Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pandora's Box

On a beautiful early summer, beneath an amazing sky of blues and whites, surrounded by rolling wheat fields still in their spring coats of green, by a lone pine tree and an old concrete foundation lies Pandora.

Pandora has a marred history, although from the quiet breezes that blow through the grasses on this summer day, you'd never know. It is located at MP 1866 on the Pacific Extension and the site of a lengthy passing siding used by the Milwaukee's transcontinental freight trains. This piece of the transcon existed in the "gap" between the electrified portions on the Rocky Mountain Division to the east and the Cascade crossing to the west. It also existed in the gap of block signals. This was dark territory where trains moved on the authority of written instructions only, without the safety net provided by signals along the line.

On February 19, 1977, in the days before bankruptcy, the westbound train #200 ran through its designated point for a meet with an eastbound. The two met on the mainline near Pandora with fatal results.

Now, thirty years later, the tragedy and chaos of that day seems surreal. Grasses and wildflowers cover the railroad, slowly taking back the old right of way and covering its history. The tracks are long gone and the peace of early summer stands in stark contrast to the grey days of a winter so many seasons ago.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Old Ribbons

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, several things became clear. First, like the Rock Island (another large Granger road), the Milwaukee Road had been attempting to make itself more attractive to merger partners by maximizing short term profits. This translated into reduced money spent on such things as track, freight cars, and locomotives. It was a plan that, while slightly underhanded, seemed to make good business sense for a management that was becoming increasingly tired of railroading as an independent company. Simply take some of the money that would have gone into infrastructure and apply it to the profit statement instead. Within a couple of years, a different railroad would buy the 'very profitable' Milwaukee Road and none would be the wiser.

The second thing that became clear was that there existed a slight problem with this strategy for, also like the Rock Island, no merger partner came forward. So after many years of neglected maintenance, derailments and travel times soared across the west. What had been a strategy for merger had become a very big snare. The business increase across Lines West during the 1970s only served to magnify the problem, beating the few remaining years out of the tracks even more quickly. A rebuild was possible, with independent analysts showing that the only way for the Road to be profitable was through an extensive upgrade to its western extension (interestingly enough, counter to what management was claiming at the time). But the stomach to make that kind of investment had long evaporated in the headquarters building, and the bankruptcy judge agreed.

Today, little actual Milwaukee rail exists across the west. But in Palouse, Washington, a grim reminder of those final days still exists on the Milwaukee's wholly owned subsidiary, the WI&M. Although purchased and upgraded by BN after the Milwaukee's implosion, the line through town still shows some of the old effects of a failed merger strategy and failed upper management.