Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Related Relics

1,490 miles of mainline - the distance from Chicago's Union Station to Vendome, MT.  The picture above, taken a decade ago, shows Union Station resplendent in its ornamentation and elegance.  It was a majestic entrance to a grand city established by five railroads including the Milwaukee Road.  The statue holds a rooster and looks to the horizon, the rising sun and start of a new day. 

From Chicago the Resourceful Railroad mainline heads north and then west, out across the Midwest and through the prairie lands of waving grasses and American pronghorns.  From Union Station to electrification at Harlowton, it was 4-6-4 Baltics that raced passengers across these lands.  These were impressive machines in their own right:  one completed 10 round trips in 30 days between Minneapolis and Harlowton ... with no days off or out for maintenance.  Each round trip distance was 918 miles [1].

1490 miles on from the horizon-gazing statue in Union Station lies the grade to Pipestone Pass.  Baltics gave way to electrics in Harlowton, and those eventually gave way to diesels in the last days of the Western Extension.   A few relics have hung on though - perhaps like Union Station itself.  In an open field near the mainline rests one of the ribside boxcars (MILW 34641) that were so ubiquitous for so many years.  It isn't impressive in the grand style of lasting stone masonry and elaborate decoration, but it is a survivor that looks back to a different era and is impressive all the same.  Somewhere under that top coat of boxcar red paint is likely a "Route of the Hiawathas" slogan too.  

1) "Milwaukee Road 4-6-4 Hudson Locomotives in the USA" http://steamlocomotive.com/locobase.php?country=USA&wheel=4-6-4&railroad=cmstpp

Monday, October 16, 2017

Uncrossable Desert

In January 1978, G.A. Kellow offered this report on the Milwaukee's plant rationalization efforts as it moved into its final bankruptcy [1]:
Traffic patterns over the past 30 years, and probably longer, show that the total transcontinental rail market is not a strong growth market; that the Milwaukee Road's share has always been small; and that the share of the market is in fact diminishing.

Given the small present market share, the strong rail competition and the apparent limited total market, the Milwaukee Road cannot expect to increase its share of the traffic enough in the future to justify maintaining transcontinental service.

On the basis of this study and analysis, the following conclusions are drawn:
  • The railroad probably should not have extended its line to the Pacific Northwest at the time it was done. 
  • There is no economic justification in continuing transcontinental service to the West Coast.
  • A long-range objective should be to phase out most, if not all, operations west of Miles City (a difficult assignment).
Now with the advantage of hindsight, it's interesting to note that though the long range objective was achieved and the track removed, some of the predictions were not [2 with data from AAR]:

Many have noted that the line planted by the Milwaukee Road over 100 years ago avoided many of the population centers of the day.  Perhaps, in some final irony, that reduced congestion would play even better with the long haul intermodal traffic that has sprung to life so distinctly in the decades since the railroad's departure.

In the image above, the Milwaukee's mainline is taking dead aim at Vendome, MT and the pass over the Rocky Mountains.  In the rain shadow of this high desert area, an impending storm gives the promise of rain for these barren heights.  But as the years accumulate and the memories of what was slide faithfully away like a mist in the morning sun, this high desert becomes one that no one can cross.  And as with all great mysteries, who can explain this?

1)Kellow, "Rationalization of the Plant: Study of the Line between Miles City, MT and Portland, OR" 1978.  https://www.milwaukeeroadarchives.com/EconomicStudies/EconomicStudies.htm

2)"Freight Railroad Traffic & Intermodal Volumes (1890 - Present) 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Into Shadows and Purple Haze

It's a perfect summer day in 2004 as the Milwaukee's former mainline pushes west past Jefferson Island (MP 1474).  On this early summer day, the grasses are still mostly green, the sky a Kodachrome Blue, and the line-side poles still mark the way west along with remains of overhead catenary.  The Rockies await just a few miles beyond, shrouded in a purple haze that hides their splendor and size.  Beneath these big skies, even the Rockies seem small.

Only 15 miles separate these two photos.  The first, near Jefferson Island at MP 1474.  The second, near Vendome, MT at MP 1489.  The former path of the transcon is clear even in the shifting sands of years that have long passed by.  

The Milwaukee Road ventures into one of the rain shadows of its path West here.  On the east side of the Rockies and Pipestone Pass, the land is parched for much of the year.  The vast State of Montana resembles more of a high desert here than the rich and productive Golden Triangle where wheat grows miles to the northeast.  Today, BNSF moves 100 car unit grain trains out of those fields.  These are filled by enormous concrete silos housing the State's grain, but that's not the way it used to be.  Though the summer days are long in this part of the country, the years are short: Federal Yellow hoppers and Ribside boxcars used to be common sightings in the movement of wheat toward ports on the west coast.  In 1977, this traffic accounted for about 11% of the total tonnage moved west of Miles City [1]. 

Now, everything including the transcon itself just vanish into that consuming purple haze.

1)  Sol, M.  "Cars and Tonnage West of Miles City"  http://milwaukeeroadarchives.com/EconomicStudies/EconomicStudies.htm

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Something to Ride Against

"In Montana they have blizzards that freeze cattle standin' in their tracks.  An' horses freeze to death.  They tell me that a drivin' sleet in the face with the mercury forty below is somethin' to ride against"  Light of the Western Stars, by Zane Grey

There are hundreds and hundreds of miles that now lay behind us in this journey to the Milwaukee's West.  Alcazar is located 1467.5 miles from Chicago's Union Station, along these shores of the Jefferson River, winding along with the remains of the Northern Pacific.  Like many of the haunts that have rolled by in the run west, it is a name with no place - lying both in the shadows of the Rockies and the fading memories of a Nation.  

Here the Rocky Mountains loom ever closer and rise ever higher.  They are aloof and unattainable but ever present and mighty.  The Continental Divide lies ahead and so does the inevitable throttle-up that will hoist tonnage to the top.  

In 2003, America's Resourceful Railroad could be found here by its line side poles and catenary supports that still remained.  It isn't hard to imagine thundering EMDs and GEs howling through a bitter cold sleet.  It's still easy to picture a little Joe pushing through the scene with both catenary raised to knock the ice and improve the electrical contact.  It must have been something to ride against - the real grade will soon come and with it the famous Vendome Loop.  Then the unattainable, aloof Rockies will be topped again.

Aside:  Thanks to everyone who has checked in to see how I'm doing.  I'm doing well these days, thankful for it, and I appreciate you all.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Remembering old Days of Strength

The days long past - those were days of strength.  The winds blew the grasses of Montana plains and hot winds raced down the rain shadows of the Rockies in those days.  Overhead the skies were blue to the horizons or clouded over with the power of racing summer storms.  Between the heavens and the earth were the unbroken wires that made America's last Transcontinental Railroad unique in the lexicon of US transportation.

The hum of traction motors could be heard rolling tonnage west to the Continental Divide in those days.  Alongside the Northern Pacific and the Jefferson River it chased the grade laid out for it decades before.  These were days of strength: days when steel wheels rolled over the steel rails and the thought of weakness awaiting at the door seemed like something impossible.  How could the end of strength come?  How could the overhead power that supplied 5000Hp Little Joes ever grow cold?  How could a Thunderhawk no longer run, nor the hum of electric motors and blow of cooling fans ever cease?  But those were old days of strength and for everything and for each of us, it seems they are but a breath.

Rolling into Sappington (above) the Milwaukee is 1462 miles from Chicago. As the old bridge that spans the right of way clearly shows, she is under wire.  Here are the vestiges of strength in a system designed not to fail.  Designed to be better than the others, to go farther, and to achieve more.  Like a runner trained for a race, the remains still show an athlete ready to run the gauntlet.

And like an athlete, the days of strength are fleeting.  I sit as I write this in a hospital bed and remember the days of youth when, not long ago it seems, I awoke with the sun and could rely on my own strength to achieve the goals of the day.  I did not hurt, I did not stumble, and I was not thoughtful that those were days that would be fleeting.  Now I gaze upon the relics of the past that loom large in these photos and haunt my mind and ponder how days change so swiftly.  The sun rises one morning, and on that very day, everything changes in an instant.

But be of good courage dear reader, it is better to know of our weakness so that the we may seek where real and lasting Strength come from.  The Lord can and will sustain you with real Strength and real Courage even when days of strength close.  Now, I think I appreciate those days of old even more, and appreciate the gift of walking through them even as I look back and wonder at how even the mighty have fallen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Will there be any freight trains in Heaven?

The smile of a child - for them there is no other time than the now.  There is no worry of what will come tomorrow, no question of events beyond their control and out of their minds eye, no concern.  There is just delight in the present and a smile on the lips.  

I'm older, the years have held both disappointment but also joy.  Nonetheless there are a few things that still bring a smile for life in the moment.  Welcome to the KCS Meridian Speedway, two GP38s and an inbound local, finished with the switching moves for the day.  It's a simple thing that I ran across one recent afternoon, but it still makes me smile just like a child.

Maybe it's the longevity of the two-cycle diesels and the rush of the hot exhaust as the little train hustles east?  Perhaps it conjures some distant memory of a little boy standing trackside in some other place, some other time?  To that little boy, even the broken red glass of a railroad crossing that had seen better days was a thing of fascination.  Whatever the reason, the GP38s make me smile like that little boy and bring to mind the words of a long forgotten Jimmy Rogers song.

"Will there be any freight trains in heaven?"

Thursday, February 09, 2017

To Dreams that Fade in the Night

Rolling westbound with the NP line to Butte, Willow Creek MT lies just over 1456 miles from Mile 0, the place where the great journey west with the Milwaukee began.  Under wires since crossing through Harlowton, the line winds ever westward through the rain shadow of the Rockies and now past the elevator that still stands along the NP.  The rails through Willow Creek are misleading but they let the imagination dream dreams of things long departed.  

Fueled by the instant feedback and fast returns of modern culture, we sit in a world that is defined by the fast pace of change.  We gaze at the small stage presented by our phones instead of the heavens, and respond to a tweet instead of bigger questions.  A question like how the wind moves the grasses on the grand prairies, or the eternal emptiness of the skies above where the sun runs its course like a Champion each day.  

The land of the Western Extension lies spread out along this much Grander Stage, where old transcons meet and dream dreams of yesterday.  Where C/30 flatbeds are parked next to inefficient grain silos that can not load unit trains, and the dry grasses of summer sway in a hot, gentle wind.  Here the smell of old grain wafts across the passersby and it seems inconceivable that SD45s will not soon break the silence with a time freight. Thoughts and dreams of a different time, that seem somehow out of place in this one.