Changing Coloration

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, December 2, 2020

In the steam era, U.S. railroad equipment was generally painted using one color for passenger equipment (dark green), and another for most freight cars (red).  The typical freight car back then was a boxcar, which was used for lading as diverse as automobiles and other manufactured goods, as well as agricultural products, both packaged and loose, in the form of grains such as wheat.  There were exceptions, of course, with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Tuscan Red passenger cars, but most freight cars were finished with what was termed either “boxcar” or “oxide” red.

Although the coloration was the same as virtually the same as everyone else used, some roads did use the sides of their boxcars, which appeared nationwide as mobile billboards, to tout aspects of their services.  A prominent example was the Santa Fe’s use of a stylized map, along with the slogan “Santa Fe all the way”, promoting the fact that of the railroads operating from California east, only the ATSF reached the Midwest on its on rails.  It also displayed the names of its prominent passenger trains, and the fact that it alone served the Grand Canyon.

The advent of streamlining in the 1930s started to blow historic convention with regard to car colors away on the passenger side of railroading, but had little impact on freight operations prior to World War II.  Following that conflict, however, some of the industry began to consider livening up the equipment that produced much of the revenue (and most of the profits) from which they derived their economic existence.

Some railroads also adopted more colorful boxcar paint schemes to promote special aspects of their freight service:  the B&O had special schemes for both their “Sentinel” and “Timesaver” services; another example was the Missouri Pacific’s blue and gray (the road’s modern-day passenger colors) for their Eagle Merchandise Service. The Bangor & Aroostook had boxcars with red, white and blue horizontal stripes advertising products emanating from their home state, Maine.

Another example was the large fleet of New York Central’s “Pacemaker” boxcars, adorned in a combination of bright red and gray.  Early on, the NYC even ran solid trains of this equipment in an expedited service which was designed to re-capture LCL (less than carload lot) traffic from the increasingly competitive motor trucking industry.  (Interestingly, the NYC also had a color they called “Pacemaker Green” that was used for the pre-World War II all-coach New York-Chicago service, as well as on the road’s initial orders of non-stainless steel streamlined coaches.)

In the late 1950s, the Central introduced a more radical change, and began painting its boxcars in a Jade Green color (“Century Green”, according to the railroad) that was quite a dramatic change from boxcar red.  The Great Northern also adopted a similar shade.  CB&Q boxcars still had the same basic hue, but now they came in a brighter version dubbed “Chinese Red”.   

By the 1960s, a number of roads had livened up their freight car liveries; the modestly-sized Reading utilized bright green and beige/yellow for both freight cars and locomotives.  Late in its career as an independent railroad, the Great Northern adopted the striking bright “Big Sky Blue” for both passenger and freight cars.  At its formation in 1976, Conrail adopted “traditional red oxide” as its choice for freight cars, however, sticking with tradition (and reversing the NYC’s earlier efforts).

Today, however, it would appear, from recent trackside experience (as seen above with NS manifest train 13R passing through Boyce, Virginia on November 29), that what boxcars remain appear increasingly in the color yellow.  And instead of road names, home or foreign, they typically bear the emblem of TTX, and its slogan, “Railcar Pooling Experts”.  It’s probably a bit premature to start looking for that last elusive oxide red boxcar still with an actual railroad name on it, but it might be a good idea to start photographing the ones that are still out there.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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