Tag Archives: Railway Post Office

Railroads Before And After the RPO (Railway Post Office)

If you follow our blog, you have seen we write a lot about “head-end” equipment on railroads

Now the most interesting piece of head-end equipment is a Railway Post Office (RPO). There is even a museum about them. At the end is the full details about the museum, but below we have come comments by Dr. Frank R. Scheer, Curator of Railway Mail Service Library, Inc.

The original topic was “E-Mail on the state of working on the Railroad today.” But some of these comments are very far-reaching.

Americans have completely lost any connection with the railroads. Only those few of us who work for the railroads or who are fans actually pay any attention to trains at all. For urban commuters who ride the train to get to work I’m afraid it’s nothing more than a streetcar to them. They pay it no special attention unless it’s late or delayed, and then it’s all the conductor’s fault no matter the problem. I avoid working on the Metra commuter trains because when there’s a delay, 1,800 people get out their cell phones and call HQ to complain about the delay and they always blame the train crew for not doing anything about it. They have no idea or understanding about the linear nature of this mode of transportation so when we try to explain to them about the red signal or the stopped train ahead of us, they lose patience and call to complain. A lot of the guys in passenger service wear fake name tags for good reason.

Trains were once the go-to mode of long-distance transportation; replaced by planes. The trains that remain are subsidized by states that no longer have budget to keep them running at 25% capacity. I see 10 Amtraks go by me every day. They’re not full; nowhere close to that. Some would argue that Amtrak trains are full. Easily accomplished on higher interest routes by removing cars to make shorter trains. They keep getting shorter.

It was a go-to mode of mailing letters, when people actually mailed letters, you could actually stick your mail into the slot on the side of the RPO car; removed from passenger trains even before most of those trains were eliminated. For larger packages and express type mailing there was Railway Express; replaced by UPS and interstate trucking. Then there’s the general decline of the neighborhoods that these old passenger stations used to be located inside of. The whole infrastructure deteriorated, pushing people farther and farther from the tracks. Railroads became a distant memory of the general public many, many years ago.

I am always amazed at how many people write to me to say their dad or grand dad worked for a railroad. Yet none of them have any idea what he did there. It seems that even inside of railroad families, what happened at the railroad stayed at the railroad. Kind of a strange dynamic I’d say.

Yesterday I was on a way freight and we crossed 34 roads crossings that we had to blow the horn for. They all had warning cross bucks. At 70% of them we encountered cars crossing directly in front of us with nary a driver even turning their head to see the oncoming train. If the cross bucks, bells and horn blasts don’t get their attention you would think that a bright orange locomotive the size of a house moving into their range of view and across their path of travel might entice them to step on their brakes. But I’m afraid they don’t even take their eyes off of the road 20 feet in front of their own car. It is like the railroad itself is utterly invisible.

Working on the railroad and for the railroad is very different today from when the RMS ran the mail on America’s railroads in RPO cars.



Dr. Frank R. Scheer, Curator
Railway Mail Service Library, Inc.
(202) 268-4996 – weekday office
(540) 837-9090 – Saturday afternoon
In the 1913 former N&W Railway depot along Clarke County route 723
117 East Main Street
Boyce, VA 22620-9369  USA

Please note: only parcels sent via USPS can be accepted at this address.

Visit at http://www.railwaymailservicelibrary.org or


Click to access RMSL2013.pdf



“Owney Day” at the National Postal Museum: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2062104465440.2115624.1029546011&l=906bc64b9f&type=1

If you have an interest in RPOs, please visit the RailwayPO group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RailwayPO

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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Demise of the RPO


Above picture is an RPO at the 1939 World’s Fair

August 28, 1864, was the first run of the CHICAGO & CLINTON RPO. Although a Hannibal & St. Joseph mail car operated for a few months in 1862, 1864 marks the beginning of permanently- established Railway Post Office routes.

 In 1948 there were 794 RPO lines in the United States.

By 1964 there were 219 lines and by 1970 there were only 9 main line RPO’S remaining, (including) the Great Northern’s St. Paul & Williston RPO and the Northern Pacific’s St. Paul and Miles City RPO. Both of these main line Minnesota RPO’s were discontinued along with 6 others on April 30, 1971, with only the New York & Washington RPO remaining until 1977 when it was discontinued. 

On July 1, 1977, at 4:05 am, the last Railway Post Office ground to a halt at Union Station in Washington, DC.

Lot of rumors; why? Politics: rewarding airlines who made contributions. Air mail was/is a good thing New York to California. What about New York City to Hudson, NY (2/3 of the way to Albany)? Instead of using the train, mail was/is flown to Albany and trucked to Hudson.

See Remembering the last New York Central RPO Through Syracuse By Richard Palmer     

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