L. C. L. Corporation (Revised)

Bob Chaparro

L. C. L. Corporation

This 1930s photo of an early containers on a flat car led me to look into the L. C. L. Corporation:


The notes next to the individual container photo indicate the company provided containers to the railroads dating to the early 1920s with nearly 1,600 eventually in service on the New York Central, Lehigh Valley and B&O Railroads.

Here are two additional (but poor quality) photos from the Smithsonian Institution showing the containers in use:



A 1936 report of Mechanical Advisory Committee to the Office of Federal Coordinator of Transportation indicated the L.C.L. Corporation had both merchandise and bulk containers in service.

A post on the on-line Train Magazine website quoted this text from the 1940 book, Transpiration:

"A railroad freight container is a metal weather-proof, theft-proof box in which two to seven tons of freight (depending on the kind of freight) can be placed. The container is of such size as to form a definite sub-division of the surface area and the capacity of a railroad flat car. It can be transported upon a motor truck chassis. The container being a sub-division of a car's loaded capacity, the contents of the container can be given freight rates that are less than the standard l.c.l. rates per hundred pounds, but higher than carload rates. The container provides an improved service by simplifying the transfer and handling of package freight and by reducing the packing requirements. For those shippers who can make regular shipment of l.c.l. freight of considerable volume, and for freight forwarders who can combine several shippers' packages consigned to a common destination, the container has real advantage.

The use of freight car containers is not rapidly increasing, because satisfactory arrangements have not been made for the interchange of containers among connecting railroads, and a standard type of container has not been adopted by the railroads. The general inauguration of container car facilities and services and the interchange of containers by connecting carriers would require a larger investment in equipment than present traffic conditions seem to warrant.

Some railroads, the New York Central, the Lehigh Valley, the Reading, the Baltimore and Ohio, lease containers from the L.C.L. Corporation which designs, builds and leases equipment. The largest user of containers is the Pennsylvania Railroad, which has between four and five thousand of the approximately eleven thousand containers used by all railroads. While all of the Pennsylvania Railroad's freight containers can be employed in coordinated rail and motor service only one-eighth are so used, the other seven-eighths being loaded and unloaded at station platform. This station-to-station use of containers eliminates the sending of l.c.l. freight from the receiving stations to a transfer freight house for classification and consolidation by stations of destination. Freight not carried in containers may sometimes also be rehandled at transfer freight houses en route, with the consequent delays....

Originally rates upon freight shipped in containers were made upon a straight line rate per container per mile transported. These rates were found to disrupt the class rates upon goods shipped in regular services and were held to be unjustly discriminatory by the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1931. The freight rates established by the railroads upon merchandise shipments transported in containers are based upon the third class rates applicable upon the net weight of the freight in the containers subject to a minimum charge equal to the third class rate upon 4000 pounds.

In no case, however, may the rates applicable to shipments in containers be less than: (1) the highest carload class rates applicable to any article in the container; (2) the class rate next lower than that specified for any article in the container as an any quantity rate; or (3) the rate applicable to the highest rated commodity in the container applied to the entire contents of the container, when articles referred to in the first two alternatives are loaded in the same container."

This information is from a 2013 University of Michigan doctorial dissertation, "The Shipping Container and the Globalization of American Infrastructure" by Matthew W. Heins:

"The New York Central’s containers were smaller than those Fitch had put into use, being 7’-2½” wide, 9’-3½” long and 8’-2½” high. (Some other sizes were also built, for more specialized purposes.) Hence two or three containers could be carried on a flatbed truck, or on a truck’s flatbed trailer, though probably in some cases only one was actually hauled. Evidently the container’s dimensions were not oriented to the truck (as was the case with Fitch’s container and later with the postwar container), but to the ideal volume for LCL cargo. The container was of steel construction, weighed 2,600 pounds, and could hold 7,000 pounds of freight. When traveling by rail the containers were carried in low side gondola cars whose walls, along with various attachments, kept them in place. The New York Central initiated the operation in 1921, and soon founded the L.C.L. Corporation to take charge of the containers. Over the 1920s the business expanded as several other railroads—especially those that interchanged with the New York Central—began using the containers, as did many freight forwarders and consolidators. While the container was most commonly used for general merchandise, it also found a niche in carrying mail shipments. Special containers were designed for certain types of bulk goods like bricks, cement, lime and coal, as well as milk, produce and meat. Originally transfers between modes were done by crane, but later versions of the container had short legs attached so they could be handled by lift trucks. By the mid-1930s nearly 4,000 containers were in use.

The New York Central’s great rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad, was taking note of these events, and started using containers of its own in 1928. In the following year the Pennsylvania Railroad created the Keystone Container Car Company to manage its containers, and by the mid-1930s over 3,000 containers were circulating through its system. These containers had almost the same capacity as those of the New York Central, but the dimensions and fittings differed slightly and so the two systems were incompatible. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s containers were held on flatcars rather than gondola cars, and in fact generally only moved by train, rarely being transferred to trucks. At depots they were loaded and unloaded more or less as a boxcar would be. So the system actually was not intermodal—its goal was essentially to convert a railcar into a series of modules amenable to LCL cargo and protected from damage or theft. However, the containers were shifted between flatcars in the course of being routed to their destinations. This was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the operation: containers were routed through a central hub, a terminal in Enola, Pennsylvania, where each was switched from its incoming train to the appropriate outgoing train to its destination.

The New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad were the most important users of containers in this period, but others also adopted and used containers of roughly comparable size. The future of containerization however did not lie with these small containers, but rather with larger units of the type pioneered by Benjamin Fitch, containers of a design and size tied principally to the truck. Essentially such a container was like a truck body with the wheels, cab and engine stripped away. The spatial character of trucking during this period determined that this type of container would be about fifteen to twenty feet long."

More can be found in this article by William T. Hoops: “The L. C. L. Merchandise Container,” Railway Age, Vol. 84, No. 8 (February 25, 1928):

https://tinyurl.com/yy68dlos (Go To Page 499)

Bob Chaparro

Hemet, CA

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