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Railroad Freight Train Names

Many railroads in the early 1990s used either plain numbers (BN, CSX, D&RGW, KCS, Norfolk Southern) or an alpha system (CNW, Conrail, SP, UP) for identifying their scheduled freight trains. ATSF used both systems; numbers for scheduled trains and an alpha system for unit and special trains. Most of the alpha systems are organized around three parts: origin, destination and type of train or commodity handled. An example is UP symbol SECST, the Seattle Canal Street (Chicago) Trailers. ATSF, Conrail, CNW, SP and UP used two letters to designate each station. Prior to merging with the UP, MP used a single letter to designate each station. BNSF uses three letters to designate each station.

But not long ago railroads used a more colorful system with names for freight and passenger trains that sounded like each had an important job to do. Freight trains had symbols and names like: BASV Bay Area Super Van (UP), GGM Golden Gate Manifest (SP) and OAF Oakland Forwarder (ATSF).

Train names can have four parts. The various parts may be placed in a different order to make a better sounding name. The first part is optional and is used to modify the basic name. It can be colors like, Black, Blue, Gold(en), Green, Silver or Red, to make the train sound more important. It could distinguish between multiple sections of the same train; Advanced, Second, Third, etc., or clarify the schedule, such as, Morning, Afternoon or Evening. For some passenger trains, railroads try to make the name sound more impressive with; Deluxe, Flying, Royal or Super. Passenger train names have used "City of" or "Spirit of" before the primary city or state name.

The second part of the name is the area of the country served by the train. This is generally the origin or destination. But could also be a region, such as: Allegheny, Empire, Panhandle, Bayside, Golden Gate, Hawkeye, Buckeye, Heartland, Prairie, Carolina, Rocky Mountain, Lone Star, etc.

The third part of the name used mostly by freight trains, is also optional and gives more detail to the basic name. It uses modifiers like: Area, Cities, Division, Junction, Gateway, Line, Side, District, Harbor, etc.

The fourth part describes the type of train, direction, or commodity handled such as: Autos, Auto Parts, Ballast, Blocks, Chemicals, Coal, Connection, Containers, Detour, Drag, East, Empties, Expediter, Express, Extra, Fast Mail, Forwarder, Fruit, Grain, Hauler, Hoppers, Limited, Loads, Local, Lumber, Mail, Manifest, Merchandise, North, Ore, Peddler, Perishables, Potash, Road Switcher, Short(s), South, Special, Sprint, Steel, Stock, Stone, Sulfur, Switcher, Trailers, Transfer, Turn, West, Van, Yard, and Zone. From these we could make, West Coast Perishable Blocks, Bay Area Empties, Kansas City Grain, Gateway Yard Transfer, etc.

Passenger trains were also named after famous people (Phoebe Snow, Nancy Hanks, to name just a few of the ladies). Yard and road switchers sometimes use the time the crew went on duty or the major area they switch followed by the word "job" such as 7AM Job or Harbor Job.

Before you start dreaming up names, I want to describe one more system used by ATSF before 1971, Chessie before CSX, N&W before Norfolk Southern and ICG. That system used a combination of letter and numbers. Conrail used this system on their trailvan trains, such as TV-3 from Kearny, NJ to St. Louis. The letters designate the origin, destination or train type and the number indicates the direction and priority. Generally, the higher the number, the higher the priority. Usually odd numbers are westbound and even numbers are eastbound. For example: ATSF westbound train LA-53 from Chicago to Hobart Yard in Los Angeles was a hotter train than HD-33 out of Belen, NM going to the Los Angeles Harbor District.

The Southern Pacific used an interesting letter code system in the 60s and early 70s. There was the BSM (Blue Streak Merchandise), SSE (Sunset East), NCP (North Coast Perishables), VXW (Valley Extra West), CLM (Coast Line Manifest), PNL (Pacific Northwest Los Angeles), FMS (Forwarder Merchandise Special), OVE (Overland East), OS (Oregon Special), WPB (Watsonville Perishable Block), and SMW (Shasta Manifest West) to name just a few.

Here are a few of the symbol train names from the Santa Fe. BTX (Bakersfield Texas Express), CWT (Colorado West Texas), KCD (Kansas City Denver), LAF Los Angeles Forwarder), MXE (Motor Express Empty), QLA (Quanah Los Angeles), SRX (Salt River Express) are just a few of the many freight train symbols on the Santa Fe.

To speed up operations during the 60s and 70s, railroads began to interchange run through trains at points other than the major terminals. The names for these trains could either be the name of the interchange point or have a letter code in its numeric designation to identify the interchange point. The CB&Q and UP had a train call the Grand Island (train symbol GI) that originated in Chicago, was interchanged in Grand Island, NE, and terminated at the big yard in North Platte. The New York Central interchanged several trains with the Santa Fe at Streator, IL. The train code for these trains on the Santa Fe had the letter S at the beginning (S-1, S-59 westbound and S-4, S-60 eastbound) to identify the Streator connection.