Hidden in the Trees


 MP1613.1, Ravenna, MT.  Substation 9

 I once met the man who owned the old Substation at Ravenna.  In one of those strange twists of history, so I'm told, it was supposed to be torn down and sold for scrap as the bricks had value.  But the original sale didn't work, the scrapper never came and it remains standing near the howling roar of I90 to this day. I90 is just one part of  the U.S. system that moves upwards of 90% of freight by truck and highway.  But tucked in amongst the tall pines like a mirage, Ravenna looks out blankly towards that interstate and shouts quietly back about a different time.

The year was 1972 and General Electric had put together a unique proposal: completion of the electrified railway portion of the Milwaukee Road.  In a formal proposal, offered by GE itself ("Proposal for the Completion of the Electrified Railway Operation of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company") via the Locomotive Products Department, the proposal laid out the expected cash savings from completion of the plan from 1974 through 2003.  With a 2.7% growth rate in railroad traffic, the estimated savings (after taxes) was $114M.  With a 5% growth rate, $203M.  Perhaps in an era where we routinely hear of costs in the billions of dollars, it's worth noting that $203M in 1972 dollars would be worth about $900M in 2003, and $1.5B today.  Before tax savings were essentially calculated as double those values.

Important to the plan was the completion and closure of the 'gap' that existed between Othello, WA and Avery, ID as well as the annual lease charge for 44 electric locomotives to be combined with the on-hand Little Joes.  General Electric estimated that the combined fleet would equal or exceed 90 diesel-electrics in both "horsepower and tractive effort."  The plan also included upgrading of the current substations, like the one above at Ravenna.

As expected, the traffic did come as the Milwaukee gained access to ports through the BN merger, and yet, the proposed upgrade to electrification did not.  Instead of the beginning of a new era of electrification, 1974 would mark the end.  Ravenna is just one of the reminders of what was and what could have been, but it is a very visible one that has overwatched the strange twists of history for more than 100 years.  

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