Monday, July 11, 2022

Union Pacific: The Law of Unintended Consequences


Newton's Third Law of Motion states:  "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."  Thus, if object A exerts a force on object B, then object B exerts an equal force back on object A.  Forces, in other words, occur in pairs.  One body cannot exert a force on another without experiencing an identical force upon itself.

A classic example is a jet engine, which expels high temperature gas into the atmosphere and receives back a comparable force that pushes an airplane in a direction opposite the initial force.

Although this principle is now taught in the primary grades, its application can still cause confusion.  For example:  if I push a pen, it will push back with an equal force. Don't the forces cancel out?  Shouldn't the net displacement be zero? How does the pen move?

In this scenario, the pen experiences a force of given amount, and you experience the same force pushing back.  The force is strong enough to move the pen, but it is not strong enough to move you.  The two forces do not cancel.  They act in opposite directions.

Think of what happens when a rifle is fired.  The force pushing back against you is called recoil and is strong enough to move your arm and shoulder.   

Newton was speaking of mechanical action, but the same principle seems to apply to human conduct.  Every human action producing a perceived good result seems to produce an equal and opposite perceived bad result.  And two corollaries:  (1) the bad result occurs sometime after the good; (2) those producing the good rarely anticipate the bad.

This is sometimes referred to as "The Law of Unintended Consequences."

Examples are endless.  Deploy antibiotics; stimulate drug-resistant bacteria.  Build housing projects for the poor; create crime-infested slums.  Build larger highways to handle traffic jams; create more traffic and worse congestion.  Create word processors to ease the correction of typographical errors; increase the number and size of useless and unreadable documents.    

When we attempt good, in other words, we often ignore the inevitable opposite reaction.  

This principle applies equally to railroads, including the Union Pacific, the grandfather of them all.  Unlike its Class 1 brethren in North America, Union Pacific has claimed the same corporate name since its inception in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act.  To those few unreconstituted Southerners (are there any left?) who believe that the South might have prevailed with different tactics, your author would point out that the North built the first transcontinental railroad across the unsettled West, a portion of which had been part of Mexico only 14 years previously.  

Lest we praise the North too highly, however, bear in mind that the construction of the Union Pacific across the High Plains of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming heralded the beginning of the end for the gigantic Bison herds of North America.  Thus, Unintended Consequences.

The following paragraphs discuss contemporary instances in which the Union Pacific, despite the best of intentions, or perhaps not, who knows, concentrated on the action and ignored the equal and opposite reaction. 

Swallowing the Espee

At the time, it seemed like a marvelous idea.  Union Pacific had already taken control of the Missouri Pacific and the Katy -- with no real problems.  Now its sights were set on the Southern Pacific, a railroad equally as large and amorphous as the UP.  To the corporate strategists in Omaha, this was a "no brainer."  They could handle anything.  They were invincible.

To the rest of the world, caution seemed appropriate.  The Espee would not be easy to swallow and, even if eventually swallowable, would not taste good.  To quote Laura Nyro, its "troubles were many;" they were "as deep as a well." 

On a map, the acquisition looked brilliant. Instead of routing through Wyoming, Union Pacific trains from Texas to Southern California would follow SP's Sunset Route through El Paso and southern New Mexico and Arizona, saving over 1000 miles.  And on routes where UP and SP tracks ran parallel a few miles apart, such as the old MoP and Cotton Belt routes through Arkansas, the combined company could route northbound trains on one line and southbounds on the other, avoiding time-consuming meets.  Same for the old MoP and Katy lines in southeastern Kansas. The take-over, which UP claimed would save $800 million a year, was finalized in September 1996.

What followed was grid-lock.  Union Pacific soon looked like a freeway paralyzed by road carnage.  Trains simply stopped rolling.  Your author lived in Dallas at that time and remembers driving east along the old MoP mainline toward Big Sandy.  Every siding along the route was filled with a westbound train whose crew had gone dead on the hours of service.  Every siding!  I saw nothing on the mainline.

Following are two of the many dead trains I saw that afternoon.

A westbound manifest, with crew, sits silently east of Dallas.

The crew has already departed this train.

On my scanner, I listened to the dispatcher talking to crews far enough away that I could not hear the response.  The dispatcher sounded frantic, like a man hanging from a limb over the Grand Canyon.

"It's just a complete meltdown!"  he said, almost shouting.  "Complete meltdown!  I've never seen anything like it!"

How could wealthy and powerful Union Pacific fail?  It was as if the United States had lost a war to a tiny country in southeast Asia.  (Another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.)  The UP was not like other roads.  It operated on a different scale.  It did not switch a few cars to and from factories, then assemble this "dog's breakfast" of rolling stock into a manifest.  Instead, it picked up trains already assembled in the East and West and pulled them across the Rocky and Wasatch Mountains.  The trains UP did assemble came out of the yard in North Platte, Nebraska, arguably the most efficient switching center in North America.  And then those trains rolled all the way to the Atlantic or Pacific.  No short hauls for UP.

The Southern Pacific was another matter -- a sorry mess of a formerly great railroad, like a once wealthy family living in a house they can no longer afford (the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury).  Weakened by furious competition from truckers in its home state of California, the Espee had no connection to the Powder River Basin and the immensely profitable coal trains that ran there day and night.  In 1988, the railroad was purchased by the Denver and Rio Grand Western, wholly owned by one Philip Anschutz, who had made his money in the oil patch and who promptly sold most of SP's California real estate and refused to invest in new rolling stock or facilities.  When Union Pacific took over, SP's Englewood Yard in Houston was a disaster, with worn track too short to handle most trains, a severe locomotive shortage and an aged and unreliable computer system.

In other words, Union Pacific thought it was purchasing a Cadillac but wound up with a Yugo.

Even so, a Yugo can still run.  But this one didn't, and so, as is the case in all bureaucracies, the blame game started -- and blame was placed everywhere:  computer snafus, labor rules, federal regulators, weather, surging grain and petrochemical traffic.  Mostly, however, the problem was simple arrogance.  UP simply refused to listen to SP employees who knew how to run their decrepit railroad.  Instead, managers insisted that the combined railroad be run the "Union Pacific way."  Chaos immediately followed.  

Ground zero was Englewood.

SP's managers knew how to compensate for the yard's deficiencies, particularly its short tracks and lack of capacity.  When Englewood was full, which was most always, they routed low priority loads to Dallas or Shreveport or even El Paso, to be picked up in due course by slow-moving manifests.  Operating from years of experience rather than the rule book, dispatchers switched high priority cars in small satellite yards in Houston's  surrounding metro, then ordered fast intermodal trains to pick them up on the way to New Orleans or California -- anything and everything to keep Englewood from overflowing, because a clogged freight yard is like a blocked septic tank; everything piles up, and the piles are not fragrant.  

Union Pacific had other ideas.  Its motto was "Efficiency."  No switching in satellite yards.  No routing of loads to El Paso.  Without a thought given to consequences, management ordered all loads to be switched at Englewood, believing that the extra traffic could be handled by more engines, not realizing that SP had neither extra engines nor crews to run them.  

Petrochemical loads increased, as did NAFTA traffic with Mexico.  Houston's satellite yards were jammed.  Englewood ground to a halt, which forced UP to stop trains headed to Houston and park them on mainline sidings.  When the sidings were full, trains were stopped on the mainline.  With mainlines blocked, the sewage spread outward quickly.  Soon trains were parked all over Texas, then across the Red River into Oklahoma.  Then Arkansas.  Then Louisiana and New Mexico.  Although most of America was unaware, Texas constituted the world's largest traffic jam. 

The crews on these stopped trains "died" on the hours of service.  But because there were so many stranded crews, there were not enough road ferries to pick them up.  Many crewmen abandoned their trains and walked to the nearest motel.  Others had their wives or other family members pick them up.

Eventually, the contagion spread throughout the system.  At the worst, Union Pacific had trains backed up into Arizona and New Mexico, waiting for clearance into southern California.

Your author's other direct experience of this meltdown occurred during a day trip to southeastern Oklahoma along the old Katy mainline.  Every passing siding was filled with a dead train.  A few, a very few trains still ran on the mainline, but they were all coal loads bound for generating plants and could bypass the clogged switching yards.  The following images document the chaos.

A southbound manifest stalled in the siding at Stringtown, Oklahoma.  Note the engineer's boots in the cab window.  I asked the engineer what was going on.  He said the conductor's wife was driving out to pick them up.  


A dead empty coal train in the siding south of McAlester, Oklahoma.

A southbound coal load running through Limestone Gap, Oklahoma.

Another coal load in Limestone Gap.

Eventually, Union Pacific cleared the blockage, and the railroad began running smoothly again.  But to those who witnessed the chaos, the lasting memory remains dead trains parked in sidings, while dispatchers bemoaned their fate into cloudless skies.

Swallowing the Rock Island

Before the Union Pacific absorbed half the railroads in the western United States, it proposed in 1964 a merger with the Rock Island.  The company used the term "merger," but this would not have been the combination of equals.  The Union Pacific was strong, mighty; the Rock Island weak, decrepit.  The joinder would have been like the British Empire "merging" with Liberia.  

At that time, the Interstate Commerce Commission favored end-to-end combinations; therefore, a UP-Rock Island connection seemed likely to gain approval, since such would give the railroad trackage from Chicago to Portland, Seattle and Ogden, Utah.

Every western railroad vigorously objected to the proposal, as though UP had suggested taking over the Pacific Ocean.  This created a vein of pure gold for regulatory lawyers, lasting long enough for fortunes to be made.  The ICC finally granted approval in 1974, with two conditions:  (1) the Rock Island's Memphis-Amarillo line must be sold to the Santa Fe; (2) the Rock's Kansas City-Colorado Springs route must be sold to the Rio Grande.

This was to be part of the ICC's master plan for four "super railroads" in the West built around the Santa Fe, UP, SP and Burlington Northern.  UP would get parts of the Rock Island, Chicago and North Western and the SP line across the Sierra Nevada.  SP would get the KCS, MKT, the Rock Island line from Kansas City to Tucumcari and the Texas and Pacific.  Santa Fe would get the Missouri Pacific, Rio Grande, Western Pacific and the Rock Island line from Amarillo to Memphis.  Burlington Northern, already a super road, would get crumbs from the Rock Island.

The best laid plans came to naught, however, because by 1974 the Rock Island was a shell of a railroad, losing money by the car load.  To maintain operations, the company had deferred maintenance of rolling stock, motive power and roadbed for years, waiting for the UP to take over and deliver salvation.  Like a man who suddenly realizes that the oil well he had planned to purchase has not produced a drop in years, the Union Pacific walked away from the deal.  The next year, the Rock Island filed for bankruptcy, and the company was subsequently liquidated, its best lines sold to other railroads.  Ironically, after swallowing the Katy and the SP, the Union Pacific ended up with most of the trackage it would have obtained in the ill-fated merger, and the West ended up with two mega-roads rather than four. 

The Choctaw Route

The Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad (CO&G), known informally as the "Choctaw Route," completed its main line between West Memphis, Arkansas, and western Oklahoma by 1900. In 1901 the CO&G chartered a subsidiary company, the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Texas Railroad, to continue construction west into the Texas panhandle.  (The subsidiary was required because in those days railroads operating in Texas had to be incorporated in Texas.)  In 1902 the railroad reached Amarillo.  The CO&G came under the control of the Rock Island in 1902, and the two companies formally merged on January 1, 1948. 

Although walking away from the proposed takeover of the Rock Island, Union Pacific eventually came to control a portion of the Choctaw Route.  The Interstate Commerce Commission wanted the Santa Fe to take over this line in what would have been a natural extension of the Transcon into the Southeast, but Santa Fe looked at the track and realized that the cost of bringing the route up to Transcon standards would not have been worth the potential reward.  Consequently, when the Rock collapsed, the State of Oklahoma purchased the line from McAlester to Howe, Oklahoma (the junction with the Kansas City Southern) and entered a lease purchase agreement with the MKT, which operated the track until the UP swallowed the Katy in 1991.  Union Pacific operated the line a short time but wanted nothing to do with such a backwater property and sold it to the first available purchaser -- the Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad (A-OK), a family-owned business headquartered in Wilburton, Oklahoma. 

In the brief window that UP ran the show, your author was fortunate enough to obtain a few images.   

The thrice-weekly westbound headed to McAlester.

A coal load from one the mines in eastern Oklahoma, headed to the old MKT mainline in McAlester.

Your author has also obtained images of the A-OK, though the railroad is reclusive.  Finding traffic on the A-OK is like finding gold at the bottom of a river.

Howe, Oklahoma.  Southbound loaded KCS coal is passing the end of the line for the Arkansas-Oklahoma.  The tracks once ran to Memphis, but the segment east of Howe was abandoned when the Rock Island was liquidated.  Notice the old Rock Island signals, long out of service but still in place.

A-OK power parked at Howe (former AT&SF GP30u).


An A-OK freight (with former AT&SF GP30 on point) headed west from Howe, with Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background.

Along the Chisholm Trail

After the Rock Island's demise, local shippers along the Herington, Kansas, to Fort Worth route (which through Oklahoma follows the old Chisholm Trail) banded together with the MKT to form the Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas Railroad, leasing trackage rights from the bankruptcy trustee.  In addition to the Herrington route, the new company provided service over several Rock Island branch lines:  Herington to Salina; Ponca City to Enid; Chickasha to Lawton; Waurika to Walters. The new railroad also operated the portion of the Choctaw Route from El Reno to Oklahoma City. 

This arrangement, though an admirable example of self-help, was like a band-aid over a bullet wound, neither useful nor long-lived.  Within a year, the company sought reduced rents from the trustee, who refused.  The company then ceased operations.

For the next year, small shortlines serviced shippers:  North Central Texas Railway between Dallas and Chico, Texas; Enid Central Railway between Enid and El Reno and between Enid and Ponca City; and North Central Oklahoma Railway between Chickasha and El Reno, plus the branch line from Chickasha to Lawton.

In 1982, after lengthy negotiations among the trustee, the State of Oklahoma and shippers' organizations in Oklahoma and Kansas, the Bankruptcy Court approved sale of most of the properties to the Katy -- for fifty-five million dollars.  The Enid to Ponca City branch line was not included in the sale and was abandoned.

The MKT then ran the properties (as the OKT) until they disappeared under the expanding shadow of the Union Pacific.

Northbound OKT freight passing Vance Air Force Base (just south of Enid, Oklahoma) in 1982.  The MKT had purchased the blue and white units after Conrail chose not to renew the lease.

In the Rock Island days, the mainline north of El Reno (junction of the Choctaw Route and the north-south mainline and thus a major yard in the CRI&P system) was operated by Centralized Traffic Control, while tracks south were controlled by Automatic Block Signal.  Today the entire line is dark and operates by radio-controlled track warrants.  In the early 21st century, Union Pacific significantly upgraded the tracks, today limited to 49 mph running only because of the lack of signaling.

Union Pacific thus gained control of a route that would have been part of the Rock Island "merger" without having to provide assistance to the CRI&P, leading directly to that decrepit railroad's downfall.  The carnage was, in your author's opinion, neither necessary nor efficient.  The whole process was like a violent thunderstorm's providing needed moisture by flooding an entire town.  

Following are images showing what the line looks like in the 21st century.

Difficult to tell that this is a southbound Union Pacific manifest approaching Okarche, Oklahoma.

Frac sand north of El Reno.

Grain north of Chickasha.

Northbound manifest approaching El Reno.

Knee-deep in the Big Muddy

I have heard the phrase "knee-keep in the Big Muddy" since I was a child -- a reference to someone caught in an impossible situation due to an incompetent decision by a high-placed official who will not suffer the consequences of his foolishness.  Example:  a telephone company employee sent out to repair downed lines during a thunderstorm that turns into a tornado.  That poor soul is "knee-deep in the Big Muddy."

During the Viet Nam War, Pete Seeger, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie, penned a song titled "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" that ended most every chorus with:  "The big fool said to push on."  Your author saw Seeger perform this song on television, and the reference to the war and Lyndon Johnson was unmistakable.  American soldiers were "knee-deep in the Big Muddy."  Then "waist deep."  Then "neck deep."  And "the big fool said to push on."

I always assumed that the "Big Muddy" was a general reference to any deep river regardless of geographic location, an archetype, if you will, and thus was much surprised to learn that in southwestern Illinois, there is indeed a Big Muddy River that flows into the mighty Mississippi.  Not only that, but one of the busiest, double-track mainlines in North America crosses the Big Muddy on a single track bridge, which for years has constituted a significant bottleneck.

Union Pacific's bridge across the Big Muddy River.

Like so many of life's problems, the bottleneck is a product of historical forces coalescing without prior thought or planning.

The Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad (C&EI) arrived in Thebes, Illinois, in 1899, slightly downriver from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, coming in from the south along the banks of the Mississippi River after looping down from the north, the terminus of a line originating in Chicago.  In 1902, the Missouri Pacific reached the bluffs above Thebes, having built south from East St. Louis, and the Cotton Belt arrived a short time later after gaining trackage rights over the MoP.  

All three railroads were stymied by the Mississippi.  Cars had to be ferried across, and Thebes quickly became a choke point for trains to and from Chicago and St. Louis.  The railroads thus proposed a bridge between Thebes and Missouri, and the Southern Illinois & Missouri Bridge Company was incorporated to construct the bridge.

Construction began in 1902 and was completed in three years.  The first train crossed on March 27, 1905 -- multiple locomotives running to the middle of the bridge and then stopping under an emergency brake application.  The test was successful, though your author wonders how the crew of the test train were selected and how they felt about applying the brakes.

The new Thebes Bridge opened to mainline traffic on April 18, 1905, the only railroad bridge across the Mississippi between St. Louis and Memphis, a distinction it holds to this day.

The Thebes Bridge.

Thereafter, Missouri Pacific and the Cotton Belt shared a line running south from Dupo, Illinois (immediately south of East St. Louis), crossing the big waters at Thebes, continuing southwest to Dexter, Missouri, where the tracks divided, the Cotton Belt taking a more easterly approach, bypassing Little Rock, while the MoP ran directly to the Arkansas capital, then on for both railroads to Texas.  At the same time, the Chicago and Eastern Illinois  ran south from the Windy City to Thebes, crossing at the same Mississippi bridge, while a Missouri Pacific branch, upriver from the bridge about 20 miles, connected Gorham, Illinois, to the C&EI's Chicago line at Benton.

The joint MoP-Cotton Belt line crossed the Big Muddy River on a single track bridge.  Because the bridge is located in a lowland swamp, approachable in both directions only on several miles of fill, no second bridge was constructed when the line was double-tracked.  Instead, trains would stop both north and south, waiting for the bridge to clear.  Although inconvenient, this arrangement allowed the railroads to remain fluid (just barely).

During this time, trains on the C&EI also crossed the Mississippi on the Thebes bridge.  Those trains, however, crossed the Big Muddy on a different bridge than the Mop and Cotton Belt.  

It appears that sometime either before or after the MoP took control of the C&EI in 1967 (your author has been unable to determine exactly when), the section of the C&EI line to Thebes was abandoned between Benton and Thebes (the section where the line crossed the Big Muddy on its own bridge), while the MoP line from Benton to Gorham was upgraded to mainline status.  Thus,  Gorham, Illinois, became the junction where MoP traffic from Chicago joined both MoP and Cotton Belt traffic from St. Louis.  South of Gorham, trains were frequent, and they now crossed the Big Muddy on the original MoP-Cotton Belt single track bridge, which had been just barely adequate for St. Louis traffic.  The addition of traffic from Chicago, however, created a serious bottleneck.

When the UP took over the MoP, no plans were made to enlarge the bridge.  Instead, traffic kept expanding, and the bottleneck grew worse.  UP believed that its acquisition of the Missouri Pacific would create new economies of scale, and in places it did.  But not across the Big Muddy.  Today (July 2022) the bridge is still single track.

At dusk on a frigid January evening, southbound UP trailers approach the Big Muddy bridge.

A southbound Union Pacific freight waits at sundown for traffic to clear on the Big Muddy bridge.

UP stacks south of Gorham, Illinois.

When Coal was King

The above sections discuss the application of the Law of Unintended Consequences to the Union Pacific's acquisition of lines formerly belonging to the Southern Pacific, Rock Island and Missouri Pacific.  This section discusses similar problems that have befallen UP after its absorption of the Chicago and Northwestern.

The story begins with Congress's passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963.  I am not well versed in environmental law, but I do know that this statute (and amendments) prohibited the use of so-called "dirty" (high sulphur) coal, commonly found in the eastern United States, leaving coal burning, electric generating stations with only one option -- low sulphur coal commonly found in the West.  Such coal is buried deep underground throughout Colorado and Utah.  In the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, however, low sulphur coal resides near the surface, the product of eons of erosion's exposing the residue of plants once covered by the detritus of disintegrating mountains and subject to fantastic geothermal pressure.  In the Powder River Basin, coal can be mined relatively cheaply, and so the Clean Air Act created a 20th century gold rush to Wyoming, except this gold was black. 

Burlington Northern operated two secondary mains near the coal fields, one to the north and the other to the south, and quickly exploited this advantage by constructing a new line between the two from Orin Junction and Shawnee Junction in the south to Donkey Creek Junction in the north.  Soon the BN was crawling with coal trains; the company's bottom line expanded exponentially.  

Shawnee Junction, south of the coal fields.

Approaching Donkey Creek Junction on the new line constructed originally by Burlington Northern to tap the Powder River Basin coal fields.

Other railroads noticed.  But only one other company operated a line in the general vicinity - the Chicago and Northwestern's route from Nebraska, to Lander, Wyoming, at the base of the Wind River Mountains.  

Marvin Hughlitt, president of the Chicago and Northwestern in the late 19th and early 20th century, was initially opposed to the idea of a Pacific extension.  After all, the highly profitable C&NW provided the eastern link to Chicago for the Union Pacific's Overland Route, which had already found in Sherman Hill the most agreeable path across the Rockies.

But Hughlitt also recognized the paucity of rail lines west of the 100th parallel, also realized that the Pacific Northwest was a golden land filled with enough lumber to construct a bridge across the Pacific Ocean.  Wyoming eventually became the center of the C&NW's expansion plans, with thoughts of perhaps extending into Oregon and California, all the way to the blue sea.  Ranching and mining were flourishing throughout the West, both of which would provide substantial car loadings, to say nothing of all that timber.

In 1897 the C&NW incorporated the Wyoming and Northwestern Railway to run from Casper along the Wind River to the western border of Wyoming.  Construction from Casper to Lander -- across the undulating high plateau of central Wyoming -- began May 2, 1905 and proceed rapidly,  without the need to cross mountains.  The line was completed October 17, 1906, a distance of 148.1 miles in slightly over one year. 

The C&NW then considered two potential expansions to the Pacific coast.  One would have run westward from Lander along the Idaho, Utah and Nevada state lines into northern California, terminating at Eureka, a coastal city that some believed might become a major port.  The second would have extended across the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park through central Idaho and Oregon to Coos Bay, another potential port city.

This map shows the approximate routes of the C&NW's two proposed Pacific extensions.

Both routes would have involved major construction problems.  The Eureka line would have built due west out of Lander, where it would have encountered the Wind River Range, part of the larger Rockies.  Those mountains would have presented as formidable a challenge as the Front Range west of Denver, which eventually bankrupted David Moffat.  The C&NW could have built south of Lander to South Pass, a benign crossing, but more mountains would have then stood in the way unless the railroad had continued further south, at which point it would have discovered Union Pacific's original transcontinental mainline traversing the only viable route through this rugged territory.

So the Eureka route was a headache piled on top of another headache piled on top of another.  And on and on.

The Coos Bay proposal might have been an even bigger challenge.  That line would had followed the line of the mountains northwest before descending into the canyon of the Wind River, the route followed today by U.S. Highway 26.  The scenery would have been spectacular, but construction would have been as taxing and expensive as anything along the Moffat Route, with the possible exception of Gore Canyon.  

Farther west the tracks would have left the river and begun the ascent of mountains in the Teton Wilderness, skirting the edge of Grand Teton Nation Park.  Then on to the southern border of Yellowstone.  And all of this still in Wyoming!

The Coos Bay line might have been the most spectacular in the world, had it been constructed -- also the most expensive. 

But neither extension was ever pursued, a good decision by the C&NW.  The Panic of 1907 dashed the flame of railroad expansion.  Had C&NW continued west, it likely would have suffered the same fate as the Milwaukee Road, without ever reaching the Pacific.

The line to Lander became a branch line to nowhere, serving mostly agricultural interests.  Traffic was never heavy, and as the United States' highway network expanded, the tracks saw fewer and fewer trains.  By the time of the rush to the Powder River Basin, the line to Lander was down to one train each way per week, with major stretches of 10 mph running.

The lure of the Powder River Basin was overwhelming, but the cost of upgrading what came to be called the "Cowboy Line" to the standard necessary for coal trains would have been monumental, hundreds of millions, well beyond the C&NW's borrowing capability.  However, the federal government was pushing the building of additional lines to the Wyoming coal fields to combat the "energy crisis" of the 1970's.  Meetings were held in Washington, and a proposal emerged that Union Pacific construct a new 55 mile connector line from a lonely branch line in southwestern Nebraska, north along the Nebraska-Wyoming border, to a short segment of the Cowboy Line (about 30 miles) in far eastern Wyoming.  East of Douglas, Wyoming, additional track of about five miles would be constructed off the Cowboy Line to join the Burlington Northern's new line at Shawnee Junction, running north to the coal fields. 

The Union Pacific had the borrowing capability to construct this new track and upgrade the 30 miles of the Cowboy Line, plus about 50 miles of its own branch, and so with the blessing of Washington, construction began in the early 1980's and was completed in 1984.  Although the new line used only about 30 miles of its trackage, about the distance from downtown Dallas to downtown Fort Worth,  the C&NW now had entry to the coveted coal fields.  Over time, the remainder of the Cowboy Line was abandoned.     

Two C&NW coal trains meet on the upgraded portion of the Cowboy Line near Lusk, Wyoming.  At the time of this image (1987), the line was single track with passing sidings.  It was subsequently upgraded to double track.  The C&NW power is shiny and new, as is the rail.

Same train at Shawnee Junction.  The new BN line comes in from the south, also single track.  A second track was added later.

The original UP branch line ran northwest out of North Platte and stopped at South Torrington, Wyoming, with a connecting line running south of Torrington  back to the original transcontinental mainline.  This branch is still in place today, still operated by Union Pacific.  Short of Torrington, just east of the Nebraska border, the new tracks headed due north, running almost directly on the border, eventually swinging slightly northwest into Wyoming, intersecting the Cowboy Line a few miles east of Lusk.  In addition to constructing these new tracks, Union Pacific also upgraded the branch line back to North Platte to handle heavy coal trains.

The branch line out of North Platte ran north of the C.W. McConaughy Reservoir.  After the line was upgraded, a loaded coal train heads east.

Another load.

Empties.  When this image was taken in 1990, the line had been double-tracked.  The original line was single track.

Western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming are part of the High Plains, a land of little rain, clear skies, strong winds -- hot in summer, cold in winter.  Those who have not seen the High Plains think they are flat, but they are not.  They are an elongated landscape stretching mile upon mile.  Gradients are almost imperceptible, but they are gradients nonetheless.  If you took an Eastern landscape, removed all the trees and stretched it like pizza dough until the crust was paper thin, you would have the High Plains.

The new Union Pacific line was built through territory so isolated, so bereft of civilization, that a person could die there and not be found until the sun explodes and destroys the earth.  In the few moments when the wind does not blow, trains can be heard for what seems like hours before they appear as shadows on the horizon.

On the new line constructed by Union Pacific, two empty coal trains are running side-by-side along the Nebraska-Wyoming border.


The High Plains of Eastern Wyoming.

Pushing toward the Powder River Basin.

Coal loads passing empties on UP's new coal line.

Those not old enough to collect Social Security have no memory of the 1970's, of the Arab Oil Embargo, of the national 55 mph speed limit, of mile-long lines at gasoline stations, of thermostats set at 68 degrees in a Wisconsin winter, of Jimmy Carter's appearing on television in a heavy sweater, warning Americans to adapt to a reduced standard of living.  Washington wanted Union Pacific in the coal fields, because Washington wanted to reduce dependance on foreign oil.

And what Washington wanted, Washington got.  The demand for clean coal skyrocketed.  Single track lines quickly became double track, then triple track.  In the early 21st century, newspapers bemoaned the railroad industry's inability to keep up with demand.

And then everything changed.

Washington decided that coal was "bad."  Washington decided to put the coal industry out of business.  Politicians were not even subtle about their intentions.  Politicians as high on the food chain as the President stated publicly that they planned to close the mines.

What Washington can give, Washington can take.  Today (July 2022), Union Pacific has begun pulling out tracks on its coal line.  Traffic is down about 50 percent from its peak, steadily dropping, with no end in sight.

"Let the good times roll!" the revelers shouted, and roll they did.  But now comes the equal and opposite reaction.  It appears that the party is over. 

The sun sets on the coal fields.


Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone makes big mistakes.  We often fail to realize (another mistake) that errors occur in two ways:  (1) mistakes of omission and (2) mistakes of commission.

A mistake of omission occurs when you fail to do something you should have done.  Example:  failure to roll up the windows in your car before a thunderstorm.

A mistake of commission occurs when you do something you should not have done:  rolling up your car windows on a hot summer day when your dog is inside.

Which type of mistake you fear generally depends on your disposition.  If you are generally optimistic, if you believe that life and people are generally good, then you likely believe that good intentions produce good results.  You thus don't fear mistakes of commission, because you are not worried that doing good will produce a bad result.  You do, however, worry about mistakes of omission.  You worry that you might fail to take some action that would help someone.

On the other hand, if your life view is tragic, if you believe that failure is the ultimate result of our strivings, then you dread errors of commission, because you see how our best intentions breed unintended consequences.  

Every action involves an equal and opposite reaction.  On the other hand, if you take no action, there is no opposite reaction.  That, at least, is worth thinking about.    

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