116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The idea for piggybacking — hauling truck trailers on flatbed train cars — might have been spawned in the late 1800s with the circus trains that crisscrossed the country. Some of the flatbed cars on those trains carried circus vehicles “piggyback” style.
On the Great Lakes, ferries had been carrying whole trains from port to port for years when, in the early 1950s, railroads and the trucking industry warily entered into a “multimillion-dollar experiment called Operation Piggyback,” according to a United Press wire story.
The semi-trailers were loaded with cargo, then put on rail flatcars and carried long distances by railroads.
“At Kansas City, for instance, a truck-tractor backs a trailer loaded with cargo onto a special ramp of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad,” the story reported. “The driver eases the trailer into position on a flatcar, unhitches it and drives off in his cab. In Oklahoma City next day, another driver backs his cab onto a ramp, picks up the trailer and hauls it away to provide a rush job of door-to-door delivery.”
The same news story pointed out that the president of the American Federation of Labor Teamsters, Dave Beck, who was Jimmy Hoffa’s predecessor, had mixed feelings about piggybacking, as did his union.
“It has a definite place in the future of transport,” he said. “But it should be used only when it is the most efficient means of transportation for the shipper.”
Idea catches on
The idea grew phenomenally in the 1950s and ‘60s. In 1955, there were 168,150 piggyback loads. By 1964, that number was 797,474. The railroad industry responded by investing in track and tunnel improvements,
In November 1954, the North Western Railroad announced the expansion of its piggyback service between the Chicago-Milwaukee-Waukegan and St. Paul-Minneapolis. The service already was being used on North Western’s line through Cedar Rapids.
Using its own trailers, North Western picked up shipments, loaded them on the flatcars and shipped them by rail to the next city, where they were unloaded, attached to semi cabs and driven to their destination.
Cedar Rapids service
Illinois Central Railroad hired Lynch Transfer and Storage to haul the truck trailers for its piggyback service in Cedar Rapids.
In April 1960, a Lynch tractor moved a truck trailer filled with 30,000 pounds of lard from Wilson & Co. onto a rail car — the city’s first outgoing shipment using the piggyback method. The lard was bound for the Caribbean.
The Rock Island had been the major provider of piggyback hauling, with seven or eight trailers coming into the city each week but none going out.
The Milwaukee and the North Western roads had not yet established piggyback service in the Cedar Rapids area.
The advances in rail shipping came rapidly as Detroit discovered the economies of shipping new automobiles by train.
In two years, from 1958 to 1960, the rail shipments of new cars doubled and cost the manufacturers far less than having trucks deliver the new vehicles.
Long freight trains carrying those new cars by piggyback concerned the Teamsters, prompting the union to initiate measures to recoup some of its trucking losses. The union attempted to increase the cost of piggyback transportation by negotiating a contract charing $5 for each trailer loaded onto a rail car.
The railroads claimed the Teamsters were lobbying the Interstate Commerce Commission and Congress to pass laws to limit the use of piggybacks.
The union, in turn, noted that states were losing money in fuel taxes by the use of piggyback shipping instead of trucks.
At the same time, though, small Iowa cities were benefiting. In Postville in northeast Iowa, only four freight trains passed through the depot in 1966, down from the 20 freight and passenger trains that once passed through the city. But the freight trains in 1966 were longer and carried far more freight.
The industry adjusted. Teamsters truck drivers still were a vital part of the overall picture since the trailers packed with cargo had to be unloaded and driven to delivery points at their destinations.
Watch as a side loader puts a trailer onto an intermodal spine car at a Worcester, Mass., Conrail rail yard in the late 1990s.
The 1980s brought containers, sometimes stacked two and three high on rail cars. The containers were then transferred to trucks at destination points.
The piggyback, trailer-on-flatcar method began to wane.