The Railway Express Agency, or REA, was the way to ship express parcels and goods years ago. The service and its trademark red-diamond sign was a common sight in communities large and small (also well remembered was the company's green delivery trucks and baggage carts), and one could often find REA employed on passenger trains. The REA was the UPS or FedEx of its day but a loss of its business beginning in the 1950s ultimately led to its bankruptcy in the 1970s. Today, the Railway Express
Agency has long since been relegated to history but its memory and
classic logo will likely never be forgotten as an important part of our
country's railroading history.
A Railway Express truck loads parcels at Charlotte, North Carolina during 1943. Note the vehicle's war bond advertisement.
The REA was actually not a railroad at all but an express service owned by the railroads themselves. It began life in 1917 as the American Railway Express. The ARE had actually come about through a nationalization by the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) of the express businesses operated by three different companies. These three companies included the
Adams Express Company, American Express Company and Southern Express
Company and each owned a one-third stake in American Railway Express.
Soon afterward these three companies sold their interest in ARE to the freight railroads in 1929, which promptly renamed the company the Railway Express Agency. The REA from that point forward was actually its very own
company. However, being owned by the railroads its profits were
divided amongst its many owners (which was broken down by how much
traffic each railroad moved using the REA) and it incurred all profits
While the REA didn't get to keep any of its own earnings it did have an exclusive and unique setup whereby it was the sole express business to move goods via rail and the railroads transported freight cars and provided track and terminal space for REA shipments. While most of you who are old enough probably remember the REA as a parcels service whereby one could ship boxed goods and items by dropping it off at your local depot the company also went beyond this.
Outside of personal shipments and its exclusive contract to move express on all passenger trains the REA also moved regular freight including hazardous materials and explosives. Other freight shipped through REA included fruits and vegetables, time-sensitive autoparts, general merchandise, animals and even circus materials. Essentially anything one could think of moving and which the freight railroads did not want to deal with the Railway Express Agency moved. For instance if one was moving for either college or to a new location they could do so through REA. Through World War II, during which time traffic was booming, the REA
earned considerable profits. However, as the railroad industry
in general began to lag after the war so too did the REA.
By the late
1950s the REA's traffic was declining considerably and to curb the losses the company began contracting out its services to all modes of transportation not just truck and rail
(such as air). As traffic continued to decline the REA tried expanding
services into piggyback and intermodal when international container and
truck-trailer movements began to gain acclaim on the rails in the
1960s. However, the service proved unsuccessful and in 1969 the Railway Express Agency was sold to five of its officers and renamed as the REA Express. Six years later in 1975 REA Express declared bankruptcy and exited the railroad transport business. During its final years the then REA Express moved merely a fraction of the freight it once did as only 10% of its business moved by rail (and about the same amount of parcel goods in general moved via the company).
REA employees are hard it work in the underground lairs of Chicago Union Station as they sort and handle parcels and mail. The facility had over two miles of roads beneath the premises to make sure the volume of traffic could be handled in moving the significant amount of packages arriving daily.
For more reading on the Agency you might want to consider the book Ten Turtles to Tucumcari: A Personal History of the Railway Express Agency
by author Klink Garrett. The book, with over 180 pages of information,
gives an in-depth history of the REA from its earliest beginnings to
final days of operations in the 1970s. Mr. Garrett actually worked as
an employee of REA from 1934 until 1973, which gives him first hand
knowledge of the company from its most profitable years to final days.
If you have any interest in the REA or are interested in learning more
about this unique company that was once an integral part of the railroad
industry Mr. Garrett's book is a must.