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May 7th, 2009
America in Gridlock
[REPORT] Choke Point: Gone Electric -- The Rise and Fall of America's First Electric Freight Line

Rick Karr, Blueprint America correspondent

Regarding our recent piece on freight rail, a viewer commented:

“[Karr] neglected to mention that in Western Europe
most trains are electric, which accelerate more quickly, and don’t
use oil.”

The viewer is right about the basics — electrified trains are powerful, and depending on the source of electricity, can lead to less pollution.

Surprisingly, it was a U.S. railroad that proved the viability of electrified freight rail. Its story says a lot about the way we’ve approached big infrastructure projects over the years.

Late in the 19th Century, The Milwaukee Road found itself in an unenviable position: Five other railroads had already traversed the continent. The remaining available routes connecting the Plains to the West Coast across the Rockies were… less than ideal. The route that was most logical for the Milwaukee Road included a steep climb through the Rocky Mountains near Yellowstone Park, and its locomotives would have to operate in brutal winter cold – extremely difficult conditions for the steam locomotives of the day.

But the Milwaukee Road also found itself in a position to take advantage of new technology. Its five transcontinental competitors thought of trains as the old-fashioned way — the way in which engineers
had been thinking about them since the days of George and Robert Stephenson in Britain. In other words, trains had to haul their own power supply with them, carrying the coal (or wood or oil) that provided the energy, as well as a way to turn that energy into motion.

The alternative was to use the fuel to generate power in one location and transmit that power to the train, which would then only have to turn the power into motion. The Stephensons’ rival, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, tried to make that work, but his pneumatic system was a very inefficient forerunner to electricity and his line abandoned central power generation after just a year.

By the late 19th Century, electrical traction had advanced enough to make this all possible. So the Milwaukee Road dammed waterways near its tracks and installed hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity. It mined copper in the Rockies, and built overhead wires from that copper to carry power to its electric locomotives. What’s more, the railroad helped to pioneer a system in which trains generate energy as they apply their brakes while descending from the mountains –- power that could be pumped back into the overhead wires to help other trains climb the mountains.

All in all, it was a brilliant scheme. Despite its late start, the Milwaukee remained competitive. More importantly – at least from the perspective of this story – it inspired awe and attracted engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world who examined its design and engineering, then rushed home to implement its lessons on other lines.

What happened later wasn’t pretty. Competition from trucks and other railroads put pressure on the Milwaukee Road. In the late 60s, several of its competitors merged, which put even more pressure on
the line. By the early 70s, the railroad had deferred maintenance on the line to the point where it was difficult to compete at all. Finally, in 1973, its board of directors went against the advice of consultants and voted to replace the electric locomotives with diesel units. It also voted to pull down the overhead wires – an
attractive proposition, given that a copper shortage suggested that the line could sell the wires for $10 million as scrap.

It didn’t help. Oil prices soared, which made the diesel option much more expensive. Copper prices fell, which meant the Milwaukee Road generated only $5 million. By 1977, the railroad had filed for bankruptcy and abandoned its tracks from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast.

The Milwaukee Road proved that electrified freight railroads were practical and efficient – as long as management was willing to keep up maintenance on the generators and distribution wires. While European railroads adopted the technology, it’s not the path that other U.S. railroads chose. And even though some freight-rail advocates –- like our viewer and Washington Monthly journalist Phillip Longman –- think electrification would be a good idea today, industry officials disagree. First off, the investment would be huge –- hundreds of billions of dollars nationally. Second, one of the ways in which freight rail has maintained its profitability has been by stacking freight ever higher –- double-decker intermodal cars and triple-decker car carriers. Long story short, it’d be very difficult to build and maintain overhead wires that could accommodate today’s tall trains.

  • Ron Pyke

    That’s astonishing.
    So let me see if I’ve got this straight:
    * by the 1920s, we had a successful electrified freight rail line through the rockies (with regenerative braking!)
    * in 1935, the same company had passenger rail that exceeded 100mph in regular service
    * in 2009, diesel freight rail moves through Chicago at 9mph, and we’re supposed to be excited that some passenger trains might top 100mph in a few years

  • Scott

    Is there any compelling or engineering reason why the catenary wires would be required to run above the trains as opposed to alongside it? It would seem possible to have the supports and wires running in the middle of two tracks along the right of way with engines connecting to the power source on their side. It would still have to be tall enough to ensure both public safety and so that trucks &c. could pass under them at grade crossings, but I simply do not see how it would be a challenge that is technically impossible to overcome. Politically or economically, perhaps, but what isn’t these days?

  • sam

    this is a project that would have to be done in segments
    due to the cost. Say you electrified a couple of main lines fm start to finish. Then the next phase two or three more. Just as steam was phased out so would be diesel. Also for bridge or tunnel clearance of the catenary, you could have a third rail installed at those locations with a good lead length.
    Plenty of time for the engineer to lower the pantograph. At the other end he would raise it again and again the third rail would have plenty of lead length so no interuptions to service.

  • Ted King

    Agreed, let’s do it in sections – make all of the yard locomotives electric first. That would get approval from the EPA and OSHA (diesel particulates are a known hazard + extra smoke on short hauls / idling).

  • mark

    actually Milwaukee Road bought it’s electricity from two power companies in the areas that they were electrified. Which was the same way the the Pennsylvania railroad received it’s electricity in it’s northeast electrified area. Also the MILW’s catenary was already 23 feet above the rails which was enough to clear a double stack container train however with only a foot of clearance. That close clearance means that the maintenance on the track would have to be more frequent to keep it from becomming uneven under the catenary. It is still feasible to have the catenary 24 feet above the rails which would give more clearance for double stack container trains, the real problem it’s the catenary it’s having to make things like tunnels taller in order to have enough room for the catenary and the trains. Also we didn’t just one railroad operating electric freight operations. byt the 20’s two major railroads had electric operations, the Milwaukee Road and the Pennsylvania. The Pennsy actually had more electrified track even though it had less route miles electrified but the present day northeast corridor is built on the PRR’s electrified area the reached from Sunnyside yard in Brooklyn to Washington DC and to Harrisburg PA. Then the New Haven which was electrified a few years before the PRR was. Thier electrification involed locomotived that could run on the 11,000 volt overhead catenary that they used or the 600 DC third rail the the New York central used going in to Grand Central Terminal. The virginian was also a rather extensively electrified rail line. Even Norfolk and Western had an electrified zone. It would have made great sence to extend many of these electrified zones however most railroads opted to abandon electrification after Diesel powered locomotives appeared. Really the last hold outs were the PRR and Milwaukee Road and Conrail up until the early 80’s operated what they inherited of PRR’s electrified trackage then they too abandoned the electrification in favor of diesels. And just think, PRR was contemplating electrifing through the mountains and possibly all the way to Chicago when they first planned thier electification. They ended up not being able to complete bwyond Harrisburg due to cost and running out of government loan funds. That would have been a magnificent electrified system, even more so than the one they already had which was already to most extensive in the country.

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