TREnecNYP wrote:I agree.
Essentially, on any number of occasions the MILW could have better secured its future, but management chose differently. It could have purchased the C&NW outright when Heinemann offered it to the CMStP&P management, it could have pursued merger with any number of roads that weren't named BN or UP, it could have tried to push a branch south from Terry, MT or west from Rapid City, SD into the Powder River Basin coalfields, or it simply could have adopted the "Milwaukee One and a Half" plan advocated by SORE in the late 1970s, keeping the Pacific Extension open and abandoning or selling most of the Eastern trackage. For that matter, a conservative plan to keep electrification open, abandon weak lines and sell land, and let the lease-back cars go in favor of second-hand cars would have probably allowed the Milwaukee to enter the post-Staggers deregulation intact. If that had happened, the entire line from Chicago through Milwaukee to Seattle would still be intact - I'd guess it would be a Union Pacific property by now though (whether directly or through the Southern Pacific.)
Whether the Milwaukee would have lasted into the post-Staggers era is one of those "Chicken-or-Egg" scenarios, because there's a reason the it didn't last, and if it did, it was not positioned to compete in more recent times. It's also hard to agree with the suggestion that "Lines East" were a real drain on the Milwaukee when a surprising amount of them are still around today. In the 30 years since 1980, no one has made any serious attempt to revive any of the abandoned MILW main line west of Miles City, yet much of the ex-MILW branch to Ontonagon in Michigan is only now threatened with abandonment (as an example).
There are many theories as to why the west end of the MILW went under, mostly having to do with bad management practices. Such things were easy to find during this time on many railroads, so this would be a commonplace suggestion as to why the MILW went away. Less discussed, and probably the major reason it's not around is that a.)there were too many railroads in the area, and b.)it had by far the inferior route not only on its main line, but nearly to everywhere else on the west end of the railroad.
In January 1970, the states of Washington and Oregon combined had about one-fourth the population of California, but were served by "transcontinental" railroads GN, NP, MILW, and UP. Soo Line-CP-UP created another way to get from the Upper Midwest to the Pacific Northwest via the Spokane International Railroad, and of course, CP and CN were just across the border in British Columbia. Clearly, the American Pacific Northwest and Canadian Pacific Southwest had more links from that area to the American Midwest than did California. Not only did California have a greater population, but he intermediate markets to/from California were much larger. In other words, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, and Salt Lake City dwarf the likes of Fargo and Billings, and even Spokane. So, obviously, one such railroad to the Pacific Northwest could be spared, and it would be logically the weakest one.
"Weakest" is subjective, but in this case, pretty much everything points to the MILW. While there were no really big cities between Minneapolis and Seattle, the MILW managed to serve places like Fargo, Great Falls, and Spokane on the ends of long branch lines, which added costs. And unlike the Great Northern that served Vancouver, BC and Portland, OR directly and had its own route to and from California, MILW didn't go to Vancouver, BC, and couldn't even interchange with Southern Pacific because it didn't reach Portland (until 1970). In other words, there was a lot of territory the MILW missed, and where it did go, it often relied on circuitous branch lines or even carferries.
The Milwaukee's profile is probably the least-accepted reason for its demise, but could be the primary reason. It's important to remember that back in the days before deregulation, railroads had to charge the same rate between the same two points. For many shipments, that meant that the MILW needed to expend more resources to move the same car.
The MILW had these major grades over 1 percent on its Western Extension:
1.4 percent at Loweth, between Harlowton and Ringling
2.0 percent over Pipestone Pass (Continental Divide, east of Butte)
1.7 percent over St. Paul Pass (Montana/Idaho border)
2.2 percent over the Saddle Mountains (west of Beverly, WA)
And when it got access to Portland as conditions as part of the BN merger:
3.0 percent departing Tacoma (Tacoma Hill).
In contrast, Great Northern had west of Havre:
1.3 percent at Bison, Montana (east of the Continental Divide)
2.2 percent over Stevens Pass (between Wenatchee and Everett)
As information, NP had west of Livingston:
1.8 percent over Bozeman Pass
2.2 percent over Mullan Pass (Continental Divide west of Helena)
2.2 percent over Stampede Pass (between Ellensburg and Auburn)
Eastbound, the MILW:
1.7 percent over Snoqualmie Pass (east of Cedar Falls, WA)
1.6 percent to Boylston, WA (east of Kittitas, WA)
1.7 percent over St. Paul Pass (Idaho/Montana border)
1.7 percent over Pipestone Pass (Continental Divide east of Butte)
2.2 percent over Stevens Pass (between Everett and Wenatchee)
1.8 percent over Marias Pass (east of Essex, Montana).
2.2 percent over Stampede Pass (between Auburn and Ellensburg)
1.4 percent over Mullan Pass (Continental Divide west of Helena)
1.9 percent over Bozeman Pass
While the GN route (most of which became the main freight route for Burlington Northern after the 1970 merger) is clearly superior, other things need to be considered. For instance, the 2.2 percent grade is only for traffic to and from the Seattle area. Great Northern routed traffic for Portland and Longview via Pasco and Vancouver, WA and its SP&S subsidiary, which was a water level route (along the Columbia River) through the Cascades. The MILW had no such option, it had to tackle each and every hill, as it had no alternate routes.
In the 1970s, grain produced in places like Montana began being shipped for export at Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA in great quantities. In fact, today, nearly 100 percent of grain that goes west grown in Montana is destined to places like the Portland/Vancouver area, or Kalama/Longview, and not Seattle. This is was and would be a huge disadvantage for the MILW. In 1968, the MILW made much of its "Golden Grain Train" which was about 40 cars from its Northern Montana Branch destined to Longview, WA. Given that a similar trip from Great Falls to Longview via GN would only encounter one grade over 1 percent en route (Bison), compared to 6 such grades (and the GN grade over 1 percent was only nominally so, the Milwaukee's were much in excess of 1 percent in most cases, and included a 1.5 percent grade between Great Falls and Harlowton not indicated earlier) on the MILW, one has to wonder if this was a paying proposition for the MILW, especially considering the MILW route was also about 300 miles further.
There are two ways to deal with steep grades; helper power can be staged where needed or the train must be powered sufficiently over the entire route to pull the steepest grade. Either way is expensive. Helpers require helper power and manpower. Running extra road power increases locomotive power demand. So, the more locations where such additional power is required, the more cost that is involved.
While it is true that Union Pacific and Northern Pacific also encountered steep grades on their route, they also had some offsetting advantages. UP's route through Southern Idaho and Wyoming tapped an area where there was no other railroad, so the online business was theirs exclusively. NP had the best routes to places like Bismarck, Billings, Helena, and Yakima where other railroads were secondary. NP, like GN, had the option to route the heaviest shipments on subsidiary SP&S and interchanged with SP in Portland directly.
So, it's pretty obvious that most cars shipped on the MILW required more people and locomotive power than if it was handled on GN (later BN) or even NP. An important point to consider would also be how, if the MILW had survived, could it have competed in today's environment? Today, railroads compete by the rates they charge, which is different than before 1980. But today's trains are also much bigger.
A generic 110-car grain train operated today runs with pretty standard power on BNSF, usually C44s. Trains routed via the ex-GN route across Marias Pass depart Havre with 4 locomotives, 2 on the head end, and 2 on the rear, operating in distributed power mode. Helpers are not required, and can go through to destination with this power. Trains bound for Seattle and Tacoma usually route via the ex-SP&S so no additional power is needed (though some are being sent via Wenatchee during this maintenance of way season, requiring more power), and if necessary, 25% of the power can be cut at Spokane and operated west of there with 3 locomotives.
In contrast, these same trains operating via the ex-NP Montana Rail Link route depart Laurel with 3 C44s in 2 by 1 distributed power configuration. At Livingston, MRL adds three SD70AC units midtrain for use to Bozeman, where they're cut out. At Helena, five SD70AC units are added midtrain for use to Elliston. The additional costs here as opposed to the Marias Pass route are obvious: Helper crews, helper power, and one that is not so obvious: the cost in cycle time for equipment waiting for such helper power and crews to be available for subsequent helps. The capacity of any helper operation is always limited to the amount of time it takes to cycle the power back to help another train and the number of helper crews available to maintain the helper operation.
A current-day scenario on the MILW (IF still around) would require additional through power for hill at Loweth (steeper than Marias, and likely not to warrant a helper, as the MILW never used helpers here), helpers to be cut in at Pipestone Pass (similar to NP's Mullan Pass in grade), St. Paul Pass (similar to NP's Bozeman Pass in grade), Boylston/Saddle Mountains (similar to NP's Mullan Pass in grade), and Tacoma Hill (if a train bound for Aberdeen, Longview, Kalama, Vancouver, or Portland; would require double the power of Loweth).
That's why I say the scenario of What-if-the-MILW-was-still-around is one that is "Chicken-or-Egg." Was the MILW Pacific Extension abandoned because it was simply more expensive than the competition or would it have later folded anyway because it would be fantastically inefficient for the heavier trains to come? It never made it past 1980, so I think history answers that one, but regardless, it really doesn't matter, because in either scenario, there is no reason to consider the MILW as something worth keeping. And that's really the important thing to remember: No one saw value in keeping the MILW. If they had, it would still be here.
The Rock Island failed the same year that the MILW Western Extension was abandoned. Like the MILW, the CRI&P was in horrible shape just about everyplace, but much of it survives today. Kansas City to Santa Rosa, NM, Twin Cities to Kansas City, and Herington, KS to Fort Worth are important routes for UP. Iowa Interstate still operates the CRI&P all the way across Iowa. As bad as the Rock was, much of it was purchased and upgraded, because its route still had value. If the MILW Western Extension really could have been competitive with the other railroads in the area, or had served an area where others didn't, like the Rock, it would have been saved, but most of it wasn't. That speaks for itself.