Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Two Steps Back

It was a decade of paradox along America's Resourceful Railroad. In the early 70s, the creation of the Burlington Northern had allowed the Milwaukee Road access to new ports on the west coast. These were a few concessions given the railroad which found itself surrounded by a large and driven competitor. Some would argue that these concessions were far from enough, nonetheless, new markets were opened for the Milwaukee.

The mid-seventies saw traffic along Lineswest on a significant uptick. Shippers were fans of the Road's schedules across the plains and mountains of the west and rewarded the line with traffic for their priority freight trains. The fuel crisis hit, but the Milwaukee seemed to be in good position to weather the storm by relying on its efficient and capable Little Joe electric locomotives. Record grain harvests in the late seventies should have bolstered the bottom line as well, given the Milwaukee's access to west coast ports and grain growing country across the Western US. In many respects, it really seemed as though the Milwaukee could make a significant step up, rebuilding and reinventing itself as a significant hauler in the changing American economy.

Despite these advantages, however, something seemed to go wrong. The increased traffic across Lineswest had the beneficial effect of added revenue, but little effort was made to improve the tracks to support this heavier tonnage. As the trains increased in number, the track began to come apart. Schedules lengthened, shippers went elsewhere.

In the midst of the fuel crisis, the Milwaukee management assessed their railroad's electric operations as outdated and inefficient. This despite engineering reports that indicated the opposite and pointed instead to the failing condition of the track. In 1974 the electrics were pulled and scrapped. The valuable copper wire that hung above hundreds of miles of Western Extension track was taken down and sold as well. It is interesting, as an outside observer, to note that this decision came at the same time as a temporary spike in copper prices. By the time the wire had been pulled, however, supply had caught up with demand and the recycled copper the Milwaukee turned in was worth relatively little.

In the place of the retired and scrapped Joes, the Milwaukee purchased new diesel-electrics. The lengthening schedules across the west, however, quickly proved they had purchased too few and the economics of the fuel crisis quickly proved that they were no match for the Joe's efficiency. As the wheat rush of the late seventies boomed, the Milwaukee found itself with 1/3 to 1/2 of its locomotive fleet unavailable. Locomotives from the transcontinental line were "stolen" to run grain hoppers out along the branch lines of Central Montana in an effort to move the grain to ports. The spiraling decline, spurred on by decision after decision, was reaching the end.

And now, on a summer evening in 2005, the haunting decisions that doomed an empire reverberate across 25 years of time. The air has begun to take on the cool flavors of nighttime in the flatlands of Montana. Just as before it arrived, silence is what's left along much of the old Hiawatha trail. Silence, and a few small pieces of rail that perilously cling to the present. One small section that remains is along the old Northern Montana grain lines near Lewistown. On this brilliant evening at Judith Gap Trestle, the summer sky fades to black and that old song drifts to mind, "one step up and two steps back."

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