The Milwaukee Road's Goodnight

"As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return."  Job 7:8-9

The year is 1972.  GE has released a proposal to the Milwaukee Road to close the electrification 'gap' between Avery, ID and Othello WA while supplying new electric locomotives to handle trains across the expanded Harlowton to Othello electrified lines.  Perhaps the most intriguing part of this arrangement is GE's offer to finance the deal itself.  Significant unknowns lie ahead for the nation, a fuel crisis looms and an economic downturn as well.  The best of Milwaukee's electric locomotives in service entered their roles more than two decades prior.  The oldest date from the teens.  Out on the mainline, away from the decision makers, the trains continue to move, benefitting from the port and operating agreements spawned by the BN merger conditions.  But back in the midwest, far from places like Two Dot or Harlowton, decisions are being made, future directions decided, and a watershed moment is coming.

Although many have said similar things, Chuck Palahniuk recorded this simple line, "We'll be remembered more for what we destroy that what we create."  Now, nearly 40 years after the Milwaukee pulled down its wires above the Rocky Mountain Division, that action and those memories continue to resonate.  The last remaining Little Joe rests in Deer Lodge, with pantographs stretching towards an empty Montana sky.  The boxcab in Harlowton exists well off the original right of way and the yards it patrolled with regularity.  Two lasting pieces of a memory that is hard to erase.

Digging through the contents of the actual GE study reveals interesting contents and formal responses from the railroad that stood to benefit.  Even early in the decision making process, the position of the railroad seems fairly obvious.

We presently estimate that 63 diesel units of SD-40 six
axle 3,000 H.P. rating can handle the main line proposed operation
Harlowton to Tacoma .... It is our opinion that the flexibility of the diesel
to run freely on the main line of our entire railroad and also interchange 
with diesel power on the various branch lines (particularly in
the Seattle-Tacoma area) affords for the diesel a utilization advantage
that is not reflected in the G.E. 3-20-72 proposal

... we do not anticipate any of the substantial cost reduction
benefits for new motive power or in maintenance of motive power 
which a large scale electrification should generate ... We anticipate that
... "custom bui1t" characteristics of the proposed new electric units
will "spillover" into our maintenance costs ... We will probably be the only railroad 
in the United States who will use the 3,000 volt D.C. units to be designed and
built exclusively for us. ... 

In closing, I wish to state, we are looking forward to handling
an electrified operation, if it is concluded to be desirable

Even in 1972, the railroad's position seems well established to let this uniquely engineered and operating system fade into history.  Nonetheless, important evaluations from within the company were not necessarily in agreement with the formal responses to GE.  Mr. Wylie, who had many times in the past improved the operations of the Milwaukee's electrics (including their ability to control and operate with the Road's diesel locomotives) noted that:

A six axle electric locomotive with 900 HP traction motors and 
25% working  adhesion will provide about 5,200 HP at the rail at 20 HPH. 
this is double the rail horsepower that can be obtained from the SD-40 
diesel units ...

Despite the qualifications of those on the ground, voicing concern over the rejection of GE's offer, rejected it was.  Electric operations would continue through 1973 and into 1974.  By 1974 the effects of the combined energy and economic crises were being felt.  The operation of the electrics over the Rocky Mountain division had already been extended once.  A bump in copper prices in the 1973-74 years may have been the final 'kick' the railroad management needed to end the railroad's electrification.

Historical Copper Prices ($/mt),
Unfortunately, crude oil became somewhat more expensive at the same time.

The Milwaukee Road would face an increasing shortage of motive power moving forward as units died and were parked.  The best locomotives were pulled back to the lines in the Midwest during the final period of the Western Extension, and those that were left suffered on without the help of any overhead wires.  Unscheduled Dead Freights would be the last trains to run through places like Two Dot, but even those would seem preferable to what is left instead.  Somehow, the immortal words of Job seem fitting:  

The eye that now sees me will see me no longer; 
you will look for me, but I will be no more.  
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, 
so one who goes down to the grave does not return. 
Job 7: 8-9

Good night Resourceful Railroad.


Anonymous said…
Great article, thanks as always.
Anonymous said…
That was a very nice analysis.

Best regards, Michael Sol
Anonymous said…
All your posts are excellent, but this one is still the best of them all. Ben Wood - Everson, WA

Popular posts from this blog

Living in the Promised Land

It Lies where it Falls

The Long View