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Milwaukee Road Electrification

Milwaukee's electrification is something of an odd fish. Unlike the two other major electrified systems (PRR and New Haven), the Milwaukee is a long haul route through rugged, thinly settled country to the Northwest. Moreover, the fixed plant for this lengthy system is surprisingly spartan.

All this, plus the beautiful mountain scenery and the Milwaukee's colorful legacy, make this system an interesting study of how electrified service can vary to meet the circumstances.


With the Puget Sound Extension completed, the home office in Milwaukee was faced with problems. The CM&StP is the poor relation of the Pacific Northwest, with thin traffic loads and disadvantageous interchange agreements. Revenues were not living up to expectations and the enormous debt for building the new road was starting to drag everything down. Something had to be done to drastically reduce costs and get the public to sit up and take notice. That something, it was decided, was electrification.

The western end of the road runs through several rugged mountain ranges. For the moment, steam was making do as best they could - often running double and even triple headed to haul the all steel "Olympian" over the stiff 2.2% grades. This, however, would not do. The St. Paul Road (as they were known at the time) claim to fame is that they have the shortest (and only continuous) route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. Time lost on those grades and making locomotive setouts was eating into this advantage.

Then there was the cost. All those steam helpers ran to a pretty penny. Add in the inevitable cost of the assigned steam power, servicing facilities, deadhead movements, crew wages, etc., etc., and the price tag was adding up fast. Recent experience on the New Haven showed that electrification could be very effective at reducing costs and improving utilization in a high density environment. But could it be made to work on the long haul?

Shortly after the Puget Sound Extension was completed, electrification began: starting at the little town of Harlowton, in central Montana. This is the beginning of the rugged mountain country of the Continental Divide. By late 1916, the electrified line had been pushed 438 miles, across the Rocky Mountains and the Bitterroot Range, to Avery, Idaho.

The CM&StP was already deeply in debt, so funds for this electric project were limited. Where the eastern roads make use of overhead catenary strung from metal towers, here the wires are strung from wooden poles - looking for all the world like a Midwestern interurban road. Unlike the New Haven, the wire carries 3000 volt DC: taking advantage of plentiful hydro electric power to eliminate the costly transmission and reduction system.

Despite this low-tech approach, the result has been a resounding success. Ton-mile costs dropped 54% for passenger service and a whopping 74% for freight. Faster running times increased traffic capacity of the line by over 100%. Reduced fixed plant costs at Division points essentially pay for the overhead system. Improved technology reduces equipment costs as well: for example, GE estimated that the regenerative braking saved $6000 a month in brake shoe and wheel wear.

The Puget Sound Extension had originally been conceived as a top of the line system built to the highest engineering standards. With electrification, this system was finally reaching its full potential.

Then things started to go wrong. By the time the wire reached Avery, funds were exhausted. The St. Paul had to bide its time to reduce its standing debt before pushing ahead. In the mean time, they drew plans for the next project: the coast district. Then, in 1917, the United States entered the Great War. The St. Paul (along with all the other roads) was nationalized under the USRA, which put a stop to new wire and new electric power for the duration.

In 1919, the USRA was dissolved and the St. Paul began work on the second phase of electrification: 207 miles from the port city of Tacoma (with a branch to Seattle) east across the Cascade Range to the farm community and Division point at Othello, Washington. This is the other bad stretch of mountain railroading the St. Paul has to cope with. Between Othello and Avery is fairly level country, to be electrified in a third phase of development.

The result of electrification on the Coast Division is every bit as gratifying as before. Operating economies are comparable to further east.

Things were not looking so good now. Construction across the Cascades proved costly and time consuming. Moreover, the economy was starting to slip and traffic loads to the Pacific Northwest dropped steadily. The road's debt burden was becoming unmanageable and - shortly after the wires reached Othello in 1923 - the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Road entered bankruptcy.

In 1926, the now reorganized Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (known as the Milwaukee Road) began picking up the pieces. One of the casualties was the 200 mile third phase electrification project from Othello to Avery. The principal advantage of electrification is in moving tonnage under adverse mountain conditions. On the flatlands of eastern Washington, steam would suffice even though it meant sacrificing some of the potential of the existing electric system.


First generation motive power

The first large lot of electric motive power received by the St Paul Road are these multi-unit box cabs. As built, they operated in A-A pairs (two of the A units, at left in this illustration, running back to back).

84 "A" units were built by Alco / GE, operating as 42 pairs. Of these, 30 were geared for freight service and classified as EF-1 and given numbers followed by "A" or "B". The remaining 12 pair were geared for passenger service and classified as EP-1 "A / B". For a first try at electrification, this remarkably standardized concept shows a lot of forethought and promise.

The design is simple, but shows some interesting features. The basic B-B trucks are articulated together by complex ball-and-socket joints and the B-B pairs further articulated by a drawbar between units. The cut plate side frames of the lead trucks are extended forward to create an outrigger frame housing a pilot truck and supporting the massive snow plow. This results in a remarkably smooth running and agile power train.

Motor technology of 1915 was still primitive (these predate the Pennsylvania Railroad L5s). Alco got around the size problem by following a radically different approach than on the PRR electrics. Instead of one huge motor turning at low speed, several small motors are mounted in pairs above each axle. Rather than jackshaft and side rods, power is transmitted through reduction gears - allowing lower HP motors turning at higher speed to achieve the same result.

The problem of motor size was also addressed by making these outside framed units (unlike the Pennsy motors) which gains nearly a foot of additional space for the motor housing. As a collateral advantage, the outside frames contribute to stability.

The carbody sits much lower than the PRR units due to these small motors, although the motor assemblies still ride up into the lower carbody chassis. This is a radically different concept from the Pennsylvania Railroad motors, and the paired smaller motors would soon pave the way to the modern traction motors capable of fitting between the mainframes.

The superstructure is typical of the period: a riveted steel box cab set on a girder deck. A clerestory roof section and a series of ventilators allow heat from the transformers and switching gear to dissipate. One peculiar feature of these units is that they have only a single scissors pantograph over the cab. At the other end of the roof is an interurban style trolley pole which normally is only used as an emergency backup.

The 10 EP-1 pairs replaced 16 steam locomotives, reduced engine changes at division points from 3 to only 1 and cut passenger service costs by 54% to only $0.878 per 1000 ton miles. Due to reduced servicing time and improved traffic flow on the single track main, schedules have been substantially speeded up, as well.

As delivered, the EP-1s were painted basic black and numbered in the 10100 A-B to 10111 A-B series. In 1919, when the second generation passenger power arrived (see below), the 12 paired EP-1s were regeared for freight service and reclassified as EF-1s prior to the system wide renumbering in the 30s.

Curiously, in 1950, two EF-1 pairs numbers E22 a-b and E23 a-b were converted back into EP-1s to help the ailing Bipolars. They were given a bit of streamlining and reclassified as EP1A's. In 1955, number E23 received a "C" unit (as shown at right, above), becoming E23 a-b-c. The paint scheme shown above is the peculiar passenger scheme for these units in their later life.


With the arrival of the Little Joes in the mid 1950s, the EF-1s started to retire. The two streamlined EP-1A sets served until 1960.


Second generation motive power

In the waning days of the USRA, the St. Paul Road was allowed to start initial engineering on further electric motive power. The Great War, although still technically unfinished, was effectively over. American industry, inflated by the short term war boom, was starting to feel the pinch and demanding freedom to act in its own best interests.

The railroad's reputed "failures" had lead to nationalization - an ominous portent of the rising tide of Socialism. Wall Street was determined to seize the initiative in the post war period. Upgrading the rail network, thus putting the lie to the USRA, was an obvious choice.

Bowing to this pressure, the Wilson Administration loosened the grip on the railroads and, although the USRA would continue to rule until mid 1920, development of new technology began building speed. On the St. Paul Road, this lead to the long delayed Coast Division electrification: and with it, new motive power.

Passenger service on the Pacific Coast Division is in the capable hands of the 5 EP-2 "Bipolar" 1-B+D+D+B-1 motors from General Electric. These machines got their name from their unique motors. These GE creations are built directly onto the axles; they being, in effect, the armatures of the motors. Because there is no gear noise, these units are very quiet - so much so that the bell ringer is in continuous use while on the move; a practice that must drive their crews crazy.

The mainframe assembly is one of the most complex ever designed; being four separate units articulated with unusual ball and socket joints rather than the regular knuckle articulation. The outboard trucks each have an unpowered pilot axle, while the rest of the axles are all motorized. This design makes these units remarkably agile.

The carbodies are an equally complex and striking design. Two nearly identical cab and rounded nose units are bolted to the corresponding 8 wheel trucks and turn with them on the curves. The weight of the locomotive is rigidly carried on the inboard 8 wheel assemblies while the outer end of the carbodies are supported on the 6 wheel trucks. A roller assembly on either end truck allows full triple jointed articulation and acts to center the cabs when coming out of a curve.

These rounded carbodies carry the electrical gear and various auxiliaries. The box in front of the cab at right is an extension added shortly after their arrival to hold a larger air compressor. The two cabs are roomy and provide plenty of seating between them for long haul crews.

The center body unit is pivoted on brackets off the cabs. This carries an enormous train heat boiler with its fuel oil and water bunkers.

For all their power, these units have light weight mainframes. This, plus the fact that there are only 5 of them, means that they are seldom double headed. They handle occasional Silk trains and other light, priority runs, but they simply are not designed for freight service.

When first delivered, the Bi-polars were painted in basic engine black and had a clean, uncluttered look. This quickly changed as more and more auxiliary equipment was added. With the coming of the lightweights, various paint schemes have been tried (perhaps the most successful being the orange, maroon and black scheme shown in the illustration). They were originally numbered in the 10250 through 10254 series, but have since been renumbered E1 through E5.

In 1953, the Milwaukee Road needed more motive power, but could not afford new, so the Bi-polars went east and received a major overhaul. This included a bit of semi-streamlining and the new Overland colors. However, this upgrade was poorly done (West Milwaukee Shops are noteworthy for their carbuilding and body work, but they simply are not familiar with electric motive power).

Back from Milwaukee, they were transferred to the Harlowton - Avery District. However, their age and the inadequate workmanship (motor armatures in particular tend to come apart) combined with the rough ride over the steadily deteriorating track have lead to numerous failures. Simply put, they are pretty well obsolete, and are slated for retirement shortly.


The E2s were pulled out of service starting in 1958. In 1962, the 10251 was donated to the National Museum Of Transport, in St. Louis. The remaining four were later scrapped.

For passenger service on the Harlowton - Avery District, the road bought 10 EP-3 box cab 2-C-1+1-C-2 (the only CM&StP electric units built by Baldwin / Westinghouse).

The design is essentially the same as the premiere New Haven motors of the time: being a double ended box cab with an articulated mainframe each with drivers and pilot trucks (a 2-C-1+1-C-2 in this case, as compares to 1-C-1+1-C-1 on the NH machines). Curiously, these are not truly articulated as is a mallet: the two mainframes are connected by a drawbar which runs under the train heat boiler's fuel tank (which is placed right over the two inboard pilot trucks).

Major auxiliary equipment includes Baldwin's own version of a train heat boiler (far larger than those later found in EMD diesels - this boiler is nearly 6 feet in diameter). A single large air compressor sits next to the boiler (at right of center in this illustration). With regenerative braking, the air supply is intended for auxiliaries and as a braking reserve.

The roof line includes two of the Westinghouse scissors type pantographs and two of Milwaukee's unique headlights. On either end of the cab are two bells equipped with air powered ringers. However, unlike the Bi-polars used further west these motors do not run these bells continuously while under way.

As delivered, these motors were painted in basic black and given road numbers in the 10300 through 10309 series. Subsequently, they have been renumbered as E6 through E15 and have seen various maroon and orange paint schemes. However, the drawbar mainframe has turned out to be a poor design; derailment prone and maintenance intensive. As such, with the pending purchase of the Little Joes, these units will soon be retired and thus not receive the UP Overland scheme.


The end of the Milwaukee electrification

A Contributing Monograph


Michael Sol

Sadly, the Milwaukee's electrification was the first of the major passenger hauling electric systems to go - and the only one to be formally abandoned prior to the coming of Amtrak. Michael Sol was part of an engineering team which surveyed the western electrification shortly before the decision was made to scrap it. In this Contributing Monograph he sheds some revealing - and disturbing - light on what actually happened to the Puget Sound Extension.


An electrified railroad consists of five essential components: 1) track, 2) generation, 3) transmission, 4) motive power, and 5) support. Generation, that is substation equipment, on the Milwaukee Road was in remarkable shape. With improvements in insulation and other components, most of the equipment was actually better than when it was brand new, as various parts were overhauled over the years with the improved and upgraded components.

Some mountain substations had structural defects in the transformer rooms due to the design of the pitched roofs on those buildings. In an engineering study of the Milwaukee electrification that I participated in, we discounted these as defects for two reasons: the buildings had been stabilized by steel plates, and modern all weather transformers would easily replace the transformer rooms, as at Two Dot, Montana after a fire had destroyed the transformer room.

We could not find equivalent modern equipment that was able to provide the 100-200% overload capacity that the Milwaukee rotating machinery could provide, and still absorb regeneration at a reasonable cost.

The overhead was in very good condition. We evaluated the overhead and determined that it had approximately half of its economic service life remaining. We couldn't put an actual lifespan on that because most of the wear on the contact wire, which was the only component actually "used," had occurred in the very first few years of operation of the electrification. After a graphite pantograph grease was introduced in the early years, wear on the contact wire apparently nearly ceased to occur. The messenger wire and guide cables were in uniformly excellent condition throughout the system.

The remaining locomotives were not worn out, or even close to the end of their economic service life. Rather, there were just not enough of them. In fact, they were performing far out of proportion to their rated horsepower, and far, far beyond the expected availability of diesel-electric motive power of not only the same age, but even of modern vintage.

The support -- trolley poles -- were past the end of their service life. Way past. This was the only component of concern. However, that was also the least expensive component of the system. The only thing holding those old poles up were creosote treated pine stubs installed in 1937. In spite of the great age of those stubs, we were surprised to find that most of them still retained between 70-90% of their estimated original structural strength. Most were in remarkable shape.

The Idaho cedar poles they were attached to, though, were almost like toothpicks. In spite of that, few failures were actually occurring. Although this is a somewhat qualified statement, we were unable to document any system interruption due to trolley pole failure on account of age.

When the decision to terminate the electrification was made, the only component of that system that was in actual engineering failure was the track. There were 31 derailments in one 28 day period on the Bitterroots, partly due to the pressure of business during 1973 and 1974.

Most folks forget that operating revenues on the Milwaukee Road rose from $153 million in the first 6 months of 1972 to $176 million in the first six months of 1973, the largest increase of any major railroad in the country. The Milwaukee, from that time forward, was faced with increasing demands for service, which it was increasingly unwilling and unable to meet.

Increases in diesel fuel costs over the next few years because of the oil embargo of March 1973 wiped out any gain, and more, because of the "need" to shut down that "worn out" electrification, and the "need" to apply those scrap dollars to perceived company problems. If the electrics had continued to run, the savings, at 1972 operating levels, in fuel costs between 1974 and 1980 would have been $64 million dollars.

No wonder the corporate planning department was desperate. No company could continue to make mistakes of that magnitude and not be facing problems. But, when you justify a decision because something is "worn out," and then look at that particular decision, you begin to see the problem. The components that were not in failure were scrapped. The only part that was in actual failure, the track, was not addressed at all.

I don't know what to say about "corporate planning's" attempts to avoid driving down copper prices. The prices received for the scrap were about half of the price for copper in February, 1973, when the decision to terminate was announced..

Gordon Jonasson, finally general manager of the Soo Line, mentioned that when he was RM division manager in 1977, he was bothered by the fact that the BN supervisors in Missoula knew "three or four days before I was told," that the Milwaukee was going to file for bankruptcy. He said it "bothered him." BN line people apparently knew, before Milwaukee Board members knew, that Milwaukee was going to file for reorganization.

That bothers all of us ... or should.

Michael Sol

Further eyewitness comments


Jim Schwinkendorf

In late 1973, I rode from Harlowton to Tacoma as part of a study I was doing on sizing the MILW diesel fleet and making a recommendation on what motive power was needed (those 64 MP15AC's were a direct result of that study, much to the dismay of then CMO Frank Upton). Anyway, when I rode across the west end, the railroad looked a bit tired but was still generally 50MPH.

I again went across the whole Chicago-Tacoma railroad on a business car trip in 1976, and I couldn't believe how much the railroad could "die" in so short of a time span. The car was bottoming out where nests of 10-12 ties in a row where no longer doing anything to the track structure other than taking up space. They were dead ties. A few years later I learned how this had come about.

The Engineering Dept. kept records on the number of ties installed per year. The MILW was virtually totally retied between 1940-1945. A tie has a general life of about 35 years. Tie replacement was an Expense budget item in those days of Betterment accounting, and the funds had to come from internally generated dollars; they could not be capitalized as they are today. You can get $'s for new diesels and cars, but not for ties. So basically all of the ties on the MILW died between 1975-1980. Anyone guess when the bankruptcy came about???

Jim Schwinkendorf


B&O electrification - - PRR electrification - - New Haven electrification

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