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What if the Milwaukee Road didn't de-energize the Pacific Extension

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NeueAmtrakCalifornia

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One of the biggest reasons the Milwaukee Road went under was the decision to de-energize the Pacific Extension and go to diesels during the 1970s. That decade was when the 1973 Oil Crisis happened, which caused freight railroads like the Southern Pacific, Burlington Northern, Santa Fe and Union Pacific to seriously consider electrifying at least parts of their main lines (of course by the time the studies concluded oil prices went back to normal and thus stuck with diesels). It actually made more sense economically for the Milwaukee Road to keep their electrics during that time, although they would have to replace their decades-old fleet with European-style electric locomotives soon (as American electric locomotive manufacturing pretty much went moribund) and even convert from 3000 V DC to 25 kV 60 Hz AC. Had Milwaukee Road kept their electrics, they could have survived at least past 1986 and into the 1990s, perhaps even into the 2000s, if not today.
 

ehbowen

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I'm not an expert on the Milwaukee Road (I'm a much bigger Santa Fe fan), but from everything I've seen their accounting and decision making was a comedy of errors. The decision you mention was key...I don't have documentation on this, but I've heard on another forum that General Electric was hurting for business in all sectors around 1970. Apparently they went to the Milwaukee Road and offered a proposal for "closing the gap"...electrifying their main line between Avery, ID and Othello, WA which would have included all of the necessary modern (well, for 1970) electrical equipment and custom-designed electric locomotives, probably a derivative of their Universal series Diesels. To sweeten the pot, and since they knew the Milwaukee was on the verge of bankruptcy anyhow, they offered to finance the whole deal through GE Credit.

However, at about the same time (very early 1970s), copper prices spiked. Milwaukee's management looked at the prospect of cannibalizing their existing 500+ miles of electrification and got dollar signs in their eyes. The rest is history; the wires came down...but by the time they came down, copper prices had crashed back to normal and the sheikhs reset the gas pumps.

Milwaukee was bleeding cash...but they didn't have a good idea of where. Apparently their accounting department was double-counting expenses (but not revenues) for the Pacific Extension. To anyone reading the financial report summaries (and not digging deeper), it appeared that the Pacific Extension was a financial sinkhole. So management pushed to abandon it, and did...only to find out that, once the decision was made, the accounting was in error and it had been one of the only profitable portions of the railroad....

I have to say that Milwaukee wasn't alone. There was an awful lot of short-sighted thinking going on then. And now.
 

MikefromCrete

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The Milwaukee Pacific Extension was one northern transcontinental too many. It would be gone no matter what kind of locomotives were leading its trains.
 

neroden

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Mike has strong views on this, but he's wrong. With electric traction and competent management, quite likely one of the other northern transcons would have been cut instead; either the NP or the GN.

The NP got downgraded and mothballed eventually anyway. The GN is probably the worst of the three routes, showing the problems with making national policy decisions by the random acts of private CEOs.
 

Devil's Advocate

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The Milwaukee Pacific Extension was one northern transcontinental too many. It would be gone no matter what kind of locomotives were leading its trains.
Doubtful it would have survived intact past the mid-1990's consolidation blaze that burned off branch lines and decimated competitive bidding, but improved management and better decision making could have kept them in the running to become part of another conglomerate.
 

NeueAmtrakCalifornia

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Doubtful it would have survived intact past the mid-1990's consolidation blaze that burned off branch lines and decimated competitive bidding, but improved management and better decision making could have kept them in the running to become part of another conglomerate.
Canadian Pacific would be obvious but it's likely going to be redundant with their own Canadian transcon so maybe it could go to Union Pacific instead (it would give them a Northern transcon to compete with BNSF's counterpart) although it's unknown if either would be willing to maintain the electric tracks, especially with double stacks though I could expect MILW to rebuild tunnels and bridges to 7.5m to accommodate double stacks during the 25 kV conversion
 
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A great description of the poor management of the Milwaukee Road is THE NATION PAYS AGAIN by Thomas Ploss. He was a lawyer who worked for the Milwaukee Road during its final years. He attributes the problems of the Pacific Extension to the GN and NP who refused to let the Milwaukee get the long-haul for freight. One condition of the CB&Q, NP and GN merger was to open additional gateways to exchange traffic and allow the Milwaukee to get longer hauls but Ploss discovered the BN had no intention of honoring this agreement. He wanted the Milwaukee seek damages against the BN and force them to honor the agreement but at that time the leaders of the railroad were convinced the best action would be to seek inclusion into the BN. This was one of the options in the BN merger but the BN had no desire to absorb the Milwaukee into their system.
 

toddinde

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A great description of the poor management of the Milwaukee Road is THE NATION PAYS AGAIN by Thomas Ploss. He was a lawyer who worked for the Milwaukee Road during its final years. He attributes the problems of the Pacific Extension to the GN and NP who refused to let the Milwaukee get the long-haul for freight. One condition of the CB&Q, NP and GN merger was to open additional gateways to exchange traffic and allow the Milwaukee to get longer hauls but Ploss discovered the BN had no intention of honoring this agreement. He wanted the Milwaukee seek damages against the BN and force them to honor the agreement but at that time the leaders of the railroad were convinced the best action would be to seek inclusion into the BN. This was one of the options in the BN merger but the BN had no desire to absorb the Milwaukee into their system.
It’s a great book. Sound management in the ‘60s could have saved the Milwaukee. A Milwaukee, C&NW, Rock Island merger done right, and early enough, might have given the Pacific Extension enough traffic to be successful. GE’s offer to finance the updating of electrifying and closing the gap would have given the Milw a modern, electrified railway. The Milw had contracts for cheap hydroelectric power that would have been a huge game changer during the energy crisis years of the 1970s. The Milw could have kept a piece of the action when Tideflats was converted to a container port. My view is, from studying this issue, that corruption and stupidity killed the Milw. Even the embargo of the Pacific Extension was a huge mistake. We lost some valuable rail infrastructure that might have seemed redundant in a country of 175 million, belching out greenhouse gas like there’s no tomorrow, but a country of 350 million facing a climate catastrophe desperately needs. Same goes for Erie Lackawanna. We need to get our heads unstuck from our ... when it comes to rail policy in this country. So dumb.
 

NeueAmtrakCalifornia

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A great description of the poor management of the Milwaukee Road is THE NATION PAYS AGAIN by Thomas Ploss. He was a lawyer who worked for the Milwaukee Road during its final years. He attributes the problems of the Pacific Extension to the GN and NP who refused to let the Milwaukee get the long-haul for freight. One condition of the CB&Q, NP and GN merger was to open additional gateways to exchange traffic and allow the Milwaukee to get longer hauls but Ploss discovered the BN had no intention of honoring this agreement. He wanted the Milwaukee seek damages against the BN and force them to honor the agreement but at that time the leaders of the railroad were convinced the best action would be to seek inclusion into the BN. This was one of the options in the BN merger but the BN had no desire to absorb the Milwaukee into their system.
BN already has 2 northern transcons (the GN and NP), and 3 Cascade crossings (GN's Stevens Pass crossing, NP's Stampede Pass crossing, and SP&S's Columbia River crossing into Portland), and MILW's Snoqualmie Pass crossing parallels the NP's route. Though it makes me wonder what if the Union Pacific took over the Milwaukee Road, as it would give them a Northern transcon (complete once UP gets Chicago & Northwestern) to compete with Burlington Northern (and later BNSF).

It’s a great book. Sound management in the ‘60s could have saved the Milwaukee. A Milwaukee, C&NW, Rock Island merger done right, and early enough, might have given the Pacific Extension enough traffic to be successful. GE’s offer to finance the updating of electrifying and closing the gap would have given the Milw a modern, electrified railway. The Milw had contracts for cheap hydroelectric power that would have been a huge game changer during the energy crisis years of the 1970s. The Milw could have kept a piece of the action when Tideflats was converted to a container port. My view is, from studying this issue, that corruption and stupidity killed the Milw. Even the embargo of the Pacific Extension was a huge mistake. We lost some valuable rail infrastructure that might have seemed redundant in a country of 175 million, belching out greenhouse gas like there’s no tomorrow, but a country of 350 million facing a climate catastrophe desperately needs.
MILW Pacific & Montana electric might have even served as a role model for other freight railroads to electrify in the future (I know BNSF's Southern Transcon is low-hanging fruit cuz is has a lot of traffic and it might be busy enough to warrant electrification), though now they're going with battery locomotives cuz they feel that overhead wires would mess with double-stacks but this proves otherwise.
 
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The Milwaukee Road's electrification - and really the entire Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension - was/is considered a novelty. Hence the enduring interest and "what if" speculation even though such scenarios are contrary to reality. How a railroad which could not even install CTC, power switches, lineside detectors, adequate sidings, or even continuous ABS on its main line could spring for new locomotives (and likely a whole new electrical distribution system) boggles the mind - even for the 650 or so miles under wire - which was not even continuous (that is, the "Gap" from Avery to Othello was never electrified). Of course those who fantasize about this will tell you they have crunched the numbers and it was totally doable.

Figures lie, and liars figure, of course, but there are constants in all the pro-electrification proposals: Ignoring the greatest costs, which are train delay, locomotive dwell, and restricting a large number of assets to a limited area of trackage. For electrification to work, the electrified network needs to be expansive and cover just about all the possible routes, or be a fixed single route usually with a single commodity. In the original posting by D.S. Lewith, he/she gives a link to a map of proposed electrification in the 1970s. Using the BN Powder River Basin to Lincoln, NE route as an example: During the height of coal movement it was not unusual to see 60 or more coal trains (loads and empties) on the route from Alliance to Lincoln. Today, most of these trains are 125 cars or more, and operate with distributed power. Just the thought of having to modify the entire locomotive consist of ALL the trains at Lincoln (from electric to diesel electric and vice versa) again boggles the mind. The amount of yard capacity to accommodate all the trains in the terminal would be huge, as would the locomotive fleet (of both types) to be kept on hand to be available to maintain fluidity. Plus, of course, the personnel to make all these power modifications. The cost is simply overwhelming. Same for the UP proposal with the electrification starting and ending at North Platte. 100 trains a day changing power? NOT. The Milwaukee Road would not have this volume of trains, but electrification still stranded a lot of locomotive assets on a very limited amount of track (Harlowton to Avery; Othello to Seattle/Tacoma). That meant power modifications for the "Gap" (or running the electric power through dead), and at the end or beginning of the electrification.
An additional explanation is here: Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension: The myth of superiority
Here's another take on the costs of electrification proponents don't mention: http://energyskeptic.com/2016/electrifi ... ight-rail/

With regard to NeueAmtrakCalifornia's statement, "then they could have sold the northern transcon (including the Pacific Extension) to Union Pacific, thus giving them a competing northern transcon to compete against BNSF": I'm sure UP would argue that they compete quite well with BNSF in this corridor right now, thank you. Not only that, compared to "transcontinental" routes to and from California, BNSF's route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest has much more competition. Not only UP via Nampa, Green River, and North Platte, but also UP/CP via Eastport/Kingsgate. The port of Vancouver, BC handles more container traffic (and more tonnage overall) than does Seattle and Tacoma combined, and both CN and CP offer intermodal service from Vancouver to the Upper Midwest of the U.S. In addition, CN has service to middle of America from the burgeoning port at Prince Rupert, BC. But none of this matters, really, because even if there were not all those alternatives to BNSF, the Milwaukee wouldn't be around because the primary reason it's not around is that it was the high-cost route. The Milwaukee didn't electrify for no reason; it did so because its operating profile had horrendous grades. It also had a very poor and usually exceptionally circuitous branch line/feeder "network."
Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension: The myth of superiority

While proponents of the Milwaukee Road electrification and the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension in general go to great lengths to explain why things turned out the way they didn't, it's easier to just focus on the operational deficiencies to easily grasp why things happened as they did.
 

neroden

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It's true that the Milwaukee had an exceptionally poor branch line network -- *that was what drove it bankrupt* according to the forensic accounting.

If not for the complete mismanagement, they would have noticed this, gotten rid of the hopeless branch lines, put in intermodal yards, finished the electrification on the mainline *which was being offered with subsidy and financing as a demonstration*, installed good signalling, and simply run the cheapest line-haul railroad following the massive increase in diesel prices during the 1970s oil crisis. But of course they were completely mismanaged, not least because they were looking at bogus accounting. But also because they didn't see the oil crisis coming. They wouldn't have been a big profit center -- no railroad was, since roads started being federally subsidized -- but they would have done a lot better than they actually did.

That article Mike likes to link to is full of half-truths and misleading statements. As someone who analyzes financials for railroads, I can say it's not right. The assessments shortly after the bankruptcy -- that Milwaukee management were complete nincompoops -- is correct.

Had the NP line been electrified first, then it would not have made sense to maintain the Milwaukee. But it wasn't.

The GN line is essentially awful because it goes to the wrong intermediate points, and it's bluntly too far north; it survived due to the caprices of short-term-thinking private management decisions in the past. It has a fatal flaw in the Seattle area too, which is still going to kill the GN route entirely -- the part built on the beach just north of Seattle. It's not viable, and will require an entirely new route. Most people involved, including advocates, are choosing to stay in denial and not to admit this right now.

I don't know if any private management could ever have done the right thing.

In fact, I'm not sure a national rail authority acting in 1972 would have been able to look forward to the 1973 oil crisis and see what ought to have been done. I doubt they would have forseen the rise of intermodal and the decline of cars full of rock, either, which renders grades much less of an issue.

I do know that the necessary information was out there. The oil crisis happened essentially on schedule based on Hubbert's peak oil prediction from the 1950s. The pollution problems with coal were understood by the 1960s. Containerization started in the 1950s.

If we'd nationalized the railroads in the 1940s as Keynes advised, and had a government capable of recognizing the upcoming oil crisis in the 1960s, we would have seen very different decisions. (The government was already promoting containerization.) We would probably have a composite line made up of pieces of the existing lines, much as you generally get during mergers. And it would have been electrified. And passenger service would have been maintained. The Milwaukee route would have been used on the Puget Sound end at least as far as Spokane, since it is the best route *there*. The NP route is the best route for serving intermediate-point customers through most of Montana and probably to Minneapolis. The Milwaukee route is of course still used from Minneapolis to Chicago.

The GN route might have been maintained east of Spokane as a sort of express freight bypass, or it might have been abandoned entirely. It has bad intermediate traffic, and multiple sections where the recurring maintenance expenses exceed all bounds of sanity, including the part on the beach / in the ocean, but also Devil's Lake. (Of course they get government subsidies for both!) The preference by successive private managements for the GN route is extreme narrow-minded short-term thinking; sure, it's the shortest, but it isn't the cheapest when you look holistically. I have to attribute it to the management of the successive companies typically having GN heritage.

But, this is the US. We never do things in a rational or connected-up way; it's just a giant bodge-up of individual decisions based on short-term thinking.

In policy terms from a national perspective, there are much worse ones -- just within the area of rail policy -- than the Milwaukee Road abandonments. Including the sell-off of Conrail, the failure to repair the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, the loss of the southern approaches to Denver Union Station, the dismantling of the Bay Bridge streetcar system, the teardowns of the Els in New York City, and more.

The Milwaukee Road stands out for sheer management incompetence and accounting dishonesty from a private for-profit perspective, but only among railroads. In the general corporate world, we have Enron, Worldcom, and any number of other examples of management driving a plausible business into the ground with accounting dishonesty or mismanagement. In railcar manufacturing, we have Bombardier's self-destruction just a few years ago.
 

MilwaukeeRoadLover

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Did the fact that Milwaukee Road had ability to build it's own cars and locomotives give them an advantage? Or does every railroad have this? Maintenance and product design must differentiate service...no?
 

Seaboard92

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Did the fact that Milwaukee Road had ability to build it's own cars and locomotives give them an advantage? Or does every railroad have this? Maintenance and product design must differentiate service...no?
I don't think that is any factor to the decline of the Pacific Extension in the diesel era they were buying completely off the shelf products. I don't recall them having any homebuilt locomotives. Their homebuilt cars also weren't exactly that great. How many of those do you see still running today?

Now I will give you the fact that there were far less of those than there were of Budd or Pullman products. But also consider the fact towards the 50s they had shifted more to Pullman products. The Super Domes are, the Olympian Hiawatha's Skytops were Pullman products. Now a few of the coaches here and there may have been Milwaukee products but most were Pullman products.

I've always been able to tell a Milwaukee branch line car because it has ribbing very similar to the Soviet Bloc.

A lot of railroads have had a lot of different abilities over the years. The New York Central built their first streamliner the Mercury from used commuter rolling stock. They also had a robust R&D department in Collinwood, OH that was always looking for innovations.

The Pennsylvania Railroad also built a lot of their own steam engines. But for the "Standard Railroad of the World" they sure had unstandard boilers as that's a major issue with restoring their steam these days. Now the Altoona shops were and still aren't a joke by any means. They are capable of building a lot.
 
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It's true that the Milwaukee had an exceptionally poor branch line network -- *that was what drove it bankrupt* according to the forensic accounting.
........................
we have Bombardier's self-destruction just a few years ago.
Re: neroden’s latest “Drive-By” treatise:

.

Blaming Milwaukee Road mismanagement is the ultimate copout. If a railroad has value, someone (even if not associated with that railroad) will see it and save it. The Rock Island is the perfect example. Even the thousands of miles of redundant branch lines couldn’t permanently sink the Rock’s route from Chicago to Council Bluffs, the Twin Cities to the Gulf, and the Golden State route. Strong routes survive, and weak, high-cost routes – like the Milwaukee’s Pacific Extension – don’t.



The ridiculous statement about how the “rise of intermodal” would “render grades much less an issue” is reminiscent of the question, “What weighs more: A pound of lead or a pound of feathers?” Especially relevant now when stack trains can be in excess of 12,000 tons, and that while coal demand is not going to increase, it’s not going away completely, and that ag products trains – from wheat to potash – will always be there and with them their unit train weight of 16,000 to 20,000 tons. That’s why the Great Northern (and now BNSF) route between the Upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest with no major grades westbound versus four for the Milwaukee Road (five if destined to Columbia River ports – the primary grain export location in the Pacific Northwest) is still the major reason the Milwaukee isn’t around, and would have been exacerbate by the Staggers Act deregulation of 1980 when the lower cost route could have simply outpriced the Milwaukee. But they were so inefficient, they didn’t make it that far.



Of course, the blather about the “fatal flaw” in the GN’s route along “the beach” “north of Seattle” is not explained. Global warming and sea rise? Landslides? Well, every route is subject to challenges, like if Mount Rainier would erupt; and then there’s that Yellowstone Caldera thing that would certainly take out the former NP and Milwaukee (if it was around) routes. Back in reality, the current route has been in service for 130 years. True, mudslides can be a problem, and they’ve been largely made worse by intense development on the hills directly over the track. But slide-mitigation projects have dramatically reduced the number of service interruptions in the area in recent years, and there is no reason to believe that – as is the case everywhere else – technology will allow further amelioration of such threats and address new ones.



That “The NP route is the best route for serving intermediate-point customers through most of Montana” and “The GN line is essentially awful because it goes to the wrong intermediate points, and it's bluntly too far north” is a stellar display of ignorance about just about everything. The vast superiority of the GN route versus the NP through Montana notwithstanding, the stark reality is that no route now or in the past nor in the future across Montana exists primary to “intermediate-point” customers because there just aren’t that many of them. The goal of these railroads was/is to get the traffic across Montana as quickly and cheaply as possible, and the GN route is far and away the best way to do that. But that reality aside, the ex-GN routes are hardly devoid of origin traffic. In Montana, 21 of the 25 existing “shuttle” grain elevators (100 cars or more) are on ex-GN lines, and only 3 on ex-NP (none on the Milwaukee, and 1 on the former Soo Line). In North Dakota, 26 of the 58 shuttle facilities are ex-GN routes, versus only 12 on the NP. Today, BNSF generates about a merchandise train per day operating west from Shelby with traffic from Great Falls, Havre, and the CP interchange at Sweet Grass. On the ex-NP line, Montana Rail Link regularly operates none of its own trains west of Thompson Falls, nor any merchandise trains west of Missoula; that traffic is simply handled in BNSF run through trains. Between Missoula and Laurel, actual online traffic – including the UP/BNSF interchange at Garrison – is handled by trains that operate no more than once daily each way. This reality is why when MRL was created in 1987, part of the agreement was (and is) that BN (now BNSF) would guarantee a certain level of traffic on the route to ensure its viability – even during significant downturns in the economy. The concern was that since BN retained is own route between Mossmain/Laurel and Shelby – a route cheaper to operate westward unit trains on versus the MRL – that future management might simply elect not to route traffic on the former NP line due to its higher operating cost. East of Billings, on-line origin/destination non-unit train traffic is easily handled by one train each way, often less than daily. So, the reality is that there never was or isn’t a bonanza of traffic in Southern Montana that would be worth routing most of the through traffic over a higher-cost route.



Probably the most reality-free statement in “neroden”’s blather is “The GN route might have been maintained east of Spokane as a sort of express freight bypass, or it might have been abandoned entirely. It has bad intermediate traffic, and multiple sections where the recurring maintenance expenses exceed all bounds of sanity, including the part on the beach / in the ocean, but also Devil's Lake. (Of course they get government subsidies for both!)” Of course, this is reference to investment by the State of Washington (and Federal grants) to mitigate mudslides between Seattle and Everett, and the paltry amount the State of North Dakota pitched in to raise the BNSF main line between Churchs Ferry and Devils Lake. First of all, both involve investment in routes specifically for passenger trains, and BNSF doesn’t operate passenger trains, so obviously these investments by government entities do nothing to show that the routes could not or would not have been maintained without them. The fact that governments subsidize all other forms of transportation much more than freight rail notwithstanding, actually, the contrary is true. Projects or service interruptions involving passenger trains make the news because such trains are available to the public on a day-to-day basis, especially in this world of social media. Those related solely to freight-only routes – not so much. But that doesn’t mean that Mullan tunnel didn’t collapse in 2009 and was out of service for over a month or that a bluff between Miles City and Forsyth doesn’t want to slide into the Yellowstone River every late spring and close the railroad for several days to a week. You’re just less-likely to hear about it. With regard to the Devils Lake comment, there is no recurring maintenance (versus anywhere else along the route as the track has been raised to higher than the lake can ever be), and the government contribution amounts to between 1.5 and 3 percent of the total multi-billion-dollar investment BNSF made during the Bakken Oil Boom. That contribution was only one-third of the total cost of raising the track above Devils Lake, but an incredibly small part of what BNSF spent to basically rebuild the entire railroad between Fargo and Minot via Grand Forks, including new ballast, new rail, a completely new signal system with CTC, and adding and/or lengthening many sidings to create a second main line. This was done in addition to double-tracking most of the route between Minot and Williston, adding yard capacity in Montana, and adding more double track (actually 2 MT CTC) and high-speed crossovers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Again, with reality as our guide, these investments all show continuing commitment to the Northern Transcontinental route (much of it being the ex-GN line), and acknowledgement of its continued operational superiority. Of course, “neroden” has a made-up response for this, too: “I have to attribute it to the management of the successive companies typically having GN heritage.” Yes. What else could it be? Fifty years after the BN merger, 63 years after the Wyer report outlining the superiority of the GN route, and nearly 120 years after the first attempted merger at the turn of the 20th Century. Translation: “neroden” is right, and everyone else – from James J. Hill to Warren Buffet and everyone in between – got it wrong. And wow, those GN guys running the show at BNSF today have to be REALLY OLD.



Strong routes survive. Weak routes, don’t. This reality has played out for years. In addition, strong routes encourage investment as investment increases efficiency whereas keeping sub-optimum routes alive is relatively costly and never can achieve the efficiency of the optimum route. The Milwaukee Pacific Extension is the poster child of a route not worth retaining with its numerous steep grades, poor feeder network, and lack of online business and service exclusivity. Just like Raton Pass or Tennessee Pass and others. Not an anomaly. Not a mystery. Just a reality.
 
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