Sunday, January 22, 2023

House car distribution on the Santa Fe 1929-43

About ten years ago, I discovered a document at the California State Railroad Museum Library that was apparently a justification for an authority for expenditure to revitalize the railroad at the end of WWII.  Among the hundreds of pages related to weight of rail and traffic on certain segments, tonnage ratings for the various districts and a myriad of other info that supported the business plans, were a couple of tables showing the house car fleet.  These tables showed how many Santa Fe box, automobile and refrigerator cars where at home and off line each month from January 1929 to December 1943.  They also showed how many foreign cars of those types were present on Santa Fe rails over the same time period.  With those three numbers, we can calculate the total Santa Fe fleet on those dates, the number of cars of each type on Santa Fe rails, the percentage of the Santa Fe fleet at home and away, and the percentage of Santa Fe and Foreign cars on Santa Fe rails.  Gilbert and Nelson have described a theoretical distribution of free running freight cars where they postulate that the percentages of foreign road cars on a railroad are approximated by the relative totals of cars owned by the various railroads in the US car fleet.  The percentage of home road cars varied by year.  The data in this document show how that percentage varied through the Great Depression into the peak traffic years of WWII.  Due to the vastly different economic conditions, straight percentages won’t be accurate for what you would see in typical freight trains.  During the Depression, many freight cars were stored, traffic was way down, and lots of older cars were eventually scrapped or rebuilt and not available for use, but were in the home road totals until they were disposed of.  That said, there was an absolute higher percentage of home road cars in use on line during the Depression than during the traffic crunch of WWII.  

The Santa Fe Reefer fleet.

The Santa Fe Reefer fleet began 1929 with 18,177 cars, peaked in June 1931 with 18,798 before contracting to 14,080 cars in Jun 1937.  It ended 1943 with 14,687 cars.  In January 1929 4204 or 23% of the fleet was on foreign lines while 1471 foreign reefers were on the Santa Fe or about 10% of the reefers on home rails.  That percentage of foreign cars dropped to 4% in May and July of 1930.  The numbers of foreign reefers show annual spikes around November, but remain consistently low both in number and percentage on Santa Fe lines until the wartime traffic increase with a peak of 8898 cars or 48% of the reefers on line in July of 1943.   

Santa Fe retired many of its truss rod reefers in the mid 30’s resulting in a decline in numbers to around 14,000.  


The percentage of foreign reefers remained fairly consistent through 1936 , then began increasing as the economy recovered and wartime demand called for utilization of every available rail car.  These numbers comport with the long held image of nearly pure SFRD reefer blocks on the Santa Fe, at least in the Depression era.  SFRD business practice of providing its own reefers for loading whenever available contributed to the low percentage of foreign cars.  ICC car service orders changed the distribution during the war years.


The traffic increased with more foreign cars providing a greater share of the on-line cars.


The foreign portion seen on the Santa Fe during the depression averaged less than 10% of reefers on-line with slight seasonal bumps.  Starting in 1937, the percentages steadily increased with larger seasonal peaks.  

If you are a Depression Era Santa Fe modeler, you don’t need many foreign reefers.  And many of those should be meat reefers, of which the Santa Fe/SFRD had very few.  Not so if you model the WWII era.  In addition to the commercial meat reefer fleet, you will need a fair number of competitor’s reefers such as PFE, FGEX, ART and others.  

I’ll address the box and auto cars in future posts.

John Barry,

Lovettsville, VA

1 comment:

  1. Minor correction. Tim and I concluded the even distribution of cars applied only to boxcars and flatcars and was probably a result of war traffic 1940 into the mid 50's.

    As for home vs. road percentages, that wasn't related to the above topic (which was only about the percentages of all foreign cars sighted not foreign vs. home road).

    I do not now recall where I found home vs. foreign numbers but as you mentioned home road cars on home rails increased greatly when the economy was down and reduced in normal economic times. The data might have been from the ICC or the AAR.

    BTW the weekly AAR reports are useful for verifying the seasonality of traffic. The numbers are mostly for Commodity Families (e.g., Products of Forests). I used them to estimate monthly livestock and coal carload shipments on the DRGW. Based on traffic that road's initials should have been SL&RGE.