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Why do (North American) Refrigerator cars have steps under the doors?

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Why do (North American) Refrigerator cars have steps under the doors?
Posted by chutton01 on Monday, September 23, 2013 8:59 PM

Or maybe the better question is "why don't regular boxcars have such steps?"

Going from the 36ft wooden reefer of post WWI (and maybe earlier), up to the latest 21st century reefers from Trinity, it looks like some sort of stirrup step is located below the door on either side - some are/were simple "U" shapes, some were more involved like the inverted trapezoids with additional horizontal rung ala the old-school PFE R70-20 reefer; in any case, there is a step.

But as "house cars" (does anyone even use that term anymore?) go, why did/do reefers have them, and boxcars normally didn't? If you're going to say "in case the reefers are unloaded at a site with no high-level loading dock", aren't boxcars just as likely, if not more so, to be spotted at ground level team tracks/transfer yards for unloading?

I was thinking maybe the "complexity" of the plug doors (vs sliding door) needed a step for the crew to open the doors when unloading at ground level, but images of prototype plugdoor boxcars do not show any such steps - except for several 40ft boxcars with grain loading doors from the 1950s/1960s. Other than that, nothing really...

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Posted by wjstix on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 7:36 AM

Regular boxcar doors can be opened and closed from ground level. In order to be sure they're shut really tight, reefers had/have a latching mechanism partway up the car. Unless someone was unusually tall, I don't think they could reach it easily from the ground.

 

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Posted by chutton01 on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 8:28 AM

wjstix
Regular boxcar doors can be opened and closed from ground level. In order to be sure they're shut really tight, reefers had/have a latching mechanism partway up the car. Unless someone was unusually tall, I don't think they could reach it easily from the ground.


OK, thanks for the response.

I agree, that would certainly seem to be the case for the older wooden reefer styles, but as I mentioned post 1950s Mechanical Reefers seem to have been fitted with plug-doors from nearly the start , and they have door steps. However regular plug door boxcars, which seem to have similar types of latching mechanism, do not have such steps - and this is over a period of 50+ years I'm talking about.

Why the disparity?

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Posted by UPinCT on Tuesday, September 24, 2013 9:49 PM

chutton01
Why the disparity?

I'm with you C,  I have the newest Trinity Refers and they all have steps. Why is that?  Especially since my ARMN cars travel in units from the West coast to Rotterdam NY and are off loaded as a unit in a big warehouse by forklifts.  It seems like the cars are always at dock height and there would be no need for a step at the door.

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Posted by zstripe on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 6:13 AM

My 2 Cents  USDA,,,Inspectors??

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Posted by Kyle on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 3:06 PM
My guess would be it was to allow people to inspect the contents, and make sure the reefer unit was working properly.
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Posted by mlehman on Friday, September 27, 2013 9:31 AM

Kyle and Frank are both right. Reefers tend to be regularly inspected en route for several reasons. Gov't inspectors are one reason, but probably less so than others. Some loads are top-iced and the load needs to be seen to evaluate whether that needs renewed. Temperature checks are an even more common task. And many reefers are loaded at the packing plant and sent toward urban destinations with the contents unsold. Brokers and potential buyers both may need to inspect the load.

IIRC, the steps became a AAR or some other requirement at a certain point in the past, which is why the steps are ubiquitous on reefers.

Mike Lehman

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Posted by chutton01 on Friday, September 27, 2013 10:19 AM

mlehman
Kyle and Frank are both right. Reefers tend to be regularly inspected en route for several reasons.


OK, I see a consensus forming that people need to access the reefer for inspection during it's journey, not just at the loading/unloading docks. I agree that door steps do facilitate such access.

Gov't inspectors are one reason

I can certainly image this in the glorious days of long strings of orange wood PFE ice-reefers crossing the nation, but have problems believing there would be a need for a lot of such inspection in the era of Mechanical Reefers (say 1960 and later), let alone the modern era Mech Reefers like the TrinCools which probably transmit their status wireless for remote monitoring.

Some loads are top-iced


Even nowadays in the 21st century? What's the need, Mech Reefers should  be able to pre-cool the entire load nicely? Is that a hold-over from the 1980s, when Mech Reefers seemed on their way to becoming a sad after thought, like livestock cars?

Temperature checks are an even more common task.


For whatever reason, I always thought Mech Reefers had external thermometers (I certainly recall them on the Athern R70-20 models), and you know the the Mech Reefers built (or rebuilt) since the 1990s must have temperature sensors and the like.  In other words, no reason for anyone to open the door.

Brokers and potential buyers both may need to inspect the load.


OK, this one hadn't occured to me, and makes the most sense of all reasons.

the steps became a AAR or some other requirement at a certain point in the past, which is why the steps are ubiquitous on reefers.


This one I can readily believe too.

Hmm, inspection for buyers and government agents,  yes.
Existing regulation from back in the day, yes.
Top icing? Hmm
Temperature checks, I'm skeptical...why waste time having a guy open the door when they could just look at the thermometer on the exterior, or better yet check sensor logs.

I more or less understood why ice-reefers (wooden and steel, no matter) would have such door steps.
I didn't really think about why the 1st gen Mech Reefers (say built before 1980) would have such door steps, except maybe that the ice-reefers had them and old work practices die hard.
I really didn't get why modern era Mech Reefers (post 1990, including rebuilds) would have such steps at all, but when you bring in customers...yes, that makes sense.

Thanks for the response, everyone..

Note I was really tempted to send an e-mail to TrinityRail to ask why their TrinCool Refrigerated Box Car (I gather the "Mechanical" part is implied nowadays, since ice is long gone and cyrogenics didn't quite pan out as well as hoped) has such door steps, but their contact form insist on valid phone numbers, which I wasn't really wanting to give out...

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Posted by zstripe on Friday, September 27, 2013 2:21 PM

Chutton01,

You may find this interesting,to say the least:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_car

Cheers,

Frank

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Posted by BATMAN on Friday, September 27, 2013 4:45 PM

A couple of years back someone posted a link to a very old video of the rail yards in Chicago I believe. It followed inspectors and buyers going around the yard going in and out of these cars. It was quite interesting to watch. Maybe if that person is out there they could re-post the link.Movie

Brent

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Posted by chutton01 on Friday, September 27, 2013 5:03 PM

zstripe
Chutton01,

You may find this interesting,to say the least:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_car

Cheers,
Frank


I have read on that wiki article (actually I've been on many rail-related wiki, and edited a few of them), but now that you mentioned it, I took another look and found two things mentioned that correspond to what I said in my previous meandering post above..
It was ultimately determined that top-icing is useful only in preventing an increase in temperature, and was eventually discontinued.

Several hundred "cryogenic" refrigerator cars were placed in service transporting frozen foodstuffs, though they failed to gain wide acceptance (due, in part, to the rising cost of liquid carbon dioxide).

Still didn't mention anything about the door steps, though

I've always found railroad refrigerator cars (especially Mechanical ones) interesting and have read much about them over the years. I came of age in the 1980s when rail refrigerator service was on the decline. Luckily, by the 1990s they were seriously building and rebuilding new refrigerator cars for new and revitalized traffic flows (still, reefers are a small percentage of the total N.A. railcar fleet, which is rather dominated by covered hoppers - and I see the wiki article did mention the experimental refrigerated covered hoppers...)

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Posted by zstripe on Friday, September 27, 2013 5:04 PM

Brent,

When I get a chance,,I will do a little digging..I have a lot of,History Channel,DVD's,with about 20 hrs,of,20,30,40's in Chgo and other big cities,,,The problem,is they are too long to post on the Forums..Unless,I can take some 5 or ten minute copies..If I can I will surely post them...I'll have to ask my PC Wizard son,when comes home tomorrow. Thumbs Up

Cheers, Drinks

Frank

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Posted by BATMAN on Friday, September 27, 2013 9:03 PM

Frank

I remember the link took us to a web site that was kind of like a Shorpy site except it was for movies. I watched a bunch of other stuff on it as well. So interesting. I can't believe I didn't book mark it.Dunce

Brent

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Posted by zstripe on Friday, September 27, 2013 10:04 PM

Brent,

I'll do some digging,,I think I saw what you are talking about......As far as saving things go,and a new happening on my part,,a year ago I put in my files,of how to completely rebuild a Athearn motor,,I clicked on it the other day and received a message,,the information saved,is no longer available,,,,What??

Cheers,Drinks

Frank

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Posted by mlehman on Saturday, September 28, 2013 1:27 AM

chutton01

Temperature checks are an even more common task.


For whatever reason, I always thought Mech Reefers had external thermometers (I certainly recall them on the Athern R70-20 models), and you know the the Mech Reefers built (or rebuilt) since the 1990s must have temperature sensors and the like.  In other words, no reason for anyone to open the door.

Brokers and potential buyers both may need to inspect the load.


OK, this one hadn't occured to me, and makes the most sense of all reasons.

the steps became a AAR or some other requirement at a certain point in the past, which is why the steps are ubiquitous on reefers.


This one I can readily believe too.

Hmm, inspection for buyers and government agents,  yes.
Existing regulation from back in the day, yes.
Top icing? Hmm
Temperature checks, I'm skeptical...why waste time having a guy open the door when they could just look at the thermometer on the exterior, or better yet check sensor logs.

My timeline stops in 1974, so I was primarily referring to iced reefers.

Knew about the top icing deal. last I remember (truck)loads with it is early 1980s. I'm pretty sure it was in use past the point when mech reefers dominated the fleet, so up to a certain point you would have mech reefer loads that were top iced. This wouldn't be renewed enroute AFAIK after iced reefers went passe, but it would be something that might be checked if applied to a load.

Obviously, yeah, mech reefers have built in temp readouts. Sensor logs are a very recent development. At least until 1990 when I was no longer directly involved, large scale wholesale distributors generally placed small temp recorders in the load itself to monitor how well it was handled. These would be pulled on delivery and recycled. Not sure of the name of the outfit we used.

Keep in mind that even temp readouts tell you only so much about the condition of the load. Humidity is an issue with some loads. And then there are the problem loads. Reefer down? Air temp will tell you something, but the cool is in the load. If the unit just failed, then air temp could already be high, but the load itself is still OK. Only way to tell is open the door -- at least until the sat link arrived.

Yes, the general idea is that these loads have lots of potential opportunities for inspection for a variety of reasons. They're high value and relatively perishable (duhSmile) vs typical RR loads, so there's going to be attention to what's happening with them. Nowadays, much of that attention is via the sat link, which has largely replaced armies of clerks and agents all made redundant by such technological advances. But those steps are still with us and likely will be even with 100% sat link.

Keep in mind that each time the door was opened, it would have to be resealed. I don't think anyone's modeling door seals, at least not in HO.Big Smile

Mike Lehman

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Posted by zstripe on Saturday, September 28, 2013 6:29 AM

My 2 Cents The high dollar loads,,would not have any cheap,tin seals on them either,the ones you can cut with a pair of scissors, They would be the hardened steel cable seals,,no way you can cut those with even,heavy duty side cutters,,torch em,or a loop cable cutter..Not very many crooks carry those with them..

Cheers, Drinks

Frank

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Posted by locoi1sa on Saturday, September 28, 2013 5:51 PM

I can't believe no one even mentioned the car cleaners!  Reefers need cleaning after every load and not all clean out tracks have a platform. Any car that is to haul food for human consumption must be cleaned before it is loaded. 

     Pete

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Posted by zstripe on Saturday, September 28, 2013 6:42 PM

Cleaning crew,had,ladders..

Cheers,

Frank

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Posted by Lake on Saturday, September 28, 2013 7:11 PM

zstripe

Brent,

I'll do some digging,,I think I saw what you are talking about......As far as saving things go,and a new happening on my part,,a year ago I put in my files,of how to completely rebuild a Athearn motor,,I clicked on it the other day and received a message,,the information saved,is no longer available,,,,What??

Cheers,Drinks

Frank

Sounds like you saved a link to the original web page and it has been removed. So it is no longer available.

I have had it happen to me on more then one occasion. Now I try and remember to copy the page then save it that way.

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Posted by locoi1sa on Saturday, September 28, 2013 8:25 PM

zstripe

Cleaning crew,had,ladders..

Cheers,

Frank

    Frank.

 During seasonal operations reefers traveled in large blocks of cars. A few ladders would not due and crews needed access to many cars during a shift. Easier to have the ladders attached to the cars. Many clean out tracks were not conducive to holding a ladder vertical. Been there and done that. After a couple of weeks the knees were hurting and the shoulders were junk from climbing on them cars like a monkey. You would really be surprised at all the stuff you have to shovel out of them cars. This job had to be done quickly so the cars can be put off the road as fast as possible.

         Pete

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Posted by zstripe on Sunday, September 29, 2013 5:03 AM

Pete,

You can disagree with me if you like,,Cleaning a Railroad Reefer,,is not all that different,than cleaning, a track trailer reefer,,especially one that was used for swinging meat,,of course there is a difference in size,but it still involves,the same labor and technique and also more than one at a time..

Cheers, Drinks

Frank

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Posted by wjstix on Monday, September 30, 2013 4:48 PM

Course boxcars and stockcars needed to be cleaned out too, but neither of them normally had a step under their doors.

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Posted by BRAKIE on Monday, September 30, 2013 5:43 PM

Consider this..Those steps came in mighty handy when a reefer was unloaded on a team track or a non raised unloading area at a produce terminal.

Don't forget laborers was cheap at these terminals so,unloading by hand on to  a freight dolly or produce wagon was very common and faster  since the cars would not need to be moved. The unloading teams simply moved from car to car and could empty a car of produce in about 2 hours.

 

 

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Posted by wjstix on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 4:42 PM

BTW plug door boxcars aren't "reefers". Refrigerator car doors were different than boxcar doors. Boxcars have latches at the bottom of the door, you can unlatch it and slide the door open from the ground. Reefers had two doors that opened from the middle, with a latching mechanism part way up the car. The bottom of the doors were not level with the bottom of the car or interior door, but up maybe 6" or more. I still think that is the most likely reason for the step - to make it easier to open and close the doors.

 http://spec.lib.vt.edu/imagebase/norfolksouthern/full/NS2753.jpeg

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Posted by cx500 on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 6:59 PM

wjstix

BTW plug door boxcars aren't "reefers". Refrigerator car doors were different than boxcar doors. Boxcars have latches at the bottom of the door, you can unlatch it and slide the door open from the ground. Reefers had two doors that opened from the middle, with a latching mechanism part way up the car. The bottom of the doors were not level with the bottom of the car or interior door, but up maybe 6" or more. I still think that is the most likely reason for the step - to make it easier to open and close the doors.

 

Actually some of the more modern ice reefers in Canada did have plug doors.  The chief reason for swing doors was that insulating standard sliding doors was more or less impossible, and at first that was the only alternative.  Plug doors were developed later, and had two benefits.  They would provide a smooth interior surface the full length of the car, and for reefers and insulated boxcars could have matching insulation.  I think you will find virtually all modern mechanical reefers had plug doors as well. 

John

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Posted by locoi1sa on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 8:16 PM

I do remember some box cars having steps also and here is one of them.

PRRdiagrams.html?diag=x42.gif&sel=box&sz=sm&fr=

There were others too. Mostly used for storage and ground unloading areas. Does any one know if there were steps under the doors on express box cars or LCL freight cars?

        Pete

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Posted by wp8thsub on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 8:36 PM

wjstix
BTW plug door boxcars aren't "reefers".

Here's a fact-oid.  The AAR car classification for most of the cars we modelers tend to call "insulated boxcars" is actually "bunkerless refrigerator."  These cars have essentially the same insulation as any other refrigerator, and can maintain the load at a reasonably constant temperature.  

If you have a model of such a car, or prototype photo, look for an AAR classification stencil (usually) to the right of the CAPY data (you won't see this in all eras, but say from the 50s-80s, and maybe before).  An ice bunker reefer is "RS," a mechanical reefer is "RP," and a bunkerless reefer is "RB."  Each of these could have an additional suffix denoting a sub-classification, typically "L" for load restraining devices.  Sometimes these cars also have the extra step under the door.  Many of these cars never were used for cargo modelers associate with reefers, but retain the designation nonetheless.

Pacific Fruit Express converted some of its earlier mechanical cars to RB types by removing the refrigeration units.  They still wore the same paint, but got re-numbered and the AAR code was re-stenciled to cover the P with a B.  Once converted they were still considered reefers, and often used in the same service, just with top ice blown in.

By way of contrast, anything considered a "boxcar" would have a code starting with X.  An ordinary boxcar would be an "XM,"  one with load restraining devices an "XL" and so on.  A true "insulated boxcar" would have an "I" suffix, such as "XLI," which would differentiate it from a bunkerless refrigerator, as the insulation would not maintain temperature the same as a reefer.

Rob Spangler

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Posted by zugmann on Thursday, October 3, 2013 6:54 PM

Just saw some modern BNSF plug door (non-reefer) boxcars, and they had a step on them.  I'm thinking it is to assist in someone putting on/taking off the car seal (as it is located a little high off the ground compared to other cars).

  

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Posted by challenger3980 on Thursday, October 3, 2013 11:49 PM

I have been a truck driver for more than 25 years, though I got out of the foodservice side of it in 2002, but up until then, and I imagine still today, there were/are produce loads such as Brocolli that were/are top iced. The ice was for more than just temp control. Some produce will be dried out by simpe mechanical refrigeration, the top icing prevents that. BTW, top icing on produce is typically a very fine grind of ice, similar to a sno-cone.

Doug

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Posted by wjstix on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 7:58 AM

This is an interesting thread, but it sounds like we haven't found a definite answer yet. I tried looking at White's "Great Yellow Fleet" book last night, and he didn't mention it. I'd think if it was just for unloading or cleaning the car, boxcars would have them too. In my mind the fact that, of all the 'house cars', only reefers had two doors that opened on hinges, and they're the only cars with a step under the doors, can't be a coincidence.

Stix

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