Mechanical Reefers
 
 

ARR Mechanical Reefer

History
The purpose of a mechanical reefer is to keep perishable items cold.   The first reefer known to have been put into service began operating in June 1851 on the Northern Railroad of New York.  Early reefers were of all wood construction and about 36' long. Ice bunkers were built into each end of the car and filled through hatches on the car roof. These reefers could only travel about 250 to 400 miles before they would need re-icing. Salt was sometimes placed in the bunkers to make the ice melt faster and lower the temperature of the load. Railroads built huge icing platforms and ice storage houses at major terminals and other strategic locations to quickly service cars.

By the 1940's, new reefers were being built entirely of steel. Insulating techniques improved to the point where economical refrigeration could be accomplished using steel side plates in place of wood sheathing.  Cars with steel roofs and sides were more durable and required fewer repairs.    In general, steel cars replaced wood due to their strength and longevity.  In the case of reefers, the better insulating quality of the wood was not an issue, as the steel cars continued to be wood lined (until urethane insulation replaced the wood).  As late as August of 1957, ice was still used to keep railroad cars cold.  But mechanical refrigeration-diesel powered units in each car soon took over.  The "plug" door was introduced in the 1960's as an option that provided a larger door to ease loading and unloading of certain commodities. These tight-fitting doors were better insulated and could keep the car at a more even temperature.

Truck deregulation, along with the emergence of intermodal, changed the transportation scenario for large perishable-products shippers.  It was not the superior efficiency of the truck that killed the reefer (trucks are less efficient, which is why Tropicana stays with reefers) but its reliability.  Railroads are notorious for losing cars and performing erratically in other respects.

However, some companies retained mechanical reefers.  Sunkist, one of the largest perishable products shippers in the country, moves roughly 80 percent of its freight by truck, 16 percent intermodally and the remainder by mechanical reefer car.  Sunkist has maintained a 500-car-a-year reefer service for a few select customers, using a daily Burlington Northern Santa Fe train out of California's northern central valley and connecting with Conrail in Chicago.

Amtrak's Mail and Express business is currently investing in mechanical reefers in an effort to become more truck competitive and expand upon their 1999 success.   Amtrak will offer an express four-day, cross-country service for perishable goods with the purchase of a fleet of eight reefer units.  Sunkist Growers Inc. has signed up for five of the cars and will start testing the service when Amtrak takes delivery of the equipment.   The new 70-ton reefer cars will be rebuilt to allow them to be used on Amtrak's high-speed passenger trains. Sunkist will use two passenger trains to move citrus product to the East Coast: Amtrak's Southwest Chief, operating between Los Angeles and Chicago with cars connecting to and from Philadelphia; and between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla., on Amtrak's Sunset Limited.

 
Mechanical reefer Mechanical reefer

 


Overview
Commodities shipped in mechanical reefers are quite diversified.

  • Fruit and juice
  • meat and produce
  • beer

  • In 1966, the Alaska Railrod purchased 11 mechanical reefers from Pacific Car and Foundry.  These 57 foot reefers were used to ship juice into Alaska and fish to the lower 48 states..  When they ended their useful life, most of the reefers had their roofs cut off, filled with scrap and sent south.   Today, mechanical reefers have disappeared on the Alaska Railroad.  One unit can still be seen in Whittier and is in use as a storage shed.

    Click here for the mechanical reefer diagram.


    Units in Whittier
    Gerald Forsyth traveled to Whittier in July of 2013 to get photos of the mechanical reefers for us.
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    Exterior view of no. 11507 Exterior view of no. 11507
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    Interior view of no. 11507 No. 11507 at left and no. 11509 at right
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    No. 11507 at left and no. 11509 at right Interior view of no. 11509
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    No. 11509 with Begich Towers behind. Grey building on left side is Sea Food Co. and blue building at center and right are offices and warehouses.  
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    No. 11509 No. 11509
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    No. 11509 No. 11509
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    No. 11509 No. 11509


     
     

    © 2000-2013 John Combs unless otherwise noted