Monday, June 22, 2009

Electroexecution of the Milwaukee Road

Every once in a while I'll stop reading articles and pick up a book. Sometimes its a book I started but put down for reasons unremembered. Recently I opened up Internal Combustion again. I highly suggest the read, especially the chapters on the Milwaukee Road. It's fascinating to see how efficient and cost effective the Road was before you factored in the corruption and construction mischief.
An ICC investigation concluded that the total cost, more than quadruple the orginal estimate, could not be justified by any adequate engineering or traffic surveys that were made. On the contrary, everything indicates that the project was the result of rivalry between powerful groups. Competitor railroads immediately began snatching up land to sell to the Milwaukee at severely inflated levels or started calculated bidding wars to drive up the prices.
It's sad really that more lines hadn't been electrified and that the true sustainable value of this route was not emulated in places inside of the United States. Ultimately it was in Europe, and they enjoy the success they built after our lead with the MR.

But here are a few key passages on pg 188 that stood out in the book to me on how the Milwaukee died after its tough beginning.
JP Kiley was a Milwaukee vice president determined to eliminate all electric lines. The reasons, Kiley presumed, would be cost, technological obsolescence and lesser capability. This was the assumption.

Laurence Wylie was an electrical engineer devoted to clean, electric trains. Wylie was appointed by Kiley in 1948 to oversee to oversee the dismantling of all electric. Having worked with electric rail since 1919, Wylie balked. On his own volition, Wylie ordered comparative studies of electric trains versus diesel. His finding contradicted Kiley's theories. The old electric could outpull the new diesels and run cheaper, dollar for dollar. In fact, on one typical run to the West Coast, three diesels were shown to annually cost more than $104,000 extra. In mountainous terrain, diesels fared even worse. Newer electrics constructed by GE in the 1950's for the Soviet Union showed still better results. These powerful new GE electrics, nicknamed little Joes for Joeseph Stalin, were almost twice as economical and powerful as the GM diesels, especially on long runs.

For example, six Electro Motive Division F diesels were needed to haul 3,300 tons, and five electro motive division GP9s were required for about the same chore. But that same tonnage was easily pulled by just four old GE freight electrics. The electrics also beat the gas burning locomotives on flatter terrain. Kiley dismissed Wylie's findings and instead relied on his own engineering tests. in large measure provided by the Electro Motive Division. Whylie, who had worked his way up from a Montana trainmaster to a district superintendent, could not understand why the engineering reports did not jibe. In his campaign to replace electrics with GM diesels, Kiley was constantly butressed by GM's glowing engineering reports. Finally, Wylie realized the newest diesels were being compared not with the newest high speed electrics, but thirty year old electrics. Moreover, other data from General Motors Electro Motive Division was constantly being skewed in favor of Diesel.

Who was heading up GM's Electro Motive Divison efforts in the late 1940's? It was Dana Kettering, the son of Charles Kettering, and the same inventive genius who'd helped Gray and Davis Electrical Engineers develop the starter battery array that mysteriously undercut Thomas Edison's attempt to create an electric vehicle with Henry Ford. In that instance, the testing had also been challenged as disingenuous.
It's amazing what you can do when you don't have to carry around your own powerplant. It's also amazing how comparing apples and oranges continues to allow people to make decisions.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

MILW's problem was that they had some thing like a 50 mile gap between the electrified districts, other than that later was book cooking management that dewired them. The amazing thing is that the MILW had more track under wire than the PRR.

arcady said...

The gap between the two electric districts really didn't help matters, and neither did their original "cost saving" measure of using wooden poles. The wires themselves pretty much don't wear at all with carbon strips on the pantographs, and the power conversion hardware was slowly getting replaced (I think they even had a few solid-state substations toward the end). But in the end, it was really just a structural inability to plan for the long term that led to the de-electrification and the degrading of what was the fastest transcontinental line into one giant slow order, and its eventual abandonment.

By the way, are you sure about the MILW having more electrified miles than the PRR? PRR had quite a lot beyond NY-Washington and Philadephia-Harrisburg: there was also Harrisburg-Perryville, Trenton-Harrisburg, and some secondary lines in New Jersey. And many of the lines had two or more tracks, while the MILW was single tracked for most of its length. In any case, though, those two were the biggest examples of serious mainline electrification in the US, along with the Virginian. Most of the rest were either suburban or terminal electrifications, or short tunnel lines.

Jon said...

Finally, Wylie realized the newest diesels were being compared not with the newest high speed electrics, but thirty year old electrics. Moreover, other data from General Motors Electro Motive Division was constantly being skewed in favor of Diesel.

Sounds like how Randal O'Toole does it.

arcady said...

Ah, good old GM EMD. Now known as Electro Motive Diesels. And yet, the DB class 101, from which the ALP-46 is derived, is twice as powerful as the SD70, which is one of EMD's most powerful locomotives, while being smaller, cheaper to maintain, and more flexible since it has four axles rather than six. Who knows, maybe the advantages of electrification might convince BNSF or UP to electrify some of their mountain lines once the recession ends, traffic picks up, and funding for capital improvements becomes available.

Christopher said...

Supposedly after the MILW abandoned the Pacific Division it was discovered that this was one of the few parts of the MILW making any money even with the de-electrification and poor maintenance.

I still think what might have been had the MILW at least put minimal maintenance into their network and not removed the electrification.

The '73 oil crisis might have spurred them to fill the 50 mile gap in Eastern Washington. The later boom in fast intermodal container traffic would have given a good reason to make the line as fast as possible. It might have even been enough (along with the two oil crises) to justify extending the electrification the entire length of the line.

The big question is what would have happened with the consolidation of the past 30 years or so? Would the MILW have been one of the acquiring railroads? Would they have remained independent? Would they have been swallowed up by BNSF, UP, CN, or CP?

Anonymous said...

... and how much would it cost to build the infrastructure necessary for transcontinental electrification for freight? With the US power grid in such poor condition, how will you move freight during the all-to-frequent brown-outs we have experienced? How do you provide for refrigeration on those trains during those power outage conditions? How much more will RRs spend on the purchase of a new fleet? What is the ROI? Why didn't the RRs insist on electric if the proof is so evident; didn't they have any due diligence responsibilities themselves? There were electric locomotive providers out there - including EMD (with the AEM-7 locomotive), GE, Siemens, ...

Matt Fisher said...

The bad comparisons sound like what O'Toole does indeed. When European countries followed the Milwaukee Road in electrifying, this influence of electrification shut down after de-electrifying. And its timing in de-electrification was bad.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: As stated, electric is cheaper in the long run, and the amortized cost works out in its favour (hence the steady electrification in Europe).

The grid could actually benefit from a deliberate electrification project as the right of way can be used for extra capacity. BruceMc has much to say on this topic.

arcady said...

Why exactly is a new fleet even counted as a cost for the railroads? If the railroad is expanding, or even just staying static, old locomotives need to be replaced with new ones, and one electric can replace two diesels for about the same price. A railroad like BNSF orders at least a couple hundred locomotives in a typical year. How many do they need to start up electric service on, say, LA-Barstow?

As for why railroads haven't electrified yet, well, you have to look at their history so far. Traffic started seriously growing around the 1990s, but that coincided with a period of very cheap oil, so it wasn't a priority, and anyway, it was much more important to build more capacity as quickly as possible to handle the new traffic without meltdowns like the UP had (with delays of up to 6 months). At this point, with higher oil prices and a bit more capacity in their networks, I think they'll start at least thinking about electrification, which BNSF and NS appear to be doing. But also, never underestimate the power of inertia, of "that's how we do it around here." In Russia, the Trans-Siberian is electrified all the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, and indeed you can travel all the way from Glasgow to Vladivostok under wire. I think, though, that ultimately there's going to have to be some government involvement, because private enterprise doesn't really seem to be capable of planning such large infrastructure investments that take so long to pay off. At least, maybe they could find some way to keep the electrification from subjecting the railroads to even higher property taxes.

Anonymous said...

Arcady, the price of a new fleet is a signicant factor. If you worked in the locomotive industry, you would know that electric locomotives are not half the price of diesel-electrics, they are more than diesel-electrics. You don't consider the impact of changing the installed fleet in terms of engineering requirements, manufacturing capability and capacity, parts inventory and availability, services such as training and maintenance, the fact that the current diesel-electric locomotives out there have a life span of 35-40 years on average and are constantly repaired/rebuilt at regular mileage intervals,...

Again, who pays for the other infrastructure required to electrify? Not the RRs; there is an insufficient ROI. When the government starts to support the building of infrastructure to support electrification or high speed rail, you might have a chance to demonstrate and change over a long time period.

arcady said...

Yes, there are definitely going to be costs to switching to electric. But how big are they really? The only things that an electric has that a diesel doesn't is the main transformer, HV breaker, and pantograph hardware. But that's a whole lot less maintenance and moving parts than a diesel engine with all its associated fluids. And maintenance of electric locomotives plus catenary is still cheaper than maintenance of diesels. I think the real problem is that you need a pretty big electrified territory (at least a couple hundred miles) before it starts to make any sense to even bother. You can't be switching locomotives all the time, but a line like Oakland-Sacramento-Reno would make sense, and you'd need enough locomotives to convert a shop to just servicing the electrics. But such an investment is too much for a railroad that has many other smaller projects with much more immediate benefits that it can build to relieve its overburdened network. If you were running the Union Pacific, would you be building electrification or double tracking the Sunset line?

Matt Fisher said...

Arcady: Great. That said, it's possible that I can go from Scotland (but not further up north) to Siberia continuously on electrified rail. Another British area where there is no electrified track is in the Scottish Highlands, and the part of Scotland north of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I don't see electrification as a "luxury we can't afford". I don't understand why they'd get away with using cost to justify reluctance, in the same way they use cost to justify going with BRT as a cheap substitute, or why we should avoid electrification for fear of blackouts. Figures that they continue to do this, and we apparently continue to let them do it, IMHO. The "risk" is not as likely to be significant.

Stephen said...

What this conversation is missing is the details alluded to in the beginning of the post about the origin of the Milwaukee's Pacific Extension. There are two books with titles beginning The Nation Pays, one from the 1920s, another from the 1980s, that explore the regulatory machinations inducing Milwaukee to build to the West Coast. Milwaukee worked as a midwestern connection to the Northern Lines, until the Northern Lines affiliated with, and then began favoring, Burlington. The Pacific Extension, intended to compete with the Northern Lines, became the world's longest branch line, and the electrification a desperation measure to lower its running costs.

Anonymous said...

The MILW was a way for the north western states around the Hill lines(GN,NP,SP&S,CB&Q). They were also dealing with a lot of traffic out of the Port of Seattle to the midwest.

MILW would have made a good fit with UP, for a while even MILW trains were in UP paint.

Speaking of mergers, the WP and the D&RGW would be better off being part of BNSF than UP.

Like wise CNW as part of CN.

Alon Levy said...

The D&RGW ended up owning SP. If it had merged with BNSF, there would be a small UP and a BNSF near-monopoly.

cjh said...

The Milwaukee was, as a result of those inducements to build, always in financial hot water. It failed because it was literally the last transcontinental road, it had powerful enemies (or, at best, powerful forces ready to take advantage of it) and was absolutely, constantly, terribly run.

Christopher, there is almost no chance that the MILW would have been an acquiring railroad even if it hadn't de-electrified. It was basically on its last legs by the 1960s, even worse than the other big freight lines. The whole stupid scheme to de-electrify (and the rejection the GE electric revitalization proposal) was a direct result of the company's miserable financial state which was compounded, of course, by the cost of the de-electrification. The railroads that acquired other railroads were generally in sound financial shape (relatively speaking) like most of the Burlington Northern merger partners (the Great Northern and Burlington in particular).

I know this goes against the technophiliac grain of most people in the "high-tech hubs" but winners aren't rarely the ones with the just the highest tech ideas. Timing, marketing, friends and, of course, government influence are the keys.

Matt Fisher said...

Once great before it was gone. 'Tis a shame. This was a poor time to de-electrify, in my opinion.

Mark said...

The main disadvantage of electrification is the restrictions on locomotive utilization in that electric units can only go where there are overhead wires, but diesel units can go nearly everywhere (except, for instance, tunnels under New York City). Changing power en route and power dwelling waiting for trains to arrive that would receive the new outbound power has a huge cost.

Read more:
http://www.trainweb.org/milwaukeemyths/