Mail and Rail

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Once, these two, mail and rail, were an item.  In many ways, they were inseparable, at least if any significant distance was involved.  Mail needed rail both to get where it was going, at least beyond local office limits, and to arrive at the destination in a timely manner, i.e. faster than the Pony Express.

Rail, passenger version, depended on the mail to provide an economic underpinning for many services.  When the death throes of the RPO (Railway Post Office) occurred in 1967 (although a few routes survived longer) the heretofore-hidden knowledge (at least outside the rail industry) that this one car provided a significant proportion of many trains’ revenues became a well-known fact when the revenues vanished, and the railroads filed to jettison the trains.

For this reason, postal facilities and passenger stations were often in close proximity in many locations.  When the Cincinnati Union Terminal was built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, for example, provision for mail (and also express, which also traveled on passenger trains) was made as an integral part of the project.  A current reminder of this is the former Farley Post Office across the street to the west of Penn Station in New York, which will be re-purposed as the Amtrak station facility in New York City since it is no longer required by the Postal Service.

Mail prior to the interstate highway system and today’s airline system was a very significant rail customer; in many densely-trafficked lanes there were entire trains devoted to this commodity, and led to the development of the romantic aura that came to be associated with the speedy services of the “Fast Mail”. 

Since mail generally was collected during the day and tended to travel at night, at least for the initial part of its journey, many a “Midnight Special” was the beneficiary of the mail’s economic largesse complementing its Pullmans, as a result.  In a world prior to Federal Express and “absolutely, positively” overnight, the RPO on crack trains like the Century and Broadway served as the best way to accomplish something like this (albeit sans FedEx’s  service guarantee).

Mail continued to move by rail in significant volumes after the demise of the RPO in the U.S., more often than not as freight, via piggyback/intermodal services, some of which were devoted primarily to this traffic; Contrail’s “Mail-9” comes to mind (I believe that it’s now NS 21E), although in more recent times the prime customer on runs like this became UPS (United Parcel Service) rather than the USPS.

Amtrak tried to regain some of the mail traffic that had escaped to the highways and airways, including the use of RoadRailers on some of its passenger trains, as well as modern-day express cars, but this ultimately didn’t succeed.  It’s not without irony that the predominant volume of long-haul intercity first-class mail in the U.S. is now handled by FedEx aircraft, on a contract basis.

Changes notwithstanding, there are still reminders of the rail/mail partnership extant.  Here, at Manassas, Virginia, with Amtrak’s Cardinal stopping on its westbound journey between New York and Chicago, a vestige of the United States Post Office, in the form of this sturdy, built-for-the-ages collection box, is right there at the station, and still in use. 

Nothing collected from this box will travel on Amtrak 51, or, for that matter, by rail at all, however.  Mail and rail used to be intimate partners; here and now, they share only an affinity for red, white and blue liveries, and a geographic juxtaposition that keeps them in sight of each other.

(Photo by George W. Hamlin)

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