Musings on old-school piggyback

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, October 4, 2019

A driver backs a brand-new 40-foot Union Pacific trailer into position on a likewise-new 85-foot flatcar in a 1959 publicity shot. Union Pacific
A news item from BNSF last week caught my eye, and not for the intended reason. It was an announcement from BNSF and trucking giant YRC, an agreement to field more than 600 new containers branded for YRC and dedicated to Chicago–Southern California service via the Transcon. 

These kinds of partnerships seem to happen frequently and aren’t all that newsworthy. But the story had me searching the web to check on “YRC,” a name unfamiliar to me. I should have recognized it — it’s the current iteration of that grand old trucker Yellow Freight, modified when the company acquired another big hauler, Roadway, in 2003. 

That name — Yellow Freight — has been around since the late 1920s and it got me thinking back to growing up and some of my earliest interest in transportation. The fact is, for a while there, I think I liked trucks nearly as much as I did trains. 

Beyond the obvious interest boys have in big machines, my truck fancy was fed by a number of things. One was the small Consolidated Freightways terminal about three blocks from my house, where I watched the green-and-red–logoed trucks come and go on weekdays. Another was my brief obsession with the TV show Cannonball, a Canadian-produced series about a pair of truckers and their adventures, a knockoff of Route 66, the intrepid heroes riding in a cab-over GMC instead of a Corvette. 

Illinois Central trailers ride conventional flatcars near the road's Van Buren Street suburban-train station in Chicago. Illinois Central
Then there was the kid who lived in the house behind ours. Mark Carlburg would have been just one in a swarm of Baby Boomer kids on our block, except he had something special going for him: his dad drove for McLean Trucking. Somehow I knew that McLean was one of the country’s biggest truckers, a fact that made him, well, cool. Mr. Carlburg wasn’t around much, of course, but I remember one day when he came home long enough to park his gorgeous red-and-white McLean tractor out in front of the house. Mark had instant status, at least with me.

This trucking interest didn’t last long. If it was a contest between trains and trucks, the former won out in July 1965 when, home sick with the flu, my mother came home with the August issue of something called Trains magazine. As a 14-year-old, reading Trains at the high tide of David P. Morgan pretty much finished off my dalliance with trucking.   

But I still enjoyed seeing the big rigs on the road, especially on trips in the family Ford when, looking out the windshield over my dad’s shoulder, I’d spot one lettered for a railroad. This was late Fifties and early Sixties, when piggyback was in its first big flourish. I didn’t know a thing about transportation economics, let alone piggyback — they didn’t call it “intermodal” yet — but I took some satisfaction in seeing WABASH or ILLINOIS CENTRAL emblazoned across a 35-foot trailer. To me, it looked like railroads were the invaders, not the other way around.

Those years were full of ferment in railroading, not least in the world of intermodal. I found myself reaching for a terrific book on the subject, Piggyback and Containers: A History of Rail Intermodal on America’s Steel Highway, by longtime railroad marketing and manufacturing executive David J. DeBoer and published in 1992 by Golden West. DeBoer is a historian of considerable skill, and his background in the industry enabled him to produce a highly readable book, full of the kinds of insider anecdotes that bring life to the prosaic world of trailer hitches and loading ramps. 

A container emblazoned with Flexi-Van and Milwaukee Road emblems is loaded onto a car at the road's West Milwaukee Shops. Milwaukee Road
I especially enjoy his treatment of that critical era when piggyback seemed to explode. It was an era of experiments in technology — RoadRailer versus Flexi-Van, MoPac’s gondola system versus ACF’s Road-Rail — and it took years for the industry to standardize. DeBoer describes the railroads that embraced the concept, from counterintuitive weakling Chicago Great Western to western powerhouse Southern Pacific. 

“In that era the railroads and what they did or did not do were big news for the American public,” DeBoer writes. “A railroad president’s pronouncements normally received major news coverage as did the statements of labor, political, and economics leaders who voiced their views about the railroads. Piggyback, the new kid on the block, really tickled their fancy. Even the name itself was evocative. Maybe just the suggestion of it would help to get some of those darned trucks off the highway.”

As is often the case with railroads, the central problem inside management was the tension between those who believed in marketing solutions and those who always fell back on hardware. “Basically, it was felt that the real problem centered with what they considered to be a group of old stick-in-the-mud traffic types, and if in fact this was the case, then somebody ought to do something about it,” writes DeBoer. 

Flanked by Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific trailers, a Mack tractor of SP's Pacific Motor Trucking subsidiary works the ramp at Oakland, Calif., in 1960. Richard Steinheimer
Somebody did do something about it, especially when the container revolution and deregulation swept the industry beginning in the 1980s. Although the AAR reported this summer that 2019 intermodal traffic is down more than 5 percent from the year before, it remains a fundamental part of the business, and it’s not going anywhere. But that’s a story for a different venue.

Meanwhile, I had some fun going back through the Classic Trains photo files, looking for images of those heady times 50 or 60 years ago when piggyback exploded on the scene. I was especially enamored of the accompanying night photo by Richard Steinheimer, showing a diminutive Mack tractor, shuffling trailers at the Southern Pacific’s ramp in Oakland in 1960. Typically Stein, it’s an artful depiction of the era when railroading’s fallen flags seemed to a kid to rule the highways. 

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