red ball

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From a routing system on the Santa Fe Railroad in the early 1900s. Fast freight trains which were to receive priority routing were marked with placards depicting a red disc, and were called "red ball" trains.


red ball (plural red balls)

  1. (law enforcement, slang) A high-profile high-priority case which draws political or media attention.


red ball (not comparable)

  1. (rail transport) Of or related to priority freight or the trains that carry it.
    • 1905 August 18, “The Frisco System of Handling Time Freight”, in The Railroad Gazette, volume 39, number 7, page 158:
      Perishable freight, carloads of package freight or merchandise, oils, etc., are designated as Red Ball freight.
    • 1910 August, Pancoast, Chalmers L., “Red Ball System of Handling Freight”, in Santa Fe Employes' Magazine, volume 4, number 9, page 28:
      A special red ball card, which is a familar sight to every employe—the large red ball on the white card—is attached to every car of red ball freight, one on each side, by the agent at the red ball billing station. A special red ball envelope accompanies each car to its destination.
    • 1939 November, “Keeping the Iron Horse on Time”, in Popular Mechanics[1], volume 72, number 5, ISSN 0032-4558, page 157A:
      The crack passenger trains average fifty-four miles an hour over that stretch, the "red ball" freights average twenty-seven, and the way freights eighteen miles an hour.