Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rock-a-bye bye bye?

There are footnotes to history and there are chapters. Dependent on your perspective, sometimes those footnotes deserve a book unto themselves.

As the economy sagged in the seventies, railroads were hit hard. The East saw a general collapse in the form of Penn Central. As the seventies wore on, the PC would be combined with several other bankrupt roads to form Conrail, a government backed corporation who's sole goal was to save rail transportation in the eastern half of the country. Collapse worked its way through the western lines during these years as well.

The Milwaukee Road pulled out of the West just over 30 years ago at the beginning of March. Bankrupt and reeling, its retreat to the Midwest would last only a few more years until its absorption by Soo Line. Its competitors in the West and Northwest managed to hang on, but healthy balance sheets were not to be found in the board rooms of the Cascade Green lines in those years.

The Rock Island had a long flirtation with the Union Pacific through the 60s. Merger was oft discussed and seemed inevitable at points in the late 60s. To boost the attractiveness of the company (i.e. its bottom line), decisions to delay maintenance and physical plant spending were made in the Rock's Chicago offices. As the seventies hit with an economic thud, the railroad found itself poorly managed and without an interested merger partner. Exploration of a true transcontinental merger with the Erie Lackawanna was conducted, but no deal was consummated. Given the collapse and deteriorated mess of the PC, perhaps a combined Rock-Erie would have done no better. In an attempt to re-invent itself, a new logo and look was established as part of the "Capitol Rebuild Program" that rebuilt parts of the old locomotive fleet in an attempt to keep trains moving. The light blue applied to the rebuilds and new rolling stock seemed to fade quickly and, just as quickly, became known as Bankruptcy Blue. An ill timed labor strike would be the final straw.

And so the seventies did to the Rock Island what they did to the Milwaukee and all of those Eastern lines: relegated them to historical studies, barren right of ways, and old grain elevators that stand over small quiet towns across the Midwest. The elevator above still stands at Downie, IA along the Rock Island's former mainline to Omaha and points west. It has been 30 years since the Rock Island rolled up, in the company of its faltered competitors who proceeded it.

"Rock-a-bye bye bye" was a title given to a brief D.P. Morgan article in Trains Magazine in July 1975. On the cover was a picture of the Rock Island's E-6 locomotive #630. It seemed inconceivable that the "Route of the Rockets" could actually collapse so completely, yet in 1975 the writing was on the wall. As Mr. Morgan noted, "The Rock Island Line became a might sad road." The beautiful lines of the streamlined E-6 recalled a profitable and exciting time for the railroad, nearly 4 decades previous. As pictured in 1975, beneath the night lights of the Chicago skyline, it was a gritty museum piece in forced labor. It was a time of tumultuous change, of economic unease, and an unsure future. Five years later the unthinkable would happen and another railroad legend would sign off and lower its flag. Bye bye Rock Island Lines, now thirty years on.

12 comments:

Oil-Electric said...

Interesting observations, which will continue for years to come. I find it remarkable that while many folk focus on the Milwaukee Road itself in this “parlor game” of whose to blame, that the most influential of all railroad upheavals was taking place on the East Coast between the Florida East Coast Railroad and it’s non-operating employees union.

This was no small walk out! And many of today’s operating procedures, not the least of which was the elimination of the caboose and crew on freight operations! The strike began on January 23rd, 1963, and concluded 13 years later on April 9th, 1976.

And one has to factor in the outcome of the FEC strike on all other roads, including the Milwaukee. In concluding the strike, the Florida East Coast Railway took the position:

1. That it should represent itself in negotiating with its own employees as to wages and working conditions.
2. That it should not agree to any wage demands which will inevitability lead to bankruptcy.
3. That it should not commit the interest of its stockholders to the decision of a National Negotiating Committee.


Paragraph number 3 is the one referred to in management lingo as the “catchall” clause.

In its closing remarks to the public, the FEC stated: “As a result of the 13 year conflict, the FEC emerged as the most modern an efficient railroads in the country, and hopefully for the survival of the industry, an example for other rail managements in the future.”

Anonymous said...

Thanks for adding to the background of the era Robert. It is much appreciated.

-Leland

Anonymous said...

Another interesting thought if you guys recall your railroad history; Amtrak was formed in 1970, and THAT was one ugly situation in itself...the Burlington Northern merger was pulled off within months as well (I really can't recall at the moment who was first...) As the Milwaukee Road DECLINED to be included in that merger, it BOGGLES my mind that even within my lame business degree, ONE avenue of beating the competition is by BUYING IT. And yet, the MILW remained on the west coast with it's futile operations for another 17 years. I just can't fathom that ALL THE PHd's in the railroad industry couldn't see the forest for the trees anywhere along that two decade span of activities. THAT's how I see SCANDLE, corporate, AND legislative!

SDP45 said...

Rock did not join Amtrak either.

Dan

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:17,

You should join the MILW List (yahoo groups). MILW DID want to be included in BN but was rebuffed. Also, data shows that the main issue the MILW had was the overextended branch line network in the midwest and Near West...the actual mainline traffic from Seattle east until 1978 was profitable.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:17...it really doesn't matter to me who you want to believe...it's water over the damn and water does NOT back up...but I WAS HERE IN WASHINGTON STATE IN 1970 when the BN was formed...MILW DECLINED to be included in the original merger...

Oil-Electric said...

Wow! I don't own this blog, but I would offer up this idea, that yelling (CAPS) and attitude tend to stifle commentary. (Feel free, Leland to show me to the nearest exit if I am out of line.)

There are many armchair observations about the merger that get repeated and distorted as they migrate through the internet. I find going to the source often sheds a different color of light on a subject.

It is a matter of Public Record, that the Milwaukee Road management did not decline "membership" with the Burlington Northern merger nor were they "rebuffed."

As a matter of fact, Milwaukee Road management supported the GN NP merger, and "welcomed the long awaited opportunity to compete!"

Hardly sounds like "SCANDAL, corporate, AND legislative!" to me.

Furthermore, two years later, it would seem as though Milwaukee Road's management called the game correctly, when in 1972, operating revenues were up 7.4% directly attributed to increased competition across the northern tier, and the ICC approval to run Tacoma to Portland!

It's all a matter of Public Record. You just need to take the time to seek it out. That way, you won't find yourself repeating some other person's error.

--Robert in Port Townsend.

LinesWest said...

Well, it looks like my post on the Rock Island Railroad prompted quite the outburst on the Milwaukee. As an aside, I always wondered if a combined Milwaukee-RI system would have been feasible, and if so, could it have been called the Rocky Road?

I would appreciate leaving the "ALL CAPS" off the discussions here. In some ways (your's truly included) we're all wrong about the nuances and exactness of the events that transpired. Whether we were there on the ground, or observing from some point far away, we're all subject to the distortions of the past 30 years and the feelings of the times themselves.

Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but as I recall, one of the justifications for the BN merger included a "substantially strengthened Milwaukee Road" as a competitive system. I believe that came from the administration of the time. If Mr. Sol is watching the discussion here perhaps he can add a specific reference for that? Regardless, the merger concessions seemed to help the Milwaukee's traffic loading substantially. I know there's the argument out there that "the concessions weren't enough." Perhaps, but the car loadings increased and the PCE was the profitable part of the railroad through the 70s.

I'll start working on a Milwaukee oriented post here in the next few days. Thanks for reading the ol' blog and taking the time to comment as always.

-Leland

Oil-Electric said...

Forgive me,it was getting late when I responded to the post regarding the
rejection by Milwaukee’s Board to participate in the merger. I neglected to include
my citation – evidence if you will – to support my statement:

“Supreme Court approval of the merger forming the Burlington Northern, Inc. came as welcome news to the Milwaukee Road, which has supported that merger, provided conditions necessary for its own protection were included. Barring unforeseen developments that merger will have gone into effect by the time this report is published, and the Milwaukee will be in a position to more forward with the implementation of those conditions.

After 60 years of intense competition with both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads across the northern tier of state, the Milwaukee Rod now finds itself in the challenging role of principal competitor of the newly unified system.

The Milwaukee will meet that challenge aggressively. It welcomes its new role and the long-awaited opportunity to compete on equal terms throughout a vast area of growing economic importance.”

Leo T. Crowley, Chairman of the Board
(signed)
Curtiss E. Crippen, President
(signed)
February 25, 1970
Annual Report, 1969
Page 3


As for "recalling railroad history," the Burlington Northern merger went into effect March 2, 1970. It was more than a year later, when a completely unrelated Amtrak agreement went into effect on May 1, 1971.

Anonymous said...

While these ruminations were going on, the ICC had another merger case before it: The Hill Lines. Merger amongst the Hill Lines had been tried twice in the past, both times failing in large part due to the serious ramifications a combined system would have on the Milwaukee, especially on it's "Lines West" .With the Northern Pacific to the south and the Great Northern to the north, the ICC had always found the Milwaukee's position untenable in the event of a Hill Lines merger, and the Milwaukee had protested these earlier proceedings vigorously"

Know your history gentlemen... otherwise you are embarassing yourselves...

LinesWest said...

Well, I'm going to turn the moderation button "on" after that somewhat incendiary comment. I really had hoped not to.

Regards,
-Leland

Oil-Electric said...

Wow! "anon" is not a very congenial chap!

First of all he said … (Well, he didn't say. He forgot to put "quotation" marks around the reference he quoted.) … "While these ruminations were going on, the ICC had another merger case before it: The Hill Lines etc, etc, etc."

He didn't quote the entire sentence.

And the piece "anon" quoted is out of context.

The three "Hill lines" were the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, whose stock was owned by GN/NP.

That is the merger we have been talking about, including the Spokane, Portland & Seattle.

If anyone should be "embarrassed" it should be "anon." I'm not wasting any more time on this pointless conversation. We've already made a mess of Leland's living room!