February of this year, in this space, arose the subject of small containers on passenger trains. The modern standard for air freight — mail, express, and baggage — is the Unit Load Device. These are either containers or pallets, and exist in roughly a dozen different standard sizes, within a small set of composite dimensions. Most ULDs are 5 feet 4 inches tall, about 5 or 7⅓ feet wide, and roughly 6½, 7½, or 10 feet across. All of these dimensions (and some with a wedge-shape piece removed at the base) are designed to fit modern standard aircraft cargo doors, with rollers and tie-downs to interlock them securely in the cargo compartment under the main deck of the aircraft.

Unit Load Devices (ULD) being unloaded from a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747. The ULDs which fit on a jet airliner can fit into a passenger train baggage car. Wikipedia photo.
Anthony Haswell in 2016. William Lindley supplied photo.

Asked to comment on the possible use of ULDs in passenger train networks, Anthony Haswell, widely called the “Father of Amtrak,” replied that variations of the idea “have been around for quite awhile. Soon after WW I, both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central System began experimenting with containers… unfortunately each company’s equipment was not compatible with the other, and no other railroad adopted either one.” Other experiments, on a few other railroads, included specially outfitted cars on passenger trains, but without widespread adoption of any particular design, these were all “swept away in the 1950s in the rush to trailer-on-flatcar,” leading to today’s vast railroad intermodal business.

An outbound hotshot doublestack BNSF Railway intermodal unit train departing Naperville, Illinois. Wikimedia Commons photo.

However, despite the past, today the ULD is time-tested and used internationally. Railroad use of these would take advantage of the wide variety of readily-available equipment for handling ULDs: roller tables, ramps and inclines, “switching” tables that move ULDs in any of several directions, lift trucks, and truck-trailer adapters to name just a few.

A passenger train-compatible express car could fairly easily be designed – or converted from existing an existing fleet – that would handle ULDs with at least as much ease and automation as on airliners.

The basic passenger design of an Amtrak Superliner can be adapted for use with ULDs, either stacked on two levels or ULDs on a lower level and passengers on an upper level. Amtrak already has Superliner coaches which have a baggage compartment in one end of the lower level, allowing the train to operate without a separate baggage car. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Within the size constraints of a Pullman/Bombardier-built Superliner of today (16 ft 2 in height) it is likely possible to build a highly efficient and revenue-producing express car that could carry ULDs on two levels, including reinforced floors, bulkheads, and roller systems, while permitting crew passage through a side aisle. One or two such bi-level railcars would have equivalent ULD capacity as a Boeing jet, depending on aircraft configuration; a train with several cars would equal a small fleet of airliners. No one will deny that moving cargo by rail – whether as part of an existing passenger train or regularly scheduled freight train – is more fuel and energy efficient than moving the same cargo by jet airliner.

A Seaboard Coast Line secondary passenger train in 1967 before the end of the United States Post Office contracts which were moved by the Johnson Administration from railroads to airlines and trucks. Note this train is mostly REA Express cars, baggage cars and a single passenger coach on the rear end. Internet photo.

We must remember that until the Johnson administration in 1967 pulled the U.S. Mail and express business from the railroads in favor of trucks and airlines, expressly for the purpose of giving those other types of carriers a similar financial advantage which was taken away from the railroads, most railroads had fleets of passenger trains which carried their own financial weight because they were part of a system that integrated passengers, mails and the express business, often sharing passenger stations with freight stations. Everything was tied together, all funneling revenues to a common bottom line and efficiently sharing costs where averages over a system worked in favor for every area.

Amtrak had a full fleet of branded Material Handling Cars in the 1990s as it ramped up its first attempt at restoring mail and express handling to Amtrak trains. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The introduction of ULD handling into today’s passenger industry has the potential to bring back that favorable financial integration. There is good reason to look beyond Amtrak’s efforts of the 1990s, which were in many ways flawed from the beginning — starting with becoming an adversary of the host freight railroads instead of finding a way to complement them in the process.

A new ULD process must by a joint effort from the very beginning of planning, not an arrogant “this is what we’re going to do, you have no say in the process” effort.

The former Chicago & North Western Railway Less-than-Carload depot at the corner of West Kinzie Street and North Halsted Street in Chicago. Inset in lower left: The C&NW logo at corner of frieze. The elevated throat tracks to Metra’s Ogilvie Transportation Center are immediately behind the building. William Lindley photo.

It is not difficult to find echoes, past and future, of our national passenger train express infrastructure. In Chicago, for example, just south of Chicago Union Station the former main Post Office building and its mail platform areas could be utilized even as floors above find other new uses.

Riders on the Metra Milwaukee Road North trains will pass two sites of interest: first, at the corner of West Kinzie Street and North Halsted Street stands the former Chicago & North Western Railroad less-than-carload freight depot, with its multiple track positions still visible beneath modern reuse, and the right-of-way for its throat trackage still mostly clear and recoverable. Given motivation and funding, this building or at least the site could be returned to a new use quite similar to its original. A few miles northwest, current ULD user FedEx has a Ground distribution point at Howard Street, adjacent to the right-of-way between the Edgebrook and Morton Grove Metra stations.

United Parcel Service’s Worldport Air Hub at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. Wikimedia Commons photo.

A bit further afield, the UPS Worldport freight facility at Louisville, Kentucky is adjacent to a CSX Transportation line (and the rail-served Ford Assembly Plant) next to the international airport. Such locations, adjacent to mainline railroads, turn out to be quite common for express handling facilities, and they already use ULDs. It’s almost like FedEx and UPS were hedging their bets on the future.

Around the country, whether you look at Indianapolis, Indiana or Phoenix, Arizona, you find that passenger train routes (or at least where passenger trains once ran and could again) pass by our airports.

The Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport features its SkyTrain light rail shuttle trains in this contemporary photograph. Photo by Mark Pearsall.

Phoenix’s Sky Harbor, for example, now has a station on its light-rail system that connects to the SkyTrain people-mover to the terminals — SkyTrain passes directly under the Union Pacific Railroad mainline — and long-term plans there include a regional passenger rail station.

Phoenix Union Station, in operation from 1923 until 1996 when the Sunset Limited was rerouted via Maricopa because it was too expensive to maintain the former Southern Pacific Railroad branch line off the famed Sunset Route through the downtown Phoenix. Today, the station is on the National Register of Historic Places, but its primary purpose is to serve as a tower farm for high tech communications. The building and land is owned by the Sprint Corporation, a telecommunications giant which began as the inhouse railroad telephone system for the Southern Pacific. Photo by Marc Pearsall.
The 1940 track layout for Phoenix Union Station which consisted of a combination of station platform tracks and stub-end tracks for mail and express. Illustration by William Lindley.

As historically significant and as well-located Phoenix Union Station is, and well poised it may be as a useful downtown station, clearly the primary regional passenger rail terminal should be at the airport, with all its connections and services. Any world traveler will recognize this as a situation common throughout Europe and beyond. Less often noticed but critical to our discussion is that such stations elsewhere may already include mail or express handling facilities.

A 1909 postcard photograph illustrating a milk train, or “milk run” as many were referred to as, at the Hampton, Connecticut station. Farmers brought full milk cans to be transported to city dairies and picked up returning empty cans. Milk trains also handled newspapers, mail and express packages with some passenger accommodations. Wikimedia Commons photo.

It is thus not much of a stretch of the imagination to consider a set of regional and inter-regional passenger train networks whose profitability revolves perhaps less around selling seats and more around expediting small container freight. For some historical perspective, think of the early morning “milk runs” local trains made in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These runs got their name from picking up full milk cans from local dairy farmers and transporting the raw milk to processing dairies each day before the era of trucks. These trains also delivered bundles of freshly-printed newspapers, mail, and other express items as well as passengers. Passengers were not the primary occupants of the trains.

Before the 1970s Air Mail was expensive and rare. Onionskin paper was popular to use in Air Mail letters because it was more lightweight than typical bond paper used for correspondence. All mail other than Air Mail moved by trains. Postage was less than a nickel per letter, and there were “penny postcards.” Railroads had no worries about investing in baggage and express cars to handle the mails; mail flowed freely in sacks loaded onto mail cars and Railway Post Office cars. Wikimedia Commons photo.
File illustration.

A reasonable first start for modern ULD containers might be a train connecting the airports of Milwaukee, Chicago (both O’Hare and Midway), Indianapolis, Louisville, Knoxville, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Miami; with intermediate stations (to serve Hartsfield at Atlanta, the routing might include Valdosta, Georgia and Lake City, Florida). While ULDs may be the primary reason, these popular cities also would attract passengers, too.

A bit more innovation might bring ULD-handling cars that could traverse our subway and streetcar (“heavy- and light-rail”) systems. Unlike ordinary rail freight cars, these would be sufficiently lightweight and of suitable dimensions to safely mix on existing transit lines.

It’s not a stretch of imagination that The UPS Store locations and similar businesses could be served by ULD containers for both pick-up and delivery. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Express containers could be brought by passenger train to a transfer point at the city airport, rolled onto a transit-system-compatible vehicle, then brought directly into city centers, mostly overnight and off-peak. Pack-and-ship stores could receive containers directly. Restaurants could receive bulk, refrigerated, and freezer containers. Shops and stores within a few miles would be served by small trucks rolling these containers from the city transfer points.

Almost all this technology exists off-the-shelf here or internationally. The only thing required is a railroad and an operator with sufficient foresight to make it happen.

What’s old could be new and could lead to a proliferation of new passenger trains based primarily on moving packages and express items. Balance for every system is critical to ultimate success.

And finally, because we can enjoy what has come before us, this vintage ad published on the internet:

Internet photo.
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