For more than half a century, the Milwaukee Road's electrified western lines have ranked high on every list of the world's most intriguing railroad operations. But on February 20, 1973, after a series of exhaustive studies, and 57 years, two months and 21 days after the mainline trolley wire was first energized, the railroad announced its intention to phase out its remaining electrified operations.

Initially an unmatched technical marvel, the electrification gained widespread fame as the apparent prototype for a new, electric, era in railroading.     

That era never arrived, but the Milwaukee Road’s electrification, highly successful as it was, became and for years remained an object of intense interest as a unique, working railroad operation.

While the interest continued, the electrification system gradually became something of an anachronism.

In the end, however, two factors which had once been the source of much of the electrification’s renown and were once its strongest virtues, technical progress and economics, proved its undoing.

While a definitive technical statement in 1915, the Milwaukee’s electrification was rendered obsolescent by vast advances in electrical engineering made since then.

Although electrification was for many years a boon to the Milwaukee’s finances, it was becoming a drain on the treasury, because spare parts for its electrical system and locomotives are no longer readily available and the increasingly frequent repairs have been growing more costly and more difficult to perform. But the major economic factor was the need to eliminate operating inefficiencies caused by the separation of the two electrified segments by an un-electrified gap. An in-depth analysis based on a wide variety of factors indicated that the substantial investment needed to close the gap and acquire new equipment for electric operation would have been economically unwise for the railroad. Switching to fully dieselized operation thus became the only alternative.

Throughout its useful lifetime, the Milwaukee Road electrification served well, but its inception was primarily a product of the need to overcome problems which no longer exist. The more than 3,000 miles of transmission, feeder and trolley wire still strung over 902 miles of Milwaukee Road track in Montana, Idaho and Washington is evidence of how well those particular problems were met in the early 1900s when the project was undertaken.






Initially a technical marvel...



...eventually technical progress

and economics

proved its undoing





The gap:

Avery, Idaho to

Othello, Washington











...wire still strung:


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Last Updated: March 03, 2009