• What if the Milwaukee Road didn't de-energize the Pacific Extension?

  • Discussion relating to The Chicago & North Western, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road), including mergers, acquisitions, and abandonments.
Discussion relating to The Chicago & North Western, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (Milwaukee Road), including mergers, acquisitions, and abandonments.

Moderator: Komachi

  by D.S. Lewith
One of the biggest reasons the Milwaukee Road went under was the decision to de-energize the Pacific Extension and go to diesels during the 1970s. That decade was when the 1973 Oil Crisis happened, which caused freight railroads like the Southern Pacific, Burlington Northern, Santa Fe and Union Pacific to seriously consider electrifying at least parts of their main lines (of course by the time the studies concluded oil prices went back to normal and thus stuck with diesels). It actually made more sense economically for the Milwaukee Road to keep their electrics during that time, although they would have to replace their decades-old fleet with European-style electric locomotives soon (as American electric locomotive manufacturing pretty much went moribund) and even convert from 3000 V DC to 25 kV 60 Hz AC. Had Milwaukee Road kept their electrics and modernized the Pacific Extension (including finishing the gap), they could have survived at least past 1986 and into the 1990s, perhaps even into the 2000s, if not today. Should MILW go bankrupt in the years after 1986 then they could have sold the northern transcon (including the Pacific Extension) to Union Pacific, thus giving them a competing northern transcon to compete against BNSF.
  by eolesen
I find it amazing that 45 years later people are still arguing this.

Pulling the wire wasn't the only problem. The system had over 4,000 miles of track under slow orders due to deferred maintenance, car shortages, and had also been deferring locomotive maintenance. That bankruptcy and liquidation was inevitable.
  by edbear
Milwaukee Road's Pacific Coast Extension wasn't exactly overloaded with business. My November 1970 Official Guides shows two through freights in each direction each day, if they both ran. Also, the wooden poles supporting the catenary had just about had it.
  by vermontanan
eolesen wrote: Thu May 07, 2020 1:51 am I find it amazing that 45 years later people are still arguing this.

Pulling the wire wasn't the only problem. The system had over 4,000 miles of track under slow orders due to deferred maintenance, car shortages, and had also been deferring locomotive maintenance. That bankruptcy and liquidation was inevitable.
Indeed. But the Milwaukee Road's electrification - and really the entire Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension - was/is considered a novelty. Hence the enduring interest and "what if" speculation even though such scenarios are contrary to reality. How a railroad which could not even install CTC, power switches, lineside detectors, adequate sidings, or even continuous ABS on its main line could spring for new locomotives (and likely a whole new electrical distribution system) boggles the mind - even for the 650 or so miles under wire - which was not even continuous (that is, the "Gap" from Avery to Othello was never electrified). Of course those who fantasize about this will tell you they have crunched the numbers and it was totally doable.

Figures lie, and liars figure, of course, but there are constants in all the pro-electrification proposals: Ignoring the greatest costs, which are train delay, locomotive dwell, and restricting a large number of assets to a limited area of trackage. For electrification to work, the electrified network needs to be expansive and cover just about all the possible routes, or be a fixed single route usually with a single commodity. In the original posting by D.S. Lewith, he/she gives a link to a map of proposed electrification in the 1970s. Using the BN Powder River Basin to Lincoln, NE route as an example: During the height of coal movement it was not unusual to see 60 or more coal trains (loads and empties) on the route from Alliance to Lincoln. Today, most of these trains are 125 cars or more, and operate with distributed power. Just the thought of having to modify the entire locomotive consist of ALL the trains at Lincoln (from electric to diesel electric and vice versa) again boggles the mind. The amount of yard capacity to accommodate all the trains in the terminal would be huge, as would the locomotive fleet (of both types) to be kept on hand to be available to maintain fluidity. Plus, of course, the personnel to make all these power modifications. The cost is simply overwhelming. Same for the UP proposal with the electrification starting and ending at North Platte. 100 trains a day changing power? NOT. The Milwaukee Road would not have this volume of trains, but electrification still stranded a lot of locomotive assets on a very limited amount of track (Harlowton to Avery; Othello to Seattle/Tacoma). That meant power modifications for the "Gap" (or running the electric power through dead), and at the end or beginning of the electrification.
An additional explanation is here: http://trainweb.org/milwaukeemyths/#myth6
Here's another take on the costs of electrification proponents don't mention: http://energyskeptic.com/2016/electrifi ... ight-rail/

With regard to D.S. Lewith's statement, "then they could have sold the northern transcon (including the Pacific Extension) to Union Pacific, thus giving them a competing northern transcon to compete against BNSF": I'm sure UP would argue that they compete quite well with BNSF in this corridor right now, thank you. Not only that, compared to "transcontinental" routes to and from California, BNSF's route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest has much more competition. Not only UP via Nampa, Green River, and North Platte, but also UP/CP via Eastport/Kingsgate. The port of Vancouver, BC handles more container traffic (and more tonnage overall) than does Seattle and Tacoma combined, and both CN and CP offer intermodal service from Vancouver to the Upper Midwest of the U.S. In addition, CN has service to middle of America from the burgeoning port at Prince Rupert, BC. But none of this matters, really, because even if there were not all those alternatives to BNSF, the Milwaukee wouldn't be around because the primary reason it's not around is that it was the high-cost route. The Milwaukee didn't electrify for no reason; it did so because its operating profile had horrendous grades. It also had a very poor and usually exceptionally circuitous branch line/feeder "network."

While proponents of the Milwaukee Road electrification and the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension in general go to great lengths to explain why things turned out the way they didn't, it's easier to just focus on the operational deficiencies to easily grasp why things happened as they did.
  by Engineer Spike
The New Haven swapped power on this frequency of trains for years at New Haven. There was an article linked to Train Orders, but I'm not sure of the source. It was called "What Happened to the Milwaukee." I think that when they got some ex BN officials, they killed the railroad. Who knows what the meters and consolidations between then and now would have brought.
  by vermontanan
Engineer Spike wrote:The New Haven swapped power on this frequency of trains for years at New Haven. There was an article linked to Train Orders, but I'm not sure of the source. It was called "What Happened to the Milwaukee." I think that when they got some ex BN officials, they killed the railroad. Who knows what the meters and consolidations between then and now would have brought.
Not true, at all. The volume of traffic on the Milwaukee ranged from 2 to 8 trains daily, and power modifications occurred at multiple locations, such as Tacoma, Othello, Avery, and Harlowton. New Haven would change power on scores of trains daily at New Haven. Except for some local freights, the New Haven Railroad used all electric power west of New Haven. The Milwaukee was usually a mix of electric and diesel-electric - necessitated by relatively few electric units and the "gap" between Othello and Avery. The New Haven was primarily a passenger railroad with much lighter, more predictable (with regard to schedule) trains. The inefficiency of the New Haven locomotive swap is highlighted by Amtrak electrifying the railroad between New Haven and Boston, with the first trains running in 2000. Not only did doing so decrease running time to a point where the train could be competitive with driving and the bus, but it also drastically improved the utilization of equipment. For example, the Acela train sets (electric) would not have otherwise been able to serve Boston. The current (non-COVID-19) operation at New Haven is that very few trains change power, and the few that do are going to Springfield, MA and Vermont. But even most New Haven-Springfield diesel-electric trains do not run through to/from New York; passengers need to change trains. The largest number of Amtrak trains change power between electric and diesel electric in Washington, DC for trains to/from south and southwest of the city. The New Haven west of New Haven, CT was electrified for the volume of traffic and to allow for less-polluting locomotives entering New York City. The Milwaukee Road was electrified to tackle the many steep grades en route.

The article you're referring to is this one: http://www.trainweb.org/milwaukee/article.html

The article is subjective and dedicates nothing to the operating inefficiencies of the Milwaukee Road's steep grades and route structure. Discontinuing the electrification is presented as a bad thing in the article, but like all such articles, it doesn't mention the extreme costs of modifying power consists, locomotive dwell during power modifications, and train delay when power is not available at the power modification point. It also doesn't mention how a railroad which couldn't even electrify the "gap" or install block signals between Plummer and Marengo for lack of money could ever afford a complete redo of its electrification as well as lengthen sidings, install CTC, and create lineside warning devices like the competition was doing.

The Rock Island was, by many accounts, in just as bad or worse shape than the Milwaukee. It ceased to exist in 1980, the same year the Milwaukee Pacific Extension was abandoned west of Miles City. Yet in spite of the poor physical plant, large segments of the Rock from the Twin Cities to Fort Worth, Chicago to Omaha, and Herington, KS to Santa Rosa, NM ("Golden State" route) were taken over by other railroads who saw the value in doing so, and are still viable routes today. Strong routes survive no matter what. And those with no such value do not. It really doesn't matter who was in charge.

Again, I offer this information with regard to the operating deficiencies of the Milwaukee and a comparison to the competition:
  by mtuandrew
I have read that in the early 1970s GE offered to self-finance a full wire, pole, distribution and motive power refresh for MILW, including closing the Gap. Until today, I didn’t realize that likely would have meant GE owning the railroad once MILW defaulted.
  by Engineer Spike
My earlier point was based on the statement about BN changing from electric to diesel. I was just pointing out that New Haven changed power on a high frequency of trains without too much trouble.

If GE did modernize the electrification and closed the gap, then things might have been better. They would have had to go 100% electric, like the New Haven did. I see the point that Milwaukee’s small train frequency would have made the whole exercise a folly. With no real traffic sources, and paper barriers in the west, the chance of more traffic would be near impossible. The power could have been nearly free. This would have made up for other shortcomings of the route. If trains were timed right, then the regenerative braking of a down hill train could almost power the uphill one. Hydro could have made up the difference.
  by edbear
Regarding the scenario of GE rebuilding the electrification and maybe owning the Milwaukee Road if it went bankrupt, not so. At the time of its last bankruptcy, the MILW had $103 million in first and general mortgage debt and another $55 million in debenture bonds, all superior to any other claim against the company. Any business foolish enough to invest in such a weak enterprise would lose most or all of its investment. The only way that GE could have got anything back from this hypothetical electrification upgrade would have been to lease the upgrade to the MILW and then dismantle it upon default.
  by Engineer Spike
Vermontanan brings up good points. Milwaukee did not have the traffic, nor the potential for enough traffic to make electrification feasible. Years ago the gap was probably not a problem. In non electric territory steam was used. It would have likely had to have been changed every so many miles anyway. In modern times, a consist of diesels run through for thousands of miles. The lack of modern infrastructure kept Milwaukee years behind especially the Northerns.

A friend and I often discuss railroad history, and possible mergers..... One point that I thought of was that Milwaukee must have felt stuck, and therefor built the extension. The other Granger roads all had alliances with western roads. Burlington had the Northerns, C&NW tried to build west, but stopped. It had the majority of UP eastbound traffic anyway. Rock had Rio Grande at Denver, and SP in New Mexico. I think Milwaukee felt left out, and saw the PE as a salvation.

Vermontanan made another good point. He talked about how badly Rock and Milwaukee were. The west had enough healthy companies, that free market forces were Abe to solve the situation. SOO/CPR took the viable parts if Milwaukee, and Chessie, C&NW, SP, and regionals like KYLE and Iowa Interstate took over viable parts of the Rock.
  by Gilbert B Norman
Mr. Spike, you and Mr. Meyer are, in the "big picture", correct. The MILW was simply "America's Redundant Railroad". The only on line traffic source that was "ours" was Milwaukee, and considering the beer and auto parts originating there, and the inbound steel and agricultural products for such, that is traffic for which rail is the only reasonable means to ship.

Now regarding Lines West (PCE if you will), it should never been built; the C&NW, looking at the Rockies and even with a "reasonable" pass available over them (hardly the UP over Sherman, but then, they were there first) said "that's far enough" at Lander. The only matter that goes "against the grain" is how the Surf Board has shown since assuming the regulatory role from the ICC, wants "balanced rail competition". The Northern Tier, with one and only player, hardly has such. I'm hardly suggesting the MILW deserved to remain a business entity, but why the UP or the C&NW was not compelled to take over Lines West and provide that "competition", was a departure from (still fledgling I guess) STB philosophy.

OK; some will say "well Burlington Northern sold the Northern Pacific to a new entity Montana Rail Link". But let's look at just how "independent" that road happens to be. It's principal interchanges are at Miles City on the East and somewhere near Sandpoint on the West - both with BN(SF). The only interchange with anyone else is at Butte with the UP, so I guess traffic routed through Butte to an MRL industry, say, at Anaconda or Missoula could be handled without touching the BNSF. But such traffic hardly represents what MRL handles as a "bridge" for Warren.

Mr. Meyer will no doubt find points I've set forth here to be faulty, but I will respect his exceptional knowledge of the region.
  by eolesen
I always saw the CNW's Wyoming line about shipping livestock back to Chicago stockyards, and not so much about reaching the Pacific.... they had no incentive to cross the Rockies...

Sent from my SM-G981U using Tapatalk

  by vermontanan
First, just to clarify the Montana Rail Link statement: No “interchange” at Miles City. Montana Rail Link operates from Jones Jct., MT (about 30 miles east of Laurel) to Spokane. From Sandpoint to Spokane, trains operate over BNSF. Most of the trains operated are BNSF trains, and MRL crews handle them from Laurel to Hauser Yard or Spokane. Trains between Jones Jct., Huntley, and Laurel are operated (to/from Sheridan or Glendive) with BNSF crews, except for locals and switch crews working primarily in the Billings and East Billings areas.

MRL is almost completely captive to BNSF with common stations at Jones Jct., Huntley, Mossmain, Laurel, Garrison, and Sandpoint. It is possible for MRL to interchange to UP at Sandpoint, but this is extremely rare. MRL does not serve Butte or Anaconda. BNSF operates its Copper City subdivision from Garrison through Silver Bow to Butte, and interchanges with UP at Silver Bow, and the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific (for Anaconda) at Silver Bow (mostly) and Butte. UP no longer ventures into Butte. To my knowledge, there are no regular customers at Anaconda, but there is a good-sized yard, and the BA&P uses it for car storage.

So, just to clarify, if cars arrive at Silver Bow from the UP destined to Missoula or Helena for example, the BNSF local from Butte handles them to Garrison where they are then taken to destination by Montana Rail Link.

As for the C&NW or UP being “compelled” to operate the Milwaukee Pacific Extension: I would guess that would have come with quite the price tag (paid for by a government entity, no doubt). No one (including the UP) wanted it (as it was the high-cost railroad to the Pacific Northwest with a lousy feeder lines), and the C&NW was hardly in a financial position to run it. The “New Milwaukee” proposal was declared financially unsustainable by the ICC, which was the right call.

That “the Northern Tier with one and only one player” (evidently a reference to Burlington Northern after the Milwaukee Road bowed out west of Miles City) is as irrelevant as it is erroneous. Especially in light of the fact that Mr. Gilbert had labeled the Milwaukee as “redundant” and a railroad “should have never been built.” So, then, why should it have been kept for “competition” if the opinion is that it shouldn’t be there in the first place?

That the Milwaukee Road was there, doesn’t mean it should have been, or that it could have provided meaningful “competition” in perpetuity. It couldn’t have. The reality is that the Milwaukee Pacific Extension left a very light footprint on the area. Now that it’s gone, there is little out there that wouldn’t be had the Milwaukee not been around. Roundup and Lewistown were already established before the Milwaukee showed up. St. Maries likely would have gotten a railroad without the Milwaukee line. The largest city on the Pacific Extension west of Miles City served exclusively by the Milwaukee was Othello, Washington, which has actually grown significantly since the Milwaukee pulled out (though the line from Warden to Othello remains in service). Othello’s growth was/is largely due to agriculture and the establishment of the Columbia Basin Project.

As for Burlington Northern/BNSF being the “only player” in the “Northern Tier,” there are two sides to this: First, it just isn’t. Minnesota had alternate routes via C&NW/UP (now UP) and Soo Line/CP/UP (now CP/UP); North Dakota also had the Soo Line/CP/UP alternative, as did/does the Spokane area. Second of all: Who cares? Montana – served largely by just BN/BNSF (including MRL) – is hardly alone. Southern Idaho, Utah – except for Provo to Ogden, Las Vegas, Tucson, San Diego (not counting the defunct SD&AE), the Western half of Colorado, all of New Mexico - except for the metropolises of Vaughn and Deming, and Florida – except for Jacksonville and the east coast to Miami – all have only one major freight railroad – and in many cases – have a greater population served.

Montana Rail Link on average operates only one through freight train of its own between Laurel and Missoula. West of Missoula, freight rides BNSF run-through trains. That doesn’t leave a lot of traffic for a second carrier. The Milwaukee’s Northern Montana lines (north from Harlowton), carried a fair amount of traffic (grain), but as wheat shifted to Pacific Northwest ports as destinations, a Milwaukee Road routing was wildly circuitous (a car of wheat from Great Falls to Portland had to go 200 miles southeast to Harlowton before heading west). And the grade from Great Falls to Lewistown alone on the Milwaukee was steeper than it was all the way from Great Falls to Portland. (The Milwaukee route had hills with grades of 1.5%, 1.4%, 2%, 1.7%, 2.2%, and 3.6% compared to BN with one short 1.3% and everything else 1% or less.) As unit trains evolved – had it miraculously survived – the Milwaukee would have been shut out of 95% of grain from Montana, and would have been non-competitive for other origin locations simply due to its inferior profile.

Another aspect of hypocrisy in the “BN-is-the-only-player” department is one that never seems to be mentioned, and that is BN/BNSF’s domination of the state of South Dakota, which has much more ag-oriented rail business than in Montana. In my opinion, the reason that South Dakota’s rail near-monopoly is rarely so indicated is because the trackage involved is mostly Milwaukee Road trackage. Yes, the Milwaukee was the dominant carrier in South Dakota, and its trackage is what makes BNSF as such today. Short lines and a regional railroad exist in South Dakota, but much of the ag traffic (including most trains out of the four shuttle grain train facilities on the Rapid City, Pierre, and Eastern for interchange at Wolsey) interchanges with BNSF (ex-Milwaukee Road). I find this interesting, because west of Terry, Montana, the Milwaukee perished due to its weaknesses; In South Dakota it survives because of them, when - as the state’s dominant railroad - they sought to pull out altogether by 1982. As a result, C&NW routes were shortlined or abandoned and BN (ex-GN) routes were downgraded or abandoned as the state of South Dakota pumped money into the “Core” of ex-Milwaukee Road lines and Burlington Northern was selected to operate them. In South Dakota, what was once the Milwaukee Road is largely “the only player,” but it’s never referenced as such, in contrast to BNSF routes in Montana.

--Mark Meyer