The 1970s marked the continued decline of the railroad industry, as the chokehold of the Interstate Commerce Commission never let up. Railroad companies tried many ways to stay financially afloat, including merging with rivals or parallel lines. This was done to reduce overhead expenses and redundant tracks. Another tactic was to continue reduction of passenger trains which had previously been mandated to continue by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC); this major effort culminated with the formation of Amtrak to remove passenger train losses from the railroads.
Railroads in the northeast United States were in worse shape. In an ill-fated merger, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania Railroad were allowed to merge in 1968 as the Penn Central. They were forced by the ICC to take on the bankrupt New Haven railroad as well. The resulting mega-railroad was not successful, as these railroads were in poor shape. Penn Central declared bankruptcy on June 21, 1970. It was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history up until that time.
Some railroads did not fare well during this decade. The Chicago Rock Island & Pacific (The Rock) was trying to merge with the Union Pacific (UP) starting back in 1964, but the ICC took its time in studying the idea. During this time, the Rock was floundering and was unable to keep up on maintenance. The UP backed out of the deal and the Rock went into bankruptcy. In January 1980, it was determined the Rock could not be successfully reorganized and it was ordered by the bankruptcy court to be liquidated and sold; the resulting action made the Rock the largest bankruptcy liquidation in U.S. history at the time.
All eyes were on the newly-formed Burlington Northern (BN), which was allowed to merge on March 2, 1970; the Great Northern (GN), Northern Pacific (NP), and Chicago Burlington & Quincy were thought to be strong railroads, but they too were in a slow decline. When the government instituted regulations on smog and acid rain, the low-sulfur coals being mined alongside tracks in Wyoming and Montana became of great financial importance to the BN.
The Milwaukee Road benefited from the BN merger since the ICC forced the BN to grant use of its track to key cities such as Portland, Oregon. Changes in the way it was allowed to interchange freight with the BN allowed it to become a formidable competitor to the BN, which had some marketing challenges in its early days. The Milwaukee gained traffic and was able to make more money than it ever had on its line to the Pacific coast.
Previously, the Milwaukee had sought a merger with the Chicago & Northwestern, as both lines had many miles of marginal track in the Midwest, with the hope of making one strong system out of the two. This stemmed from the resignation of the Milwaukee president in 1957, and his replacement by an inexperienced successor, so the board of directors thought the best course was to get rid of the railroad somehow. The ICC had asked for terms that the Northwestern was not able to accept, and so this merger did not happen. Right after the BN merger, the owners of the Northwestern offered to sell their railroad company to the Milwaukee Road, instead of merging. Their offer was rejected, even though the Milwaukee had sought nearly this very same thing over the last decade. Management had decided that a merger with a larger road was their only salvation. Right away, they petitioned for the Milwaukee to be included in the merger with the UP and the Rock.
In 1973, the Milwaukee then sought reopening of the BN merger proceedings, to be included into the railroad that now surrounded it. This was rejected because the ICC felt it had already granted numerous concessions to the Milwaukee in the BN merger to strengthen it. The BN was clear that they had no interest in this petition.
In February 1973, and against the advice of studies conducted by both the railroad and independent groups, the Milwaukee decided to scrap its electrification scheme. The board of directors considered the electrification scheme an impediment to its merger and consolidation plans, and believed that the money required to maintain it would be better spent elsewhere. The high copper prices of the time, and the resulting $10 million the railroad estimated it would get for selling off the copper overhead wire, contributed to the decision.
The surveys found that an investment of $39 million would close the electrification gap between Avery, Idaho, and Othello, and provide the finances to buy new locomotives and upgrade the electrical equipment all along the line. Furthermore, the displaced diesel locomotives could be used elsewhere, reducing the requirement to purchase new, dropping the true cost of the plan to only $18 million. General Electric even proposed underwriting the financing because of the railroad's poor financial position.
Rejecting this, the railroad dismantled its electrification just as the 1973 oil crisis took hold. By 1974, when the electrification was shut down, the electric locomotives operated at half the cost of the diesels that replaced them. Worse, the railroad spent $39 million – as much as the GE-sponsored revitalization plan – to buy more diesel locomotives to replace the electrics, and only received $5 million for the copper scrap because prices had fallen over the course of the year.
Power agreements written when the railroad was young had been very favorable to the Milwaukee, amounting to nearly the free use of electricity to operate its trains. With the discontinuation of electrification, there were no agreements, and the railroad was seen as a regular industrial user of power. The Milwaukee discovered that it now had large electrical bills for the operation of stations, signals and equipment.
The badly-maintained track, which was the part of the system most in need of renewal, was never touched.
Despite slow decisions by the ICC, railroads continued to try to reduce underperforming branch lines. At the time, branches were seen as very important to the survival of any town of significance; now they were seen as a liability to the railroad, because of the lack of traffic and the upkeep of the tracks.
In our area of the country, some railroad expansion was still happening. The laying of track on what would be called the NP’s Wahluke Branch to the Mattawa area began in July of 1969. The first 31 miles of the line were to be finished by year’s end, but soon stopped. The branch was about 55 miles in length, as measured from Mesa, but rails never reached any further than mile 21. Bridges of heavy design were built to the end of the prepared grade. The railroad left the line unfinished because business conditions changed and felt that there wasn’t enough agricultural development in the region to justify completion; it had been anticipated that water from the Bureau of Reclamation would increase productivity of the area.
Railroading changed in Grant County in a big way on March 2, 1970 with the formation of the BN from the GN and the NP. This merger meant that most of the railroad track in the county was now controlled by one railroad. Not much changed operationally, as there was the old GN mainline, plus the NP branch lines.
The formation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971 brought even greater change. While branch line passenger trains in the county were long gone, the GN/BN was operating the Empire Builder and the Western Star, pretty much as it had been running it separately since the 1950s. When Amtrak took over passenger service from the mainline railroads, it used fairly erratic criteria for deciding which lines to service; some routes were chosen based on the need in the area for service, others for their population centers, and others by the influence of congressional members vying for the nostalgic service to continue in their own jurisdictions.
Under this plan, it discontinued the two remaining NP mainline trains, and the GN Western Star. The Empire Builder was to continue to run, but would no longer operate via the old GN line through Grant County, instead being rerouted using the old NP mainline through neighboring Adams county as part of its new route between Spokane and Seattle. This move was seen as a way to tap the larger passenger markets of the Tri-Cities and Yakima versus Wenatchee and the comparatively smaller Grant County towns.
The Grant County Journal lamented in its May 6, 1971 edition, “Amtrak will never hold the adventure and excitement for the youngsters, and it will never replace the memory for the oldsters that was offered by the Western Star and the Empire Builder!”
This prediction wasn’t entirely true. In Coulee City, The News-Standard reported that a late January 1972 trip of cub scouts from Coulee City to Hartline and back was well received. Trips such as this had been arranged from time to time for the scouts, and there never seemed to be any lack of enthusiasm from either the children or their adult chaperones, no matter which line of locomotives they rode.
Not long after this, the BN depot in Coulee City was burgled and a small amount of cash stolen in the few hours the railroad agent was away. Two years later, a car loaded with John Deere drills headed for Jim Jess Implement was found to have defective brakes after it rolled under its own power through Coulee City, stopping 30 feet off the west end of the tracks. While incidents such as these were not too uncommon in railroad history, it was another example of the many frustrations that small-town stations endured during the decline of the railroads.
Another Amtrak casualty was the end of railway post office service on the old GN line. The service had been running from Williston, North Dakota, to Seattle since 1934. Now the mail would either go by truck or by a new train offered by the BN, but no sorting en route would be done. Railway post office service had offered speedy delivery of mail at first-class rates that even express or priority service cannot achieve today.
In 1972, the Milwaukee Road ended electric locomotive service on its Coast Division mainline between Othello and Tacoma. This decision was anticipated, since diesel locomotives had been found to be easier to use on this section of line and faster than the old electric locomotives. The overhead wires were maintained in working order for a time to keep copper thieves at bay.
When the Milwaukee Road began to make noises that they had no desire to operate their own line anymore, and petitioned to reopen the BN merger proceedings from three years earlier, they found hope in the possibility of being included and thus selling off their company. As part of this attempt, BN officials made an inspection trip of that line in 1973. In Moses Lake, they noted:
“The Moses Lake Port District is actively attempting to attract new industries to their facility, which is the former Larson Air Force Base at Moses Lake and is served exclusively by the Milwaukee Road. To date they have not attracted any major accounts; however, they are embarked upon a very extensive campaign and we are hopeful that this will result in a major development that will be mutually beneficial to Moses Lake and our railroad.”
At the Milwaukee station of McDonald, near Moses Lake, the officials were equally positive. “This area has enjoyed a very substantial growth in food processing plants. Major developments of importance have been the location of the American Potato Company’s dried potato plant at McDonald and the continued expansion of Chef Reddy Foods at Othello.”
Further south at Royal City, they found similar patterns of growth and development. “The Milwaukee Road Land Company has an industrial park area located at Royal City which is in the development stages. Several small industries have located in this park and our Industrial Development people and Sales Department are continually working with various parties to attract new industry to this industrial park.”
None of these positive appraisals resulted in BN’s acceptance of the Milwaukee’s proposal, though. Already it was apparent that there were too many repairs to be made on the Milwaukee’s track, and the BN wasn’t interested in the large number of Milwaukee branchlines across the Midwest.
Two years later, in 1975, the Milwaukee Road conducted a traffic study of its light-density lines. It found that the line to Royal City generated over 450 cars of freight, but that it might retain all of it using “substituted service to Smyrna or Othello.” The branch line from Tiflis to Marcellus generated 2326 cars of freight, but it was thought all of this traffic would be lost to the BN if abandoned; however, it was noted that “additional grain possible in the future as improved irrigation is planned for this area with completion of a second Bacon Siphon Tunnel by 1980.”
On the other hand, changes in railroad needs caused the removal of the 1898 Wilson Creek depot in 1975.
At the Air Base Spur to the west near Ephrata, a large scrap yard had been established by the Purdy Company. While a couple of cabooses escaped from there and are in private hands in Grant County, most railcars were scrapped. A brakeman for the GN/BN gave this account of his perspective on operations there:
“The dismantling of freight cars went on for quite some time. I remember working it and the conductor was named Don. I guess the scrap yard operator and Don had words about the way cars were spotted or something like that to make him one mad conductor. When I worked the job west bound, we cut the train off in the bottom of what they call the ‘Soap Lake Sag,’ we would then run light engine [no cars] to the switch and drop the conductor off, then return to train, by this time the swing man had bled the brakes off the cut to be dropped into spur track and was back at the cut. We would couple up, give him the pin [set the couplers for release] and away we would go, wide-open up hill. At around 20 MPH the Engineer would give me the pin, I would pull the cut-lever on the engine [pull the lever to release the pin], and away we went again, wide-open. After the engine passed over the switch, the conductor would line the switch for the spur track [change from the mainline to the spur track]. The cars that we dropped into the spur, went sailing around a curve and they either ran out of track or would hit cars already in the track. The dust cloud that followed was best described as mushroom, going maybe 7 or 8 stories in height. I often wondered if we ever put any workers in danger, but I never questioned the conductor.”
Another piece of railroading disappeared when long-time railroad agent C.W. ‘Skip’ Connor, BN agent for Coulee City, retired June 1, 1977 after 40 years with the railroad. The railroad decided to not replace Connor in Coulee City and the depot closed at the end of the work day.
The Milwaukee Road filed for bankruptcy for the third time on December 19, 1977.
An ICC audit later discovered that, for some reason, the railroad had been double-entering expenses for its line to the Pacific coast during most of the 1970s. Far from the unprofitable boat-anchor the railroad and the bankruptcy trustees said it was, the ICC found that the line had been returning a profit to the railroad even through 1978, at which time traffic was severely down because of the road's decision to not maintain the track and because of claims of damaged shipments due to derailments.
That year also saw the abandonment of the former NP branch from Odair to Adrian, known as the Adrian Cutoff. There had been no shipments on this stretch of track since completion of the Dry Coulee Siphon by the Bureau of Reclamation. The NP had not operated over the line much before that, save for cement shipments for construction of Grand Coulee Dam, handed off by the GN for shipment to the dam in the late 1930s to early 1940s. The BN hardly used the line at all, save for some car storage.
The BN held permission from the ICC to complete the old NP Wahluke branch as late as July 1978. Beyond the mid 1970s, the line was not used beyond Basin City due to a slide in the vicinity of milepost 11 or 12, though the rail was good beyond it.
In 1979, the Coulee City Women’s Club became aware of plans to dismantle the Coulee City train depot and asked the BN for permission to use it as a senior or community center. It was donated to the Women’s Club, who in turn gave it to the Coulee City Senior citizens, provided it be moved to another site. Former resident Tom Price donated land so the depot would be permanently positioned. A total of $2500 was donated by the Coulee City Women’s Club for the move and renovation.
The seventh decade of Grant County’s history was bleak, but a light had begun to grow at the end of the tunnel. Plans were emerging to deregulate the railroad industry and even the Basin saw a bright future.