Thursday, September 29, 2011

Famous Goodbyes from the Energy Crises

There was a time, now many years ago, when there was a different economic malaise, a different energy crisis, and a different set of hard choices.  For the Milwaukee Road, this energy crisis of the mid-seventies produced an interesting result:  the decision to maintain electrified operations across the Rocky Mountains through June of 1974.  The original plan had the juice turned off in 1973 so this represented a stay of execution, but not a lasting reprise.  For reasons that are not always clear, the electrification was turned off and the Milwaukee Road turned to newer diesel power for its trains across the Rockies.

Ironically, the final costs of new diesel locomotives to replace the scrapped electrics, combined with  ever increasing fuel costs of the energy crisis, cost the Milwaukee dearly.  Detailed studies of this decision, as well as original GE economic analysis can be found here.    Particularly troubling is evidence that the Milwaukee actively misrepresented operating data to make the case for electric abandonment.  Maintenance costs for locomotives were stated incorrectly, and without regard to the  rising fuel costs, electric operations were 40-60% less costly then Milwaukee diesel operations (source).

But that was all a long time ago.  When the power was cut and the wires came down, the electrification was gone and the fuel crisis soared.  It remains a memorable and regrettable goodbye from the days of the energy crisis.

The electric locomotives were replaced with a new order of SD40-2s from General Motors.  These locomotives reflected the times.  They were produced with 16 cylinder, 3000 Hp diesel engines that shed 4 cylinders and 600 horsepower from the previous SD45 locomotive design.  Fuel economy was increased and the reduced length diesel resulted in improved reliability.  These new locomotives became a mainstay of locomotive fleets across the country in general, not just within the Milwaukee Road stables. Pictured are Chicago Northwestern variants, still working hard in their third decade of service across a wintry Iowa landscape in the mid 90s.  Built on the same frame as the SD45, these locomotives have lengthy "porches" at either end.  The smaller, more efficient diesel engine allowed the shorter hood which remains not just an identifying feature, but also a small reminder of the times that produced them.

Today these SD40-2 locomotives are still found in various types of service though their numbers are falling.  Recent products from GE and Electro-Motive have added computer controls, advanced fuel delivery systems, and more horsepower without damaging the all important fuel consumption characteristics.  Many of these old locomotives now find themselves in slow speed yard service with reduced horsepower ratings.  It is a far cry from their early days when they were "the best."  Their goodbye continues after spanning the years from one energy crisis to another.


It wasn't just the railroads that experienced some motive power downsizing.  Automakers were faced with similar problems and the enormous American cars that were so popular through the 60s and early 70s began to shrink.  When Chevrolet introduced its new Impala sedan for 1977, it was truly small compared to the outgoing model.  As part of the times, Ford introduced a smaller "large" car in 1978 on the so-called Panther platform.  The Panthers would span decades, just like SD40-2.  The names  were varied, but the platform was a constant:  there was the Ford LTD which became the Crown Victoria.  Much of this sheetmetal was shared with the Mercury Grand Marquis.  Even Lincoln sold a Panther in the form of the Town Car.  Within the last few weeks, Panther production has wound down and the final Crown Victoria has rolled off the assembly line.  It has been an incredible run for a design that has spanned decades.  In the photo above, Panthers from various generations bask in the sun atop their full-length frames.

With the demise of the Panther, the U.S. no longer makes a rear wheel drive car mounted atop a full frame.  Although the design was developed during the previous energy crisis, the extra mass of the frame and overall size of the car make it difficult to meet ever tightening economy standards in this present crunch.  GM ceased production of its own body-on-frame passenger cars in 1996, leaving only the Fords as mainstays of police forces and cab companies everywhere.   Now even those are singing their own goodbye song and the days of smooth-riding American v8 passenger cars continue to fade.

These are ends of eras in many ways.  Things that were spawned in the 70s in response to the economic challenges of the times are giving away.  Time and ever increasing efficiency make locomotives like the SD40-2 or vehicles like the Crown Vic dinosaurs in a land filled with new options.  These products displaced famous faces when they debuted - from the quad headlight nose of the Little Joe, to the full size Caprice convertible, they replaced them.  Now these reminders of that previous time and previous generation are passing as well.  Their replacements carry names like Taurus or SD70ACE but it seems unlikely that these replacements will have the same staying power. 

The past few decades have seen two distinct energy crises, and spawned innumerable famous goodbyes.  Today we acknowledge just a couple more.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Historical Scars

At the peak of railroading in the United States, over 250,000 miles of track crossed the continent (source: ICC).  More than 180 Class 1 Railroads were operating by 1930 (AAR).  The next 80 years would see a dramatic reduction in these numbers, brought about through rationalization of duplicate lines, corporate mergers, and outside pressures like affordable air travel and the Interstate system.

Often left behind are remnants of these original companies and rail lines.  They exist in large cities and small towns alike.  Dearborn Station in Chicago still stands, but the multitude of railroads that used it daily are gone as are the tracks and station platforms.  Shops and a small park now take their place.  Countless abandoned grain elevators still dot small towns where tracks used to connect them.  A few still offer storage and service via trucking, but more are just silent hulks.  Large or small, these are relics of that railroading peak 80 years ago.

Between the towns and cities lie other remembrances:  the landscape scars.  They are a cut that still exists in the side of a hill, or tunnel that gapes darkly at the surroundings.  A small bridge over a little creek, or gravel atop a culvert.  Line side poles sometimes follow these scars along, although time has brought many down one way or another.  They are not always obvious - it's easy to quickly drive by these disturbances in the land without giving a second thought.  Many have also been tilled into surrounding fields or simply overcome by the vegetation that surrounds them.  Nature continually works to rework and reclaim.

The picture above is the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Coast Extension, just east of Rosalia, WA.  Here, the poles are in place and the cut in the side of the Palouse hill nicely marks the line traced out in the early 1900s.  Old tunnels and bridges abound nearby as the line sets its sights on the Bitterroot Range just to the east.   These are the historical scars that mark some part of the way things used to be.  Things weren't always better, but they were different.  From big city stations to cuts in the hillsides, they're good reminders of what went before.