RPO (Railway Post Office) Demise

We got a letter from Dave Thompson talking about and expanding on an article we posted on the Web quite a while back
I was browsing a New York Central RR website dealing with the Fast Mail service between NY and Chicago and came across the attached article that went a bit more into the weeds of the railroad side of the demise of the RPO…and actions or reactions by the Post Office Department after WW II.  Being relived of discounting costs for moving the mail in 1940 is pointed to as the first tremor in a series of tremors that brought about the end of the RPO.

This isn’t profound news for most who follow RPO’s, but the article highlights this in more detail. Thought you might enjoy it.

It strikes me how all of this is OBE (military terminology for  something “overtaken by events”)…automation in mail sorting and handling and zip coding…closed pouch service…air mail and truck transportation…an now e-mail and Facebook and tweeting and texting for personal communication (when is the last time you wrote someone a personal letter in cursive and sent it to them snail mail?).

The fact that I am e-mailing you, not writing a letter in cursive and putting a stamp on an envelope and taking it down to the train station for an RPO to “rob the box” and sort and transport that letter to you, tells how far we have come in over 40 years.

If it wasn’t for junk mail and parcel post (which competes with FEDEX and UPS) …and a few people who still pay bills by mail (and not by automatic withdrawal/bank by mail) the USPO would go away like the RPO. It’s now a lot about the development of new communication technology that makes a lot of workers in many industries…not just the USPO…obsolete.

It may not even be bad to give up the old ways (God knows I don’t want to go back to the days before indoor plumbing when people in my neck of the woods went to an outhouse in 40 below zero weather to relive themselves). Time marches on and waits for no man!

Yet, many memories of these bygone days of the RPO are still worth remembering and enjoying for many of us who grew up near the tracks to see a RPO car go by…or who had dads or brothers who worked on the RPO. It is a real trip down memory lane!

I agree with the late Dr. John Borchert, Emeritus Geography Professor at the University of MN, who wrote on RPO’s in Minnesota for the Minnesota Transportation Museum Minnegazette magazine in 1997, that for us “RPO brats” (like military brats) seeing our dad’s go away and return from far way interesting places on triggered in in us an inquisitive mindset to want to see over the horizon and to travel to far away places.

Though the RPO’s are long gone, that hankering to see over the horizon and travel to new places has stuck with most of us RPO brats …a unintended consequence of our dad’s working on  the RPO (I’ve traveled to all the continents except Antarctica…and early this fall will make a second trip to Brazil and Argentina after a trip to Europe  the year before). Early on we learned not to be provincial and recognized there was a big world out there to explore. Many of us as kids even took up stamp collecting as a way to learning about a bigger and wider world than where we presently lived. That all is a rather interesting legacy passed on to RPO brats that few talk about in the RPO group. It’s the people stuff, more than the RPO equipment stuff that interests me about RPO’s…the stories of colorful characters and interesting things that happened  for those who worked RPO’s…and the impact of that work on RPO brats who awaited dad coming home on the
morning mail train.

Enjoy the read.

Warm regards,

Dave Thompson


HEAD END: Railway Express and Railway Post Office

We know that the passenger network of trains was becoming less complete, especially after WWII, while the airlines and road systems were being built up.  But in the Transportation Act of 1940, the railroads and Federal Government terminated the old land grants which relieved the railroads of transporting mail at a discount price. Did the Post Office Department began looking for alternatives to rail transport of mail, even though it was a very efficient operation? This act may have provided one of the specific reasons for the mails to be diverted, little by little to highway trucks and to the airlines.

Arguably, the Transportation Act of 1958 had as significant an impact upon RPO network pruning. It liberalized the procedures for discontinuing passenger services. With the loss of branch line RPOs –mostly 15-feet and 30-feet space authorization- – the feeder services to trunkline RPOs were severed. Also, local separations once performed on the branch-line RPO routes had to be replaced with additional separations on the main-line 60-feet RPOs. Distribution space on the trunk routes was already constrained by increasing mail volume at the same time that train frequency was declining. This condition was partially mitigated by substantial expansion of the Highway Post Office network. However, long-distance highway contract routes (Star Routes) were established or reconfigured more often. Since they were closed pouch runs, making those dispatches fell as a burden upon main-line RPO routes as well as newly-established or expanded stationary office

Do you think the decline of the USA RPO network was a major factor leading to the decline of the U.S. Postal System in general, which is what we are faced with today? Could it also be the increase in the number of pieces of mail due to increasing population? Could it have been done by the Federal Government to put the passenger train business out of operation so that truckers would carry mail and the auto and oil companies would profit by building and fueling cars?

Perhaps the reason that railroads were treated as a “growth” industry during the 1940s is partly because there was a wartime traffic surge. There is also a latency effect in society that was slow to realize the shift from rail to other modes. People were ingrained to use scheduled transportation –notably rail, bus, and public transit– but when given the opportunity to utilize on-demand personal private transportation, made the shift that is easy to view in retrospect.

The Post Office Department was slow to adapt from a scheduled transportation network upon which it relied for a century. It also benefitted from a cost structure in which it paid an allocation of a service instead of the entire cost of that service.

A economic distortion exists that railroads appear to be very expensive because they own the right-of-way franchise and pay taxes upon it, while competing highway and air modes do not pay for their rights-of-way and no taxes are paid for the highway real estate that is diverted from alternate uses. So, highway transportation appear less expensive even when the Post Office Department paid the entire cost of trucking. Air transportation was always more expensive per pound, but Congress and the Executive Branch utilized air mail rates as subsidies to cultivate national air passenger services.

The flaw in Post Office Department transportation planning is that it presumes that all services will always exist; that the status quo is the norm. In eras of slow technological change –such as the pre-1950s– it’s easy to see how this view was based. However, continuation of rail passenger services was not a sure thing. On occasion, the Post Office Department did protest passenger train discontinuances, but these concerns were mitigated if the railroad company agreed to provide substitute highway service. The Gulf Transport Company set up by the GM&O is an example. Although it operated the equivalent of a Highway Post Office service, these mobile units continued to the called “Railway Post Offices.”

Because the Post Office Department lived on year-to-year congressional appropriations, it was not fully capable of providing multi-year strategic planning. When the Jersey Central approached the Post Office Department around 1964 asking for a long-term mail contract as a basis for purchasing new RPO cars, the Post Office Department declined. Result: Jersey Central suspended all RPO services. I believe the Boston and Maine encountered the same reluctance for a long-term commitment and therefore acted in a similar manner.

One must recognize that the Post Office Department in the 1960s was confronted with an untenable situation: mail volume was increasing dramatically at the same time that the capacity to handle this increase in mobile units had reached its maximum capability in a declining network. Capacity was measured in two ways: the amount of distribution space, and the number of skilled distributors (a.k.a. Postal Transportation Clerks). The number of RPO car-miles was dropping precipitously while the ability to recruit, train, and utilize clerks was not keeping up with needs. Of course, high labor cost was a consideration; the fully-allocated unit cost of handling a letter was asserted to be increasing in a variety of consulting studies.

The solution for labor cost was two-fold: first, to simplify the job so that labor with lower skills and less training could perform distribution. The ZIP Code facilitated this; a clerk could manually sort zoned mail without any scheme knowledge. Second, mechanization and later automation of mail processing steps allowed substitution of capital for labor.

Although well past the RPO era, consider the present-day bar code sorter used by the Postal Service. A single machine processes about 10,000 letter-mail pieces an hour. The entire production of a ten-person RPO crew during a run lasting from 8 to 14 hours was about 10,000 pieces. Further, closed-pouch transportation in sealed trailers, railcars, or air cargo is less expensive than customized rail or highway vehicles. In the extreme case, attempts to outfit planes with mail distribution fixtures was cost ineffective.

Although the Railway Mail Service was very successful –after all, how many activities performed today are likely to last 113 years– it was on a collision course with changing postal technology, the declining reliance upon hard-copy communications, and rise of alternate transportation modes. There has been much discussion of whether the Post Office Department or the railroads “killed” passenger services. The answer is neither; both reacted to the changing business, economic, and societial environments. Considering that 90 percent of USA intercity transportation is via private automobile, it holds the smoking gun.

A similar scenario is true for Seaposts. There are no scheduled ocean liners plying the Atlantic and Pacific routes; just chartered cruise ships. Airline travel and not the private automobile replaced those services, but the point is that mail was withdrawn from those routes as well.

The Post Office Department and the Postal Service generally sought to utilize the fastest means of transportation available in an era. While many can point out that mail service within 500 miles is slower now than when mobile units operated, the fact is –even allowing for congestion– that point–to-point over-the-road trucking is faster for distances under 600 miles, while air transportation is quickest for distances above that amount. Rail is largely relegated to facilitating one-way transportation, such as highly directional traffic flows or repositioning empty trailers and containers. Using highway and air services instead of intercity rail is therefore not illogical. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision, Mr. Gunn while president of Amtrak concluded the revenue gain of furnishing mail transportation on trains were insufficent to offset infrastructure costs and operational impacts. If this was true in 2003, the underlying principles
guiding that decision have laid in the passenger rail network prior to 1971.

Other articles you might like:

Last Railway Post Office .

Decline of the RPO .

Railway Mail Service Library .

Railway Post Office Equipment .

See some great stuff on Railway Express, Railway Post Offices and Head End equipment from the 1942 Railroad Quiz .

Railway Express Agency History .

All the Express Companies .

Registered Mail, Money and Locks .

Mail and the Monday Before Christmas .

New York Central Pacemaker Service .

M&E on the New York Central .

The 20th Century Limited and other New York Central Passenger Trains .

New York Central Merchants Despatch .

Red Ink Express 1959 .

Express on the New Haven Railroad .

RPO on the New Haven .

Team Tracks .

Postal Museum

Scenes inside a New York Central RPO

See KC Jones BLOG about Railroad History

On July 1, 1977, at 4:05 am, the last Railway Post Office ground to a halt at Union Station in Washington, DC,
Old Railway Express Agency Booklet from Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-1934
Old Railway Express Agency Booklet from Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-1934
Loved your story on Railway Express Agency. I knew two or three of the local agents growing up in my home town which had Express Agency in the Rock Island Depot. My father was Rock Island Station Agent. Thing I remember that I didn’t read in your story was about the Armed Express Messengers which handled money shipments also like the ones my father sent in to Chicago about once a week. One messenger I recall seeing a lot had quite a “hogleg” on his hip. I would imagine it was a .45 cal long Colt or something similar.

Carl Wilmoth, Memphis, TN


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