Head End Equipment


On passenger trains, railroads operated lots of equipment other than sleepers, coaches, Dining cars, etc. This equipment was generally called ‘head-end’ equipment, these ‘freight’ cars were at one time plentiful and highly profitable for the railroads. In the heyday of passenger service, these industries were a big part of the railroad’s operations, and got serious attention.
Shown above are a couple of great examples of head-end equipment.
They are models and are available from Weaver Models



‘Pistol Packing Mama’ at the Railway Express Agency in South Bend, Indiana
(Photo clipped from an old New York Central Headlight)


On July 1, 1977, at 4:05 am, the last Railway Post Office ground to a halt at Union Station in Washington, DC,



Old Railway Express Agency Booklet from Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-1934


Loved your story on Railway Express Agency. I knew two or three of the local agents growing up in my home town which had Express Agency in the Rock Island Depot. My father was Rock Island Station Agent. Thing I remember that I didn’t read in your story was about the Armed Express Messengers which handled money shipments also like the ones my father sent in to Chicago about once a week. One messenger I recall seeing a lot had quite a “hogleg” on his hip. I would imagine it was a .45 cal long Colt or something similar.

Carl Wilmoth, Memphis, TN


Here are link to photos from the Cornell University Library Digital Collections showing various REA scenes:







Scroll over the photos to enlarge them.

I hope you find something of interest in these photos.


Railroad Express Equipment

Many railroads used converted troop sleepers for express cars.

Three distinct and substantial organizations played a role in the movement of headend traffic, and although their traffic moved together on the same train, their efforts were not integrated. Railway Express Agency was the small shipment specialist, providing door to door transport of package shipments, including perishables, for the public and small businesses in its own vehicles and terminals. REA used both its own cars (which were mostly refrigerated, although not always used as such) and railroad-supplied express cars. REA managed an immense, complex operation, whose fleet of express cars still numbered over 2200 in 1965. Next was the U.S. Post Office, which until the 1960’s moved most of its surface mail by rail. The USPO did not own transporting equipment, and relied exclusively on cars provided by the railroads. The most visible were the RPO cars in which clerks sorted mail en route, but most mail traffic was handled in “Mail Storage” cars, in which bagged mail was transported in baggage cars or box express cars. These cars were sealed, did not carry any other traffic and were not worked en route except at larger terminals. The USPO had strict rules for handling mail, and a complicated formula for paying for the space it used. Lastly, there was the railroad which not only supplied equipment and was responsible for train operation, but also supplied its own headend traffic in the form of checked baggage, company mail and supplies, and sometimes theatrical scenery and live animals like racehorses. Note that a car of baby chicks was shipped (once a week) to Harrisburg on Tr. 15. As late as 1960 a carload of live lobsters was shipped weekly between Boston and Washington. There were also other entities who contributed to headend traffic, although on a smaller scale. Most notable of these were dairies which transported raw milk in milk cars (in cans or bulk tanks) from rural farms to big city dairies. Dairy traffic was most prominent in New England, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as some Midwestern dairy states. However, this traffic is long gone, and does not play a part in this overview. Carloads of weekly magazines like Life, and USN&WR were also scheduled.



Head End New Haven equipment resting at Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut. Around 1960.


July 21, 1958 The New York Central begins carrying mail between Chicago and Detroit in special “Flexi-Van” containers. The vans designated for mail are equipped with side doors. “Flexi-Van” service is expended to Boston and St. Louis.


Railway Post Office service ended on June 30th, 1977 when Conrail Trains 3 and 4 made their last runs between Washington and New York and New York and Washington. This ended 113 years of continuous service. It began on August 28th 1864 on a run between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa on the C&NW Railway. The New York-Washington service started Oct 15th 1864.

Railway Post Office service ended on June 30th, 1977 when Conrail Trains 3 and 4 made their last runs between Washington and New York and New York and Washington. This ended 113 years of continuous service. It began on August 28th 1864 on a run between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa on the C&NW Railway. The New York-Washington service started Oct 15th 1864.

The term “x-man” originated in the 1864-1977 Railway Post Office (RPO) era. One clerk, who was the last to exit the RPO car at the end of its run, was assigned to look at all distribution cases, overhead boxes, bins, as well as along the rack area, for any mail matter than may have been accidentally been left unnoticed.

Each RPO car was in exclusive use of the Post Office Department’s Railway Mail Service (prior to 1949), Postal Transportation Service (between late 1949 and mid-1960), or Bureau of Transportation (after 1960) while staffed with a crew performing mail distribution. However, once the crew vacated, the car could be entered by railroad maintenance crews or car cleaners. Protection of the mail required that all mail be removed between runs, since it was not always known when a car might reassigned for use.

The notation “x” was used in labeling pouches within the Post Office Department. Pouches were locked and used for first class and registered mail. If there was more than one pouch required for a dispatch, they were numbered sequentially. The final pouch in that series had an “x” on the label following the number, indicating it was the last one. Clerks noted all pouches that were received or dispatched, so that they could detect all that were scheduled were handled. A pouch not received when one was expected, or a gap in the labeled number such as no “1” when a “2X” was delivered, was an irregularity to be written up on a trip report.

Since the “x” on a label connoted the last, the slang term “x-man” was applied to the last clerk leaving a car who checked for any remaining mail in a RPO.

August 28, 1864, was the first run of the CHICAGO & CLINTON RPO. Although a Hannibal & St. Joseph mail car operated for a few months in 1862, 1864 marks the beginning of permanently- established Railway Post Office routes.


The Last Railway Post Office

When Amtrak started, it was originally planned to be a passenger-only corporation. Penn Central retained operation of the New York & Washington RPO since the round trip carried no passengers. This continued when Conrail took over Penn Central operations in 1976, then was abandoned when the mail contract expired on June 30, 1977.

All NY & WASH RPO equipment was lettered Penn Central until discontinuance. Trains consisted of a GG-1 locomotive, several sealed storage mail cars, a working storage car, two 60-feet RPOs, another working storage car (usually), and an ex-PRR N5c (I think that’s the correct class) caboose that was modified for mail and express train operations.


The Railway Mail Service (RMS) Library is major collection of materials pertaining to en route distribution history.

Incorporated in May 2003, it can assist researchers interested in route agent, seapost, railway, and highway post office (RPO and HPO) history. The collection has many unique, original-source documents that provide answers to questions dealing with the transportation and distribution of USA Mail between 1862 and 1977, as well as other countries during the 19th and 20th centuries. If you have internet access, please go to (leave off the < and >). The R.M.S. Library has grown from the AmeRPO (“American RPO”) Society Library established in the early 1950s by Bryant Alden Long, co-author of the superb book on the subject, MAIL BY RAIL. After a period of stagnation it was acquired by Hershel Rankin, who renamed it the R.M.S. Library. When he was 80 years old and no longer to handle research requests, Dr. Frank R. Scheer purchased the collection. Over a two-year period, the collection was moved from Florida to Virginia and renamed the “Railway Mail Service Library.” Since 1982, several major additions have been made to the collection. These include the Edwin Bergman scheme and schedule collection, Lloyd Jackson’s, John Kay’s, Lawrence Kruse’s, Ed Maloney’s, and Roy Schmidt’s postal artifacts, Carm Cosentino’s Transfer Office covers, Charles Scott’s Fifth Division RMS records, worldwide postal emblems assembled by Len Cohen, James Mundy’s postal locks, Lt. Col (ret) A. B. “Chip” Komoroske’s railroad books, H. W. “Red” Reed’s post office route maps, John McClelland’s 1905 to 1949 bound issues of THE RAILWAY POST OFFICE, as well as Paul Nagle’s set of the POSTAL TRANSPORT JOURNAL between 1950 and 1959. A multitude of other historically-significant resources have been acquired from many former railway and highway postal clerks. The RMS Library has every major book published about the Railway Mail Service/Postal Transportation Service (RMS/PTS). It also has many periodical articles written about en route distribution, and continually seeks ones that are not represented. There are six types of original-source documentation in the collection, however. These are: 1) photographs of HPO and RPO vehicles; 2) THE RAILWAY POST OFFICE and POSTAL TRANSPORT JOURNAL issues between 1905 and 1959; 3) oral recollections of former clerks on audio and video tapes, as well as movies about the RMS/PTS; 4) general orders describing weekly changes within several divisions; 5) general- and standpoint-schemes of mail distribution; and 6) schedules of mail trains/routes. Schemes and schedules are particularly helpful for understanding how the network of mail transportation and distribution activities operated, as well as when routes began, ended, or underwent significant changes. As with most archival libraries, the principal activities are assisting research inquiries, organizing and filing the collection, as well as preservation of materials. The largest artifact in the collection is the building that became the Library’s home on October 16, 2003: the Boyce, Virginia railroad station. Built in 1913 and in service on the Norfolk & Western Railway for more than four decades, it was used for the town post office during the 1970s. Inside the 24 by 46 feet freight room are 20 filing cabinets and more than 500 feet of shelving. Artifact displays will be presented in the former baggage and waiting rooms after 2005.

(540) 837-9090 – TELEPHONE
BOYCE VA 22620-9639 USA


Railway Post Office Equipment

What were the last U.S. RPO cars to be built? I’d been thinking they were Santa Fe 99-110, built new by Budd May-June 1964. Then my research took me to PRR 6595-6599, converted by the railroad from baggage-dormitory and baggage-lounge cars in June-December 1964.



Highway Post Office meets the Train


Railway Express Agency
Remember the red-and-white diamond herald of the Railway Express Agency?
REA is only a memory today, but it once was prominent on the American scene — like FedEx or UPS is today.

Railway Express Agency at one time operated the nation’s largest ground and air express services, transporting parcels, money, and goods, with pickup and delivery.

Several express companies started operating in the United States. Some of the leading ones were: Wells Fargo, Adams, American, and the Southern Express Companies.

On December 28,1917, William Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of Treasury, announced that the Government was taking over the railroads to co-ordinate them with the war effort. When this was done, all contracts between the railroads and the express companies were cancelled. On July 1, 1918, the four leading express companies merged and became the American Railway Express Company, Inc. and on March 1, 1929, it was changed to the Railway Express Agency.

Railway Express Agency at one time operated the nation’s largest ground and air express services, transporting parcels, money, and goods, with pickup and delivery.

Express service is the prompt and safe movement of parcels, money, and goods at rates higher than standard freight rates.

Credit for its start is given to William Harriden. He started in 1839 to go between New York and Boston carrying express items. Others entered the express business:
William G. Fargo, a New York Central freight clerk at Auburn, N.Y., and Henry Wells, a leather worker at Batavia, N.Y., organized Wells Fargo & Co. in 1853;
Henry B. Plant who formed Southern Express; Alvin Adams; and John Butterfield.

In 1860 there were three principal transcontinental mail and express routes: the first route was by ship from New York to Panama then by portage across the Isthmus to the West Coast and finally back to sea for the last leg to San Francisco; second, the Butterfield and Wells-Fargo stage lines operating from St. Louis through the Indian Territory along the Santa Fe Trail and up to Los Angeles to San Francisco; and third, the stage line of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, which traveled from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas to Denver, then over the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City and California terminating in San Francisco. Early in 1860 the Pony Express concept was formed and operated from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. The end of the Pony Express came in 1861 when the telegraph line connected Omaha and San Francisco.

Express business grew in the latter half of the 19th century; by 1900 there were four principal express companies:
Adams & Company (founded 1842),
Southern Express Company (founded 1861),
American Express Company (founded 1850),
and Wells, Fargo & Company (founded 1852).
In 1913 the Post Office introduced parcel post, the first major competition for the express companies.

During World War I when the United States Railway Administration took over the nation’s railroads, the four companies were consolidated as American Railway Express, Inc. (except for a portion of Southern Express that came into the organization in 1938). The domestic express businesses and property of the nation’s major express carriers were expropriated and merged into a public corporation. After the war the domestic express businesses were not returned to their original owners (unlike the return of the railroads) but remained with the American Railway Express Company.

In 1929, the assets and operations of American Railway Express were transferred to Railway Express Agency which was formed by 86 railroads in proportion to the express traffic on their lines — no one railroad or group of railroads had control of the agency.

Railroads provided terminal space and cars and moved the cars at their expense while Railway Express paid its own expenses and divided the profit among the railroads in proportion to the traffic. Express service in Canada and Mexico was operated directly by the railroad companies.

Express revenues remained at profitable levels into the 1950’s, When volume dropped substantially after World War II, the railroads began to view express service as expensive business.

Beginning in 1959, when many passenger trains were discontinued, Railway Express began to use trucks. They tried piggyback and containers, but without much success.

In 1960 acquired Fast Service Shipping Terminals Inc.
In 1961 formed REA Leasing Corp, a trailer leasing company.
In 1965 formed (with Seven Arts Associated Corp. and Travel Theaters Inc.)  REA Express-Seven Arts Transvision, Inc.
In 1965 sold 32 terminals and leased them back.
In 1967 formed REA Express Canada, Ltd.
In 1967 formed Rexco Supply Corp. to conduct tire recapping and automotive parts distribution business.
In 1970 formed The Express Co., Inc. as a subsidiary of REA Holding Corp to conduct an international air freight forwarding business.

They lost money, and, in 1969, the company was sold to five of its officers and renamed REA Express. By then only 10% of its business moved by rail and its entire business constituted less than 10% of all intercity parcel traffic.

The Civil Aeronautics Board terminated REA’s exclusive agreement with the airlines for air express. REA Express closed in 1975 and began liquidation — which was complicated by trials of its officers for fraud and embezzlement.

Robert S. Harding has donated an extensive collection on the Railway Express Agency to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

Various express companies became Railway Express Agency with stock held by America’s Class I railroads. After pioneering “Air Express” in the late 50’s they reorganized as “REA Express” with the stock still held by the railroads.

William B. Johnson became president (1962) with an attempt to capitalize on their exclusive rights (Air Express took priority after US mail, before the airline’s own freight and baggage, same on trains) and routes. With all the train-off’s occurring in the early 60’s, REA obtained the right from the ICC to establish a truck franchise on parallel routes to the passenger train cessations. Since this was the era of total air/train/truck regulation, these trucking franchises became extremely valuable. We must also remember that REA alone was a common carrier, required/allowed to take anything a shipper wanted to ship. United Parcel Service (UPS) which was already nationwide from its beginning as a deliverer of packages for NY department stores, was not a common carrier – you had to register as a shipper/customer, and UPS only would take merchandise/shipments they made a profit on. I remember well when UPS would pick up a garment manufacturer’s high-profit shipments, then REA would pick up the low-profit shipments (the example was hats, they are high cube low weight.)

By 1965-66 REA assembled a management team to capitalize on Air Express’ exclusive rights and all their trucking franchises (very valuable then.) The work force, heavily dominated by the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks with a little Teamsters mixed in, did not have the “get up and go” of UPS or other package delivery companies which were springing up. Indeed, I saw a Teamsters contract with UPS in 1964 in the NY area which “mandated” a minimum piece-handling rate for the UPS driver that we were told was 4 times the then REA average.

REA’s marketing dept. tried hard, but they could not get the reliability or the customer relations necessary in the new business climate. They still had high hopes when disaster struck – someone can correct my date of about 1971 – the ICC deregulated the trucking industry, and REA’s most valuable asset, their trucking franchises along any route previously or presently served by a railroad passenger train, became worthless. Anyone could buy a truck and enter the business of hauling freight or packages or whatever. Their other hopeful subsidiary, REA Leasing Company which leased TOFC trailers to the railroads, went down the tubes with REA, I would say 1971. I still see trailers with “REAZ xxxxxx” “RELZ xxxxxx” or “RUPZ xxxxxx” occasionally.

Railway Express Agency was an American institution, you shipped your trunk to college by them, you shipped dead bodies by them (ICC regulations in their infinite wisdom and millions of pages even decreed the size of nails which had to be used in the wooden boxes in which coffins were carried, such was the oppressive atmosphere in which REA operated.) It could be the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, with the station agent loading packages from the green platform wagon into the express car during a passenger train stop (and if there was a lot of freight, the REA agent’s friendship with the mail clerk was the only thing that kept the train long enough to load all the express! The train only had to wait for US mail.)

With their truck routes (which could be sold or leased in the old days of regulation) worthless, REA soon ceased operations. I think their financial people figured that with an old-style, railroad-mentality workforce, they could not compete with the plethora of new start-ups brought into existence with de-regulation. I am not sure if, prior to the end, there was not additional stock sold, or if ownership still rested with the Class I railroads. REA Leasing Co. could have gone on, but I suspect its assets were sold to Trailer Train or someone else. I still have my little red lapel pin with an X on the red background, I doubt if there is any corporate remnant.

REA had the ground floor in package delivery (although as the only nationwide common carrier they alone were forced to take profitable as well as unprofitable shipments) both in surface transport and air. But the new era of “customer service” and UPS and FedEx, with drivers running to and fro in shorts, would soon pass them completely. They might have had a chance to re-orient the company, but trucking de-regulation was probably the final straw. And the “new economy” of speedy delivery and top-notch customer service (in 1967 I tried to ship a box to Denver by Air Express – it took me 27 minutes and a fight with the station agent in Hartsdale, NY) left them in the dust. It was a sad day for a romantic like me.

Express cars in Jersey City (Erie) and Hoboken (DL&W) – eighty footers could not go through the PRR Hudson tunnels and had to be cut out of the PRR and LV trains in NJ and brought to Sunnyside Yards by lighter or shipped over the Poughkeepsie Bridge, thus Conrail’s discontinuance of the marine departments and the burning of the Poughkeepsie Bridge also would have seriously affected REA Express in the NY metro area.

The Railway Express Agency modeling Yahoo Group is open to anyone who cares to subscribe and participate. The purpose of the list is for historians, railfans and railroad modelers to discuss the Railway Express Agency and/or its predecessors.


Registered Mail, Money and Locks

To my knowledge no RPO had a Safe, but REA Agents in some express cars did. Most registered mail was in regular #2 pouches secured with a Rotary lock or in large sealed envelopes in regular scheduled pouches. When a PO or RPO sent multiple pouches, they would be numbered 1, 2, etc with the final pouch ‘X’ed. The register envelope with registers and the ‘bill’ for these plus any Rotary lock pouches inclosed in prior numbered pouches would be in the X pouch. Each piece of registered mail was signed for, ‘bought’ or ‘sold’ by each Register clerk handling it in transit and finally by the destination PO.

I was surprised to discover how much money actually was transfered on RPO’s in registered mail in the heyday of the RPO. For instance, cash was delivered to Army paymasters. Clerks tell of having several mail storage cars stacked to the ceiling with registered pouches filled with “old bills” that had been gathered from west coast banks and shipped through Seattle to Minneapolis to be taken out of circulation and burned in an incinerator at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. Clerks joked, “that’s why we carried guns to protect the mail.” They did not wear guns to protect “mother’s day cards” from thieves!

I can imagine, long before we had electronic transfer of funds (and roads were not very good into rural America, especailly in the 20’s & 30’s) banks and payroll masters for companies and the military had to have cash to give out on payday…and the only way they got it came from the RPO passing through town.

In our credit card/electronic transfer world…even long before paper checks were in vogue…we lived in a “cash and carry economy” where people were paid in cash on payday…there was no direct deposit plans then. RPO’s seemingly played a role in helping companies pay their workers on payday, transfering significant sums of money around the country on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. The RPO was not only America’s first information highway…it also facilitated the way Amwericans were paid for their work and they were a vital economic life-line for banks and companies to pay people in rural America.

I remember seeing an RPO foreman, armed with a .38 revolver in a holster on his hip. In the 50’s almost all the RPO clerks were armed in the RPO car…at least the ones visible to me…especially the door clerk/scenery clerk who loaded mail and “robbed the box” (he jumped off the RPO car and collected mail from a letter box at the train station).

Anyhow, the discussion of “money in the registered mail” is an interesting topic. No wonder, in American history, people tried to rob trains. Why rob banks and try to break into vaults when you can steal the money on the way to the bank? Anyhow, some great stories here…some fact …and probably some fiction…but it underlines why RPO clerks were armed while working with registered mail in the RPO.


Mail and the Monday Before Christmas

Since most Post Offices were closed for public business on Sundays, this normally resulted in a relatively light mail handling day for the railroads on Monday. But on the Monday before Christmas, this would all radically change. The mail and express volume on the railroad would begin to increase during the first week in December and was gradual for the most part, with one more bag here and one more box there, each day.

The dramatic change would come on the Monday before Christmas, for from this day until December 25th, there would an increase of 4-times the volume. The railroads would really have their work cut for them since in addition to the mail increase, there was an increase in passengers for holiday travel; a change more intense than that at Thanksgiving which was limited to a passengers only.

Terminals such as Union Station in Washington would lease temporary storage areas to the Postal Department, in this case being in the basement next to the baggage room. To handle the increase, the B&O would institute “Boxcar Specials”. These trains, so named by B&O employees, were an attempt to handle the heavy overload of mail during the Christmas season each year. A train consisting of all boxcars was used, running as an extra, most of the time at passenger train speed.

Preferred were boxcars that had been modified for use in passenger train service, such as the B&O’s modified C-17 Wagontops, which had high performance trucks (for the higher speed) and the ability to pass signal and steam lines as well. Most major railroads had some of this type for mail and express service. If an adequate number of C-17s were available, they would be used. If not, it would be standard Boxcars.

So if the train crew was lucky, they’d hunker down in a rider coach with the lights on dim for the trip but if not, they would be in a cold, rough riding caboose from the pool. Pool cabooses were notorious for having a stove that didn’t work property (too hot, too cold or not at all) and either little or no toilet paper. If the extras had even one standard boxcar in the train, they would run at freight train speed with a caboose on the end. So there was an attempt to have “all or nothing” equipment-wise when making up the train.

Even though the B&O would use any boxcar that was suitable, empty and available, from any railroad, they tended to be B&O. Trains originating in Washington mainly would run east from Washington to Jersey City and would be loaded and unloaded in Eckington “G” and “H” yards, not Washington Terminal, directly to/from mail trucks. In some cases, the Post Office Department borrowed U.S. Army 2½ Ton Trucks for this busy season making the yard look like a military operation was underway!

On most trains was a storage car next to the RPO that had a train door, giving the clerks access. Normally these cars were only partially full but during this heavy volume period, they would be at near capacity, which would suffice. As a result, it was rare that a second storage car would be added. There was a finite amount of mail that the clerks could handle anyway, on one trip.

Mail and express trains such as 29, 30, 31, 32 and 40 would see the most noticeable increase in consist as would, to a lesser degree, trains 9, 10, 17 and 23 west of Washington. Additional headend cars on the premiere trains were not practical since if any additional cars were to be added, it would be coaches or sleepers.

Add to all of this the regular shipment on the B&O from Chicago of Life Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post on Wednesday and Thursday, which often required an extra storage car.

Then, a quickly as it started, it was gone until next year and in years to come, forever.



Wish we still had Railway Express

. Nobody’s Christmas gifts would have been late!


We know that the passenger network of trains was becoming less complete, especially after WWII, while the airlines and road systems were being built up.

But in the Transportation Act of 1940, the railroads and Federal Government terminated the old land grants which relieved the railroads of transporting mail at a discount price. Did the Post Office Department began looking for alternatives to rail transport of mail, even though it was a very efficient operation? This act may have provided one of the specific reasons for the mails to be diverted, little by little to highway trucks and to the airlines.

Arguably, the Transportation Act of 1958 had as significant an impact upon RPO network pruning. It liberalized the procedures for discontinuing passenger services. With the loss of branch line RPOs –mostly 15-feet and 30-feet space authorization- – the feeder services to trunkline RPOs were severed. Also, local separations once performed on the branch-line RPO routes had to be replaced with additional separations on the main-line 60-feet RPOs. Distribution space on the trunk routes was already constrained by increasing mail volume at the same time that train freqency was declining. This condition was partially mitigated by substantial expansion of the Highway Post Office network. However, long-distance highway contract routes (Star Routes) were established or reconfigured more often. Since they were closed pouch runs, making those dispatches fell as a burden upon main-line RPO routes as well as newly-established or expanded stationary office distribution.

Do you think the decline of the USA RPO network was a major factor leading to the decline of the U.S. Postal System in general, which is what we are faced with today? Could it also be the increase in the number of pieces of mail due to increasing population? Could it have been done by the Federal Government to put the passenger train business out of operation so that truckers would carry mail and the auto and oil companies would profit by building and fueling cars?

Perhaps the reason that railroads were treated as a “growth” industry during the 1940s is partly because there was a wartime traffic surge. There is also a latency effect in society that was slow to realize the shift from rail to other modes. People were ingrained to use scheduled transportation –notably rail, bus, and public transit– but when given the opportunity to utilize on-demand personal private transportation, made the shift that is easy to view in retrospect.

The Post Office Department was slow to adapt from a scheduled transportation network upon which it relied for a century. It also benefitted from a cost structure in which it paid an allocation of a service instead of the entire cost of that service.

A economic distortion exists that railroads appear to be very expensive because they own the right-of-way franchise and pay taxes upon it, while competing highway and air modes do not pay for their rights-of-way and no taxes are paid for the highway real estate that is diverted from alternate uses. So, highway transportation appear less expensive even when the Post Office Department paid the entire cost of trucking. Air transportation was always more expensive per pound, but Congress and the Executive Branch utilized air mail rates as subsidies to cultivate national air passenger services.

The flaw in Post Office Department transportation planning is that it presumes that all services will always exist; that the status quo is the norm. In eras of slow technological change –such as the pre-1950s– it’s easy to see how this view was based. However, continuation of rail passenger services was not a sure thing. On occasion, the Post Office Department did protest passenger train discontinuances, but these concerns were mitigated if the railroad company agreed to provide substitute highway service. The Gulf Transport Company set up by the GM&O is an example. Although it operated the equivalent of a Highway Post Office service, these mobile units continued to the called “Railway Post Offices.”

Because the Post Office Department lived on year-to-year congressional appropriations, it was not fully capable of providing multi-year strategic planning. When the Jersey Central approached the Post Office Department around 1964 asking for a long-term mail contract as a basis for purchasing new RPO cars, the Post Office Department declined. Result: Jersey Central suspended all RPO services. I believe the Boston and Maine encountered the same reluctance for a long-term commitment and therefore acted in a similar manner.

One must recognize that the Post Office Department in the 1960s was confronted with an untenable situation: mail volume was increasing dramatically at the same time that the capacity to handle this increase in mobile units had reached its maximum capability in a declining network. Capacity was measured in two ways: the amount of distribution space, and the number of skilled distributors (a.k.a. Postal Transportation Clerks). The number of RPO car-miles was dropping precipitously while the ability to recruit, train, and utilize clerks was not keeping up with needs. Of course, high labor cost was a consideration; the fully-allocated unit cost of handling a letter was asserted to be increasing in a variety of consulting studies.

The solution for labor cost was two-fold: first, to simplify the job so that labor with lower skills and less training could perform distribution. The ZIP Code facilitated this; a clerk could manually sort zoned mail without any scheme knowledge. Second, mechanization and later automation of mail processing steps allowed substitution of capital for labor.

Although well past the RPO era, consider the present-day bar code sorter used by the Postal Service. A single machine processes about 10,000 letter-mail pieces an hour. The entire production of a ten-person RPO crew during a run lasting from 8 to 14 hours was about 10,000 pieces. Further, closed-pouch transportation in sealed trailers, railcars, or air cargo is less expensive than customized rail or highway vehicles. In the extreme case, attempts to outfit planes with mail distribution fixtures was cost ineffective.

Although the Railway Mail Service was very successful –after all, how many activities performed today are likely to last 113 years– it was on a collision course with changing postal techology, the declining reliance upon hard-copy communications, and rise of alternate transportation modes. There has been much discussion of whether the Post Office Department or the railroads “killed” passenger services. The answer is neither; both reacted to the changing business, economic, and societial environments. Considering that 90 percent of USA intercity transportation is via private automobile, it holds the smoking gun.

A similar scenario is true for Seaposts. There are no scheduled ocean liners plying the Atlantic and Pacific routes; just chartered cruise ships. Airline travel and not the private automobile replaced those services, but the point is that mail was withdrawn from those routes as well.

The Post Office Department and the Postal Service generally sought to utilize the fastest means of transportation available in an era. While many can point out that mail service within 500 miles is slower now than when mobile units operated, the fact is –even allowing for congestion– that point–to-point over-the-road trucking is faster for distances under 600 miles, while air transportation is quickest for distances above that amount. Rail is largely relegated to facilitating one-way transportation, such as highly directional traffic flows or repositioning empty trailers and containers. Using highway and air services instead of intercity rail is therefore not illogical. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision, Mr. Gunn while president of Amtrak concluded the revenue gain of furnishing mail transportation on trains were insufficent to offset infrastructure costs and operational impacts. If this was true in 2003, the underlying principles guiding that decision have laid in the passenger rail network prior to 1971.

Now Railway Express: It is notable that this organization formed in 1929 recognized that handling small parcels via passenger trains did not allow it to keep up with competition from companies such as United Parcel Service. One might take the view that since it was railroad-owned, it had a greater interest in preserving rail operations but chose not to. There are other reasons for its business model not surviving and the company’s disappearance, but regarding rail operations a case can be made that REA and USPOD read the cards the same way during the 1960s and placed declining reliance upon over-the-rail services.


All the Express Companies

American Express? Sure, they issue credit cards, don’t they? That’s about as much as most folks under 40 know about “express” companies. Older folks may remember Railway Express as delivering everything up to and including house kits sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. (And who remembers that “Sears” ever had a “Roebuck?”) But there was a day when there were a lot of express companies.

In addition to Railway Express Agency, we had:
Adams Express Co.
American Express Company
Wells, Fargo & Company
and many others.



The 20th Century had working RPOs at the end. They had working RPOs at least as far back as the original streamlined trainsets in 1938. There were four full length RPO cars, NYC 5017-5020, that were used for the Century. They were built by Pullman-Standard in 1938.


Stories and Other Articles about Railway Post Office and Railway Express Agency

Ten Turtles to Tucumcari: a Personal History of the Railway Express Agency
History of the United States Postal Service
Unloading an express shipment


MU Mail/Express on the New York Central

The Harlem line was the route of NYC’s only MU mail & express train. On weekdays #620 departed from North White Plains at 5:20 and was scheduled into GCT at 7:04. It was in the 1959 timetable but I don’t know when it was discontinued. It stopped at Hartsdale where the station agent took sacks of mail from the mail truck, wheeled them out on the platform and loaded them into the mail storage car. At Scarsdale 620 backed into the siding and picked up an MU baggage car at the Railway Express Agency.


M&E on the New York Central

It is pretty evident what a big operation this was and that NYC’s M&E train fleet was larger than some railroad’s entire passenger train operation.

Some interesting notes. Train 43 which turned from an M&E train to a regular passenger train at Buffalo. Train 9 which terminated and then originated again in Cleveland, but not at the same location.

It appears, in general that the traffic orginating in New York was after the major rush of long-haul passenger trains, which reduced conflicts from over takes.

It seems that NYC Trains 3 and 13 were the principal westward M&E trains to Chicago. Did the NYC tend to divide up the traffic in these trains such that Train 3 was primarily the mail train and 13 the express-carrying train or was the lading not segregated that way?

Understand that the express matter didn’t travel with waybills. How was the express matter (and the mail) kept track of?

Did the NYC publish “consist books” similar to those of the PRR, B&O, C&O, ATSF, etc.?

The four major mail and express trains between New York and Chicago for several decades were 3, 4, 13 and 14. At various times they originated or terminated at Harmon, GCT or 33rd Street. There was also, for a while (ca. 1965) No. 23 running Boston – Chicago via the Cleveland Lake Front, where he set off for the Mail Hall.

The greatest volume of New York mail, including lower classes, came from 29th St on the West Side, and the major Railway Express house in NY was at 33rd St. There were about a half-dozen turns per day running between Harmon and 33rd St for that M&E traffic, which was switched at Harmon on and off of both the mail and express trains, and some long head-end consists of regular passenger trains. When the passenger trains picked up their diesels at Harmon, they usually had several or many head end cars behind the diesel added to their train at the same time.

M&E traffic to and from St. Louis and Cincinnati moved west of Cleveland on regular passenger trains. They could sometimes have the passengers a long way back from the engine.

There were also a bunch of M&E trains between Boston and Buffalo numbered in the 140 series that handled more local mail. Some of them were carded for stops of one hour or more in places like Rochester and Utica. There were even a few that ran from Rensselaer to Troy and back in the 1950’s to handle traffic to and from the D&H and the B&M, but most of the D&H M&E traffic went via Albany.

My guess is that Train 3 was the Big Dog for mail to Chicago (departing GCT at 3:26 AM) and Train 139 is the express train (departing Croton-on-Hudson at 12:56 AM) likely to carry through cars. Am I on the right track?

Here is a list of the trains.
13 E NY(30th) to Chicago(EWD) Xsu
3 M NY(30th) to Chicago(12th) XSS
7 M NY(GCT) to Buffalo Xsu
23 ME NY(GCT) to Buffalo XSM
501 ME NY(GCT) to N. White Plains MU XSM
401 ME Boston to Albany Xsu
105 ME Syracuse to Buffalo XM
235 ME Buffalo to Cleveland(E26th) XM
209 M Cleveland(CUT) to Chicago (P) D
9 ME New York to Buffalo Su
4 ME Chicago to Harmon D
14 M Chicago to NY(GCT) D
222 M Chicago to Cleveland(CUT) (P) XSu
232 ME Chicago to Chicago to Elkhart (P) XSu
370 ME Chicago to Detroit XSa
142 ME Buffalo to Albany D
144 ME Buffalo to Boston D
32 M Buffalo to Harmon D
406 ME Albany to Boston Xsu
846 M Croton to NY(GCT) MU D
620 ME N. White Plains to NY(GCT) MU XSS
234 M Chicago to Cleveland (P) Su

As mentioned above, the main NYC express house in New York was at 33rd St, so the make up of mail and express trains was fairly simple. There were also several round trips daily between Harmon and 33rd St for mail and express traffic. Cars arriving on No.14, when it ran to GCT, moved on those shuttles, as well as cars to and from mainline passenger trains. For instance, a mail storage car from 29th St to St Louis would go on a shuttle to Harmon, then be put on No. 41 along with the road engine. The road engines usually had several head end cars when they backed onto their trains at Harmon, and vice versa.

The River Division of the New York Central, former West Shore Railroad handled mail from Albany to Weehawken, New Jersey as well as Albany mail going south to other railroads, including CNJ, LV, PRR. RDG. B&O, etc. There was also a Kingston-Oneonta RPO until March 31, 1954, that ran on the Catskill Mountain Branch. It was one-third of a Baggage-Express-RPO combine on NYC trains 527 and 528.

The railroad station was officially termed, “Grand Central Terminal.” I think the adjacent Post Office was Grand Central Station Post Office. It distributed mail from GCT to other PO’s as well as completing the sort if an inbound RPO went stuck.


Specific Railway Post Office and Railway Express Agency Locations

Utica, New York: REA wing of Union Station
Matoon, Illinois: Railway Express Agency Building


RPO Postmarks

A postmark is applied where a mail piece enters the postal system. For this reason, RPO markings are less common than city/town postmarks.

When the RPO network was viable –that is, generally prior to 1958– the majority of intercity First Class, newspaper, and periodical (Second and Third Classes) mail was distributed aboard Railway and Highway Post Offices.

Even though the vast majority of envelopes one might find today with city and town postmarks don’t show RPO markings, one or more RPO or HPO clerks likely handled it if it traveled more than 25 miles. The inverse seems to be true: perhaps one percent or less of all mail bore a RPO marking.

When a letter entered the mailstream at a RPO, it started its journey that way for three reasons. One was that it was deposited into the car via a public letter slot on the side of a RPO car, or handed to the clerk in the RPO’s doorway during a station stop. Another occurrence was when a letter box was erected on a station platform; a clerk from the RPO would “rob the box” during a station stop. The last approach was prevalent as RPOs were being discontinued. This was to mail self-addressed stamped envelopes in an outer envelope addressed to “Clerk in Charge / —- & —– RPO / Origin City and State.” Collectors seeking last run covers typically used this approach for obtaining philatelic-use covers when they could not travel to those cities to personally mail the covers aboard the RPO.

Although RPOs distributed First, Second, and Third Class mail (plus some Fourth Class parcel post if “Special Handling” fee was paid for this service), postal regulations limited mailings aboard a RPO to fully-paid First Class items. RPO postmarks are not seen on these other classes because they couldn’t enter the mailstream aboard a RPO.

The steel postmarkers were the most commonly applied postal markings to mail in a RPO. However, Railway Postal Clerks (RPCs) were required to have a “personal postmark” device. It was required to show their name, work assignment location, train/trip/tour (abbreviated “TR”) number, and date. Imprints were made upon facing slips, pouch/sack labels, and official correspondence. On occasion, these markings may also appear on the rear of special delivery or registered mail envelopes, indicating that the clerk performed distribution of that mail piece. Rubber stamps after the mid-1950s were provided by the Post Office Department by requisition. Prior to that era clerks procured or made their own personal postmarkers, but at their own expense. Those often continued in use for as long as the clerk worked on that route.

Pre-1958 is mentioned as being the threshold for a viable RPO network. My rationale is that because the Transportation Act of 1958 set the stage for branch-line passenger train discontinuances as well as slimming down main line services, the mail distribution capacity aboard RPOs became progressively constricted at the same time that mail volume was expanding. Increasing the number of Highway Post Offices to fill in local gaps in the RPO patchwork quilt helped until the early 1960s. By that time, the trunk line RPOs were being discontinued as the Post Office Department expanded its “Metro Plan” concept of mechanized mail processing concentrated at Sectional Center Facilities. The RPO network was being ripped apart at the seams after the mid-1960s. En route distribution became the exception, rather than the rule



Harvard Professor John R. Stilgoe states that: ‘Train travel will supplant highway and air travel in the next few decades. Furthermore, electric railroads will increasingly be used to distribute freight items as well as mail and express packages.

According to Stilgoe the three prime factors driving railroad development are population growth, rising gas prices, and advanced technology.
“In the 1930s it was possible to order a fridge in the morning and have it delivered by train later the same day,” says Stilgoe. “Americans forgot about this, but we’re starting to put it back together.”
Stilgoe slso wrote an excellent yet overlooked book on railroads and the built environment shaped by them called Metropolitan Corridor:Railroads and the American Scene that I highly recommend.
Whats most interesting is that the book is 6 months old and already much has changed in that brief time to further move us toward a new era of the train and seemingly away from our old era of the highway and sprawl, particularly with respect to the financial crisis, foreclosure mess, high gas prices, politics of “change” and global warming awareness.




Developed during the 19th century, the Post Office Department’s Railway Mail Service was an efficient and decentralized way to process mail by sorting it aboard moving trains, an innovation that became increasingly important after the Civil War. In the 1880s, during the height of the Railway Mail Service, a dog, likely a terrier mix, appeared in the Post Office in Albany, New York. Clerks took a liking to him and named him Owney. Fond of riding in postal wagons, Owney followed mailbags onto trains and soon became a good-luck charm to Railway Mail Service employees, who made him their unofficial mascot. Working in the Railway Mail Service was highly dangerous; according to the National Postal Museum, more than 80 mail clerks were killed in train wrecks and more than 2,000 were injured between 1890 and 1900. However, it was said that no train ever met with trouble while Owney was aboard.


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