On The Job at Railway Express

by John Delach

Guest Blog by Peter King

Railway Express Agency (REA) was the UPS or FedEx of its time. Established by the federal government in 1917 when Uncle Sam controlled the nation’s railroads for the duration of World War I, REA was given exclusive rights to carry small packages and parcels by rail. In the 1920s, ownership was divided among 86 railroads in proportion to the express traffic on each line. It prospered through the 1950s until the new interstate highway system became a reality allowing UPS to make serious inroads into their business using long distance trucks. REA ceased operations in 1975.

Peter King worked at the large a rail yard serviced by REA from 1962 until 1965. Today that yard is a storage facility for the Long Island Railroad. This is his guest blog:

Last week’s brutally cold Arctic-like temperatures reminded me of the winter days and nights I spent working at the Railway Express Terminal on Manhattan’s West Side while I was a student at St. Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn. It might not sound like it, but this was a terrific life experience.

I was a full-time student majoring in history living with my parents in Queens. I arranged my school schedule so that each day my last class would be over by 3:00 PM and I’d be able to grab the A Train at Borough Hall and take it to the 34th Street Penn Station stop where I’d get off and walk west on 33rd Street to the REA West Side Terminal on 10th Avenue in time for the 4:00-Midnight shift.

The Terminal, a brick structure at the southern tip of Hell’s Kitchen, serviced freight yards that extended south from 33rd Street to 31st Street and westerly to 12th Avenue toward the Hudson River. Floating bridges provided access to barges that carried freight cars to and from railroad yards in New Jersey.

The northern third of the Terminal was for the unloading of REA trucks which entered from 10th Avenue. The freight from those trucks was then transferred to box cars which dominated the tracks covering the southern 2/3rds of the Terminal.

My job would alternate from night to night between unloading trucks to loading the freight cars. Most of the guys I worked with were solid citizens — but we also had a fair share of numbers runners, bookies and horse players who were constantly checking the scratch sheets protruding from their back pockets.

I worked part time the summer after my freshman year and went full time from the end of my sophomore year until three days before I left for Notre Dame Law School. That first summer I had been looked on as one of the “college kids.” After going full time, I became one of the workers, no longer one of the kids — even though I was still 19, working with guys, in some cases, in their 40’s and 50’s. It made for a schizophrenic-like existence, a college student by day; a worker by night, spending more time on the Railway loading dock than in the classroom. I was also a proud union member of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees. (These are relationships I have continued, working closely with the Transportation Union led by Anthony Simon and the Teamsters Union.)

I still remember how cold it could be on those winter nights when the freezing weather was at its depths and the bone chilling winds came roaring in through the truck entrances and exit ways on 10th Avenue and along 33rd Street. We called those winds, “the hawk.”

The hawk blew through the track exits of the Terminal facing the Hudson River — swirled around the Terminal for the entire eight-hour shift, getting colder and more brutal by the hour. Some of the old-timers would combat the cold by swigging shots from bottles concealed in their jackets or work pants; others would duck out to one of the local gin mills for a few boilermakers.

Those really weren’t viable options for me, not because I had anything against having a few drinks (the legal drinking age then was 18), but I knew I had to return home to Queens that night to get up the next morning for the long haul to Brooklyn. Friday nights were the exception. With luck, I’d reach Bud’s in Jackson Heights by 1 AM to knock back a few beers with my friends.

Fortunately, I haven’t had to work in Tundra-like conditions since those days, but I greatly admire those who willingly do so.

Working at the Railway Express gave me the money I needed for my college tuition, school and personal expenses, board at home with enough left in the bank to pay a good chunk of my law school tuition. (Of course, I couldn’t have done it without good bosses like Pat Kitson and Roger Maloney who let me move my hours around when I had major exams coming up or papers were due.)

Most importantly, it provided me a great education about life and the reality of getting the job done in the adult world in ways that I would never have learned from books or in the college classroom; an education that has served me well over the years. Bottom line: life owes us nothing; to survive and get something out of life, we have to work hard and fight hard and not expect anything to be handed to us.