Pacific Fruit Express

Anthony W. Thompson, Robert J. Church and Bruce H. Jones

Full Text of Some Reviews of the Second Edition:

Review from Trains magazine, March, 2001, p. 80

"Founded in 1906 by Edward H. Harriman, and jointly owned by Harriman-controlled Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, Pacific Fruit Express grew into the largest owner and operator of refrigerated rail cars in the world, its growth mirroring--and supporting--the rise of irrigated agriculture in the West.

"Both SP and UP operated fleets of non-refrigerated "ventilated" cars before PFE's creation, but investing in cars to haul perishables was not seen as particularly lucrative, since the harvest season was short. The jointly owned PFE system was much more efficient, since its fleet could roam the vast region served by UP and SP, "following the sun," as PFE's publicists liked to say, hauling potatoes from the Pacific Northwest in the fall, oranges from California in the winter, and fruit from the Southwest in the spring.

"In 1992, Anthony Thompson, Robert Church and Bruce Jones published Pacific Fruit Express,an impressively complete and well-executed history of the company that detailed every aspect of PFE's far-flung empire, including car design and operations, company-owned ice plants and icing facilities, capped by a large photo section of PFE in action over the years. That edition has been out of print since 1996, but this highly-regarded book is back in a second, and expanded, edition that includes 46 additional color photos, 32 more pages, and new statistical information."

-- Carl A. Swanson


Review from The Lexington Quarterly, June, 2002, p. 4

"The authors have written a very detailed and highly informative book on one of the most venerable institutions in U.S. railroading, the Pacific Fruit Express Company (PFE). The book thoroughly covers the history of PFE as a company, its equipment fleet, its operations, and the western perishables market served by PFE. It is rich in detail, well documented and exhaustive in its coverage of PFE, its equipment and facilities, the refrigerator car business, and the movement of perishables.

"Ironically, what initially made PFE possible may have contributed to its later demise. PFE wouldn't have happened without the vision of E. H. Harriman. Common control of UP-SP in the Harriman era and the "follow the sun" strategy made it possible. Despite this, PFE later was buffeted by the mistrust in the relationship between UP and SP after common control ended. Notwithstanding this love-hate relationship between its parents, PFE grew to become North America's preeminent refrigerator car line and a major contributor to the economic well being of its parents, as well as a major factor in the economic development of the west.

"In the end, PFE was brought down as much by the rigidity and inflexibility of its business model, the resulting labor and capital intensity of its business and declining railroad service levels as it was by deregulated truck competition. Today's railroads, with their operating focus on employment levels and budgets could not and would not begin to provide the level of service PFE and its parent roads routinely provided to perishable shippers. (Can you imagine a Class I Railroad today switching a packing shed 6 or 7 times daily or dedicating the resources to handle 5 -10 diversions per carload?).

"The book is a wealth of detail and is spiced with interesting vignettes. For example, to cite just a few, D. J. Russell's response to the washing of refrigerator car exteriors (it wasn't pretty, and the practice soon stopped); the reason ice hatch covers were many times left open on loaded refrigerator cars (ventilation); and PFE's movement of carloads of dandelions (yes, dandelions) out of California's Imperial Valley.

"This is an excellent and well-researched and well-written book, which would make a good addition to one's personal library. To anyone who has seen first hand or heard stories about "RVs" and "Colton and Yuma blocks", it is must reading."

-- John F. Rebensdorf, Union Pacific


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Review from Model Railroader magazine, February, 2001, p. 54

"Pacific Fruit Express, Second Edition, by Anthony W. Thompson, Robert J. Church, and Bruce Jones, is an updated and expanded version of this massive book on the history and operations of the Pacific Fruit Express Co. Compared to the 1993 [sic] version, this book has 32 more pages (14 are in color), reproductions of PFE advertising, a time line, a chart of the growing seasons in PFE territory, and many updated car data pages. The 464-page hardcover book is published by Signature Press."


Full Text of Some Reviews of the First Edition:

Review from Trains magazine, February, 1993, p. 80

"Here is a superb illustrated history of the company whose name is synonymous with perishable freight. Jointly owned by the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific, PFE was the world's largest operator of refrigerator cars. The story of this remarkable enterprise includes its corporate history, detailed rolling-stock data, an explanation of ice production and distribution methods, and descriptions of the repair and maintenance shops. Numerous action photos show PFE cars en route from California to Eastern markets. An appendix has color paint samples, painting diagrams from different eras, and a system map. Rounding out the work is the most complete bibliography and index I have ever seen in a rail history book. "

-- Jim Hediger


Review from Railroad Model Craftsman magazine, February, 1993, p. 29

"Pacific Fruit Express was, in the words of the book's subtitle, "the world's largest refrigerator car company." In its heyday, PFE's reefer fleet outnumbered the entire freight car rosters of many railroads, and its cars were a familiar sight not only on the rails of its joint owners, the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific, but on most other railroad lines, transporting fruit and vegetables from the fertile valleys of the far West to markets in every part of North America.

"In size and importance, then, as well as in intrinsic interest, PFE merits the same kind of comprehensive, well-documented historical account that has been written about many of the major railroads, and providing such an account is what the authors of Pacific Fruit Express set out to do. The project got more or less out of hand, however, and after several years of intensive effort, the book that resulted--all four pounds and 432 pages of it--isn't just another treatise on railroad history, it's a major landmark in the field.

"Pacific Fruit Expressis really three books in one. Part One, which chronicles PFE's corporate history and organizational structure, amounts to a sizable monograph all by itself. Part Two, written by frequent RMC contributor Tony Thompson, consists of almost two hundred pages devoted to PFE's refrigerator car fleet. Every car class is covered in detail, plus pre-PFE ventilated fruit cars, express reefers, trailers, flat cars, and even shop switchers. There are hundreds of photographs, as well as numerous scale drawings, diagrams and charts, with many of the photos and much of the art work being previously unpublished. Part Three, also big enough to have constituted a separate book in its own right, is on operations, covering subjects like car shops, icing facilities, traffic sources, and car movements.

"Then there are the appendices, which provide such data as a master list of car classes, reproductions of PFE standard paint colors and car lettering diagrams, and annual shipping statistics. There is also a twenty-four page "photo album" (with some pictures in color) showing PFE cars in trains and in yards at locations from California and Arizona to Illinois and New York during every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s. An extensive bibliography and a topical index are included, and even the acknowledgements verge on the monumental, encompassing a virtual "Who's Who" of railroad librarians, archivists, historians and photographers. In short, Pacific Fruit Expresssets an entirely new standard for exhaustive coverage and painstaking research.

"In production quality the book is equally impressive. Not only is it handsomely printed and bound, but the reproduction of both black and white and color photos, especially important in a work of this kind, is consistently excellent. In addition, the text and captions are well written, readable, and notably free from both typos and factual errors. If the book has a fault, it's that tracking down a specific piece of information often isn't easy, despite the index, simply because such a wealth of data is packed into it.

"As you have probably gathered by now, this is a book that no one with a serious interest in railroad history can afford to be without. But what about model railroaders? Does this massive volume belong in a modeler's library? It depends. For toy train collectors, novices or scale modelers whose model railroading inclines toward the whimsical and fantastic rather than the realistic, Pacific Fruit Expressdoubtless offers far more information on the subject than they ever wanted to know. On the other hand, for those who are devoted to achieving prototype authenticity in their modeling, this book is an indispensable resource.

"Regardless of the railroad you model, unless it's a remote short line or narrow gauge line, the chances are that PFE cars often ran on it; as the book well documents, they went just about everywhere in North America. If you model Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, Western Pacific, or any of the connecting lines that handled a lot of PFE traffic like the Rock Island, Chicago & North Western, Rio Grande, and Cotton Belt, Pacific Fruit Expressis especially relevant. And whether you want to model only a few PFE cars or whole reefer blocks complete with icing facilities, this book has the answers to all your questions about both rolling stock and operations, including a lot of questions that you never knew enough to ask.

"Does Pacific Fruit Expresshave any drawbacks, from a modeler's perspective? Well, the corporate history isn't likely to raise your pulse rate much, though even this part of the book isn't entirely lacking in interesting insights and useful information. Also, the price may induce sticker shock if you haven't bought any large, lavishly illustrated books lately. By comparison with much less ambitious publications which now go for upwards of $40, however, Pacific Fruit Express is well worth the price of admission. So if this is your kind of book, don't procrastinate about buying a copy, as announcements of its impending publication have stimulated a lot of interest and the initial press run is a relatively small one."

-- Richard H. Hendrickson

Review from C&O Historical Society, November, 1992

"Being that I was lucky enough to borrow a copy of this great new book, I feel compelled to provide an unsolicited book review on this "freight car" book, Pacific Fruit Express, co-authored by Anthony W. Thompson, Robert J. Church and Bruce Jones. The first impression, other than, the shock from the $75 price, is that it is a classy, professional, no wasted space, but yet pleasing to the eye, 429 page, hard cover, book--too good to sit on the coffee table. Paper is acid free, archival quality. Both the color painting reproductions and photographs, plus the black and white photographs, are true color or contrast reproductions. It is broken up into three sections: the company, the car fleet and the operations. Each author took a section. Additionally, there is an appendix that includes diagram sheets, table of car facts, fold out maps, and schedules, plus, accurate color chip reproductions. Finally, there is a detailed bibliography, with detailed notes on the sources of data (including form number, print numbers, etc. for each major or controversial item in the book), and an index. The work is very scholarly!

" I was particularly interested in Anthony Thompson's approach to Section II. The Car Fleet, Refrigerator Cars and Equipment (including flat cars and trailers). It has a mixture of full page to one-sixth page sized photographs, advertisements, simple tables and diagrams folded into chronological order, double column, text. It also draws in related history and technologies that facilitate changes in car design and function. It has a mixture of outside, topside, inside shots of the cars and their related equipment The photographs complement the text and not conversely as a typical freight car book usually does.

"The book draws heavily on the resources of the California State Railroad Museum's director, senior curator and an associated Railway and Locomotive Society's archivists. This book also benefits greatly from the discussion started by John White's The Great Yellow Fleet overview of the refrigerator car companies, plus, transcribed and archived interviews with retired and former PFE and UP employees.

"It is a joy to look at and/or read!"

-- Alfred L. Kresse