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History of Refrigerated Rail Transportation

Eating fresh food grown in far-flung places is now a way of life for many people. However, keeping food fresh over long distances was a challenge that took numerous innovations in refrigeration and refrigerated transportation to solve.

In ancient history, communities harvested snow and ice and put them in ice houses (or pits) and caves that worked like giant refrigerators and freezers to keep food and perishables fresh. These half buried pits were the premature “refrigerators” and the standard of the time.

However, over time small innovations in insulation improved the efficiencies of the ice houses, keeping ice frozen for longer than the former rudimentary pits of ancient times. During the First Industrial Revolution, ice harvesting became a business and ice selling became an international trade. Ice houses were widespread especially in Britain.


The First Refrigerated Rail Transportation

At the same time in America, although rail transportation existed, rail networks were regional patches of low-quality railways that made national distribution of goods uneconomical. This lack of a national rail network was why Fredric Tudor – nicknamed the Boston Ice King – focused on exports when he started the ice trade business in 1806.


The Second Industrial Revolution coincided with the “Gilded Age” of America. During this post-civil war period, America witnessed rapid industrialization, high immigration, and economic growth that was unparalleled in the world. It was during this gilded age that America’s railroads gained prominence.

As railroads grew, ice traders began to shift attention to domestic markets. This spurred the use of ice in railroad cars, especially for the preservation of meat transported from Midwest slaughterhouses to East Coast markets.

This is how “ice-cooled” refrigerated rail transportation was born in the United States.

Modern day refrigerated railcar on the tracks

As reefer transportation evolved, railroad companies experimented with various product designs to find the best way to keep the ice frozen for the longest possible time.

Eventually in 1878, Gustavas Swift, who owned a meat packing business in Massachusetts, created a lasting solution that placed the ice in a compartment close to the top of a well-insulated reefer and allow the chilled air to flow naturally downward to the meat packed at the bottom of the railcar.

Even with all its design innovations, the ice reefer still suffered from melting ice when the weather was warm and refilling the ice along the way was not a sustainable and safe activity.


Around 60 years later, mechanical refrigeration began to replace ice-based systems in refrigerated rail transportation and feature in refrigerated trucking. The first mechanical refrigeration railcar gained popularity in 1939.


Solar Energy Innovation

Today, refrigerated railcars do not have to rely on a train’s diesel engine to power the refrigeration. Modern advances in solar panels have made way for new solar solutions.

PolarPanel is a Houston cleantech startup that retrofits refrigerated railcars and trucks with NASA-developed solar power/battery hybrid technology. The technology can keep goods refrigerated for up to three days without sunlight, keeping perishables safe with varied energy generation and storage.

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