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Demise of the Olympian Hiawatha Locked

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Demise of the Olympian Hiawatha
Posted by Blue Star Line on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 6:34 AM

Hello, just joined this board, apologies if this seems to be a very obvious question. 

I have long been puzzled by the relatively early demise of the Milwaukee Road's 'Olympian Hiawatha' [1961]. I understand that of the three northern trans-continental roads, the CMStP & P was the weakest financially and that the 'Olympian Hiawatha' had to compete against two magnificant rivals in Great Northern's 'Empire Builder' and Northern Pacific's 'North Coast Limited'. But it is this that partly puzzles me. My understanding is that, along with the Florida streamliners, the Western transcontinental streamliners were amongst the last profitable / viable passenger trains in the States. (Think not only of the two Hill roads' trains, but also Santa Fe's 'Chiefs' and Union Pacific's 'City' trains). 

So, after that long preamble, my questions are: did the Milwaukee Road give up on the 'Olympian Hi' without really trying to save it? Or was the competiton from the 'Builder' and 'NCL' just too much?  

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Posted by BaltACD on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 6:02 PM

I don't have the answer to your question.  That being said, if you search through the forum for posts from a former poster 'Michael Sol', a expert on things Milwaukee Road - you can probably find the answer(s) you are looking for.

Welcome Aboard.

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Posted by MidlandMike on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 7:21 PM

The MILW Pacific Extension was built at a later date than the NP where the larger towns had established themselves.  Population was sparse along the MILW.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 10:35 PM

BaltACD

I don't have the answer to your question.  That being said, if you search through the forum for posts from a former poster 'Michael Sol', a expert on things Milwaukee Road - you can probably find the answer(s) you are looking for.

Welcome Aboard.

 

Milwaukee Road Archives  A lot of information about all things Milwaukee Road.

Jeff

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Posted by Erik_Mag on Wednesday, March 17, 2021 10:41 PM

IIRC, between Aberdeen and Butte, the largest city on the route of the OH was Miles City with a population of a bit over 10,000. The Empire Builder served a lot of sparsely populated territory, but did have Glacier National Park adjacent to the line. The North Coast Limited did serve Billings as well as a couple of the larger cities in North Dakota.

Some of my earliest memories were of riding the Olympia Hiawatha between Seattle and Miles City at the ripe old age of 33 months.

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Posted by VerMontanan on Thursday, March 18, 2021 11:01 PM

Blue Star Line

 

So, after that long preamble, my questions are: did the Milwaukee Road give up on the 'Olympian Hi' without really trying to save it? Or was the competiton from the 'Builder' and 'NCL' just too much?   

 
 
The Milwaukee "gave up" on the Olympian Hiawatha simply because it wasn't worth saving, a precursor of sorts to the same situation for the railroad as a whole 20 years later.  It was simply a train that never should have been run on a railroad that should never have been built.
 
Milwaukee Road management, historically speaking, had delusions of adequacy comparing itself to the competition.  Be it its route to the Pacific Northwest, or its route across Iowa, they couldn't see their own insurmountable inadequacies.
 
The Olympian Hiawatha's equipment (homemade and Pullman-Standard) was generally considered inferior to that of the Empire Builder, and later the North Coast Limited (both Budd), especially dome cars, which were a big deal in the 1950s.  The Olympian Hiawatha's only dome car - the Super Dome - offered little forward visibility, and some coaches lacked leg rests. The Empire Builder debuted as a streamliner in February 1947.  The Olympian Hiawatha debuted in June of 1947, but with some heavyweight equipment that would be in place for two more years.  It was a viable train for five years while NP's North Coast Limited was being streamlined and operated on a much slower schedule.  In 1952, the North Coast Limited was sped up to be competitive with the Olympian Hiawatha, and reduced the Olympian Hiawatha's competitive advantage in speed and equipment.
 
After the 1956 discontinuance of the Columbian its heavyweight companion train, the Olympian Hiawatha became a single-train operation on America's longest branch line - and without any connections of consequence west of Minneapolis.  Unlike GN and NP trains, the Olympian Hiawatha had no Portland sections (the Milwaukee didn't go to Portland and the connection with SP trains to/from California), nor did it have important connections to Western Canada's largest city, Vancouver, enjoyed by the GN.  The Olympian Hiawatha's service to Yellowstone National Park was cumbersome from distant Three Forks compared to the NP's direct train-and-later bus service to Gardiner (and UP's direct rail service to West Yellowstone).  UP and NP were the top passenger railroads serving Yellowstone, and even CB&Q (through Cody) handled more passengers than the Milwaukee via Three Forks (and Gallatin Gateway, another Milwaukee Road failure).  And, of course, GN offered exclusive and direct service to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.  West of Minneapolis, the Olympian Hiawatha was a loner, with the exception of the UP Seattle-Portland "pool" train also serving Seattle's Union Station.  As far as schedule, the Olympian Hiawatha offered a decent connection with UP's Butte Special at Butte, but the UP train operated in and out of the NP station offering a direct transfer to/from the North Coast Limited.
 
The Olympian Hiawatha died in May of 1961 (60 years ago), and when it did, the only community served exclusively by that train west of Mobridge, South Dakota with more than 3,000 people was Renton, Washington - a Seattle suburb (that wasn't even on Milwaukee Road track).  Not counting suburbs, the next-biggest community exclusively-served by the Olympian Hiawatha was Roundup, Montana, population 2,842.  This is contrast to places like Dickinson, Glendive, Miles City, Billings (which admittedly had CB&Q - half owned by the NP - service), Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, and Yakima where the "parallel" NP had exclusivity in Midwest-Seattle service.  And further north, GN-served communities in general were not huge, but were exclusively served (Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Havre, Great Falls, Shelby, Cut Bank, Kalispell, Wenatchee, Everett).
 
As the first streamliner in Chicago-Seattle service (but not Chicago-Portland, that honor went to UP), GN established itself as the leader in passenger service across the Northern Tier, and only bolstered its position when it added a second second streamliner (the Western Star) in 1951, making the GN the only railroad to offer two "transcontinental" streamliners.  (NP's Mainstreeter, MILW's Columbian, and UP's Portland Rose never rose to the level of the Western Star as far as amenities).  GN also had a monopoly on Seattle-Vancouver(BC) service, and participated in the Seattle-Portland pool operation (with NP and UP).  Across the Dakotas and Minnesota, it offered superlative service in all lanes, including from the Twin Cities to Fargo/Grand Forks, Winnipeg, and Duluth Superior - trains that fed the Empire Builder and Western Star for long distance service. GN also had the US Mail contract west of St. Paul which improved the bottom line for the Western Star, which was consolidated with the Fast Mail starting in the mid-1950s (except during peak travel periods).  And while the NP didn't have a second streamliner to accompany its fine North Coast Limited, and its secondary trains were largely coach-only affairs (except Seattle-Portland), NP's exclusivity bolstered its traffic through the 1950s and 1960s.  Contrast this to the Olympian Hiawatha with few connections and few places that weren't served better by the competition, and basically no "raison d'être."
 
According to Jim Scribbins' book "The Hiawatha Story", the Milwaukee claimed the Olympian Hiawatha was losing over $3 million annually by December of 1960.  It was speculated that the Milwaukee actively pursued discontinuing the Olympian Hiawatha before 1962 when travel to the Seattle World's Fair would most certainly give a temporary uptick in patronage - something management knew would only be an anomaly.  Another Scribbins book, "The Milwaukee Road, 1928-1985" has interesting information about discussions between GN, NP, and MILW about "pooled" transcontinental service in the 1930s and 1940s, i.e. operating on alterate days and trains using the routes of multiple railroads.  GN opted out of this discussion first, but NP and MILW continued their discussions, even after the MILW announced it was creating equipment for the Olympian Hiawatha.  The NP knew what the MILW later found out:  There would be too many trains in the corridor if all the railroads operated their own passenger trains.  With the weakest route and no connections, it's no surprise the Milwaukee trains were the first to bow out, something that would be replicated for the railroad as a whole west of Terry, Montana in 1980.
 
For a more thorough comparison:
http://www.gngoat.org/GN-MILW-NP.pdf
(passenger trains, beginning page 27) 
 
 

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Posted by VerMontanan on Thursday, March 18, 2021 11:15 PM

BaltACD

I don't have the answer to your question.  That being said, if you search through the forum for posts from a former poster 'Michael Sol', a expert on things Milwaukee Road - you can probably find the answer(s) you are looking for.

Mr. Sol's "expertise" is debatable.   On the website indicated and elsewhere, one will find his treatises on the Milwaukee Road.  Specific to the Olympian Hiawatha, one of his claims is especially entertaining from the "American Rails" website: "From these numbers it is clear to see that despite what you may have previously read or understood about Milwaukee's Northwest flagship, the railroad was far more efficient than its competitors with transcontinental rail service."

Of course, this begs the questions about why the train was discontinued a decade before most of its competitors, and why the competitors who were so inefficient (and kept operating their passenger trains) were able to upgrade their railroad for the future with CTC, power switches, lineside failed equipment detectors, and longer sidings - all things that the Milwaukee never had the money to do.  (The Milwaukee never even had the money to place block signal protection on its main line between Plummer, Idaho and Marengo, Washington.)  

So, before you take anything - even what I say - at face value, ask yourself why if the Milwaukee was so much more "efficient", it's not around today, and no one (with the wherewithal to do so) stepped in to save it in the 1970s.

http://trainweb.org/milwaukeemyths/

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Posted by Blue Star Line on Saturday, March 20, 2021 2:55 AM

Thanks for your responses, everyone, has made for fascinating reading for me. 'VerMontanan' in particular, I really appreciate your detailed response, certainly makes clear the hopelessness of the Olympian Hiawatha's situation compared to the traffic bases  of the GN & NP trains. Also, I hadn't considered the point about the inferiority of some of the Hi's equipment, think I was distracted by the Stevens' 'Skytop' observation cars.  

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Posted by Blue Star Line on Monday, March 22, 2021 5:03 AM

Thanks everyone for your responses, they made fascinating reading. Thanks in particular to VerMontanan for the detail and insight. 

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Posted by wjstix on Monday, March 29, 2021 3:41 PM

May be of interest to note that the Olympian began in 1911, making it older than the Empire Builder by almost 20 years. After the war, and the success of the Twin Cities - Chicago Hiawatha, the Milwaukee began adding "Hiawatha" to the names of it's trains that had been streamlined. So it wasn't a new train the Milwaukee added in the forties expecting a big post-war surge, it was a revamping of an established train. 

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Posted by Erik_Mag on Monday, March 29, 2021 11:57 PM

VerMontanan
The Olympian Hiawatha died in May of 1961 (60 years ago), and when it did, the only community served exclusively by that train west of Mobridge, South Dakota with more than 3,000 people was Renton, Washington - a Seattle suburb (that wasn't even on Milwaukee Road track).  Not counting suburbs, the next-biggest community exclusively-served by the Olympian Hiawatha was Roundup, Montana, population 2,842.  This is contrast to places like Dickinson, Glendive, Miles City, Billings (which admittedly had CB&Q - half owned by the NP - service), Livingston, Bozeman, Helena, Pasco-Richland-Kennewick, and Yakima where the "parallel" NP had exclusivity in Midwest-Seattle service.  And further north, GN-served communities in general were not huge, but were exclusively served (Williston, Wolf Point, Glasgow, Havre, Great Falls, Shelby, Cut Bank, Kalispell, Wenatchee, Everett).

 
Mark,
 
The Olympian Hiawatha most certainly did serve Miles City, my family rode the train between Seattle and Miles City in 1957. Not sure if the Hi' stopped in Terry and the line was on the wrong side of the river for Forsythe.
 
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Posted by VerMontanan on Thursday, April 1, 2021 12:37 PM

Erik_Mag
Mark,
 
The Olympian Hiawatha most certainly did serve Miles City, my family rode the train between Seattle and Miles City in 1957. Not sure if the Hi' stopped in Terry and the line was on the wrong side of the river for Forsythe.

Erik:

You're absolutely correct.  I didn't mean to include Miles City, and errored when I did.  As information, the Olympian Hiawatha didn't stop at Terry or Forsyth.  Their Milwaukee passenger train service ended when the Columbian was discontinued.  Interestingly, in Milwaukee passenger train schedules (and the Official Guide), there is a footnote by Terry and Forsyth in the Olympian Hiawatha's column, which says, "Rail tickets destined to Terry or Forsyth will be honored to Miles City; thence via bus to destination."  Similar footnotes indicated such bus connection to places like Drummond, Alberton, St. Regis and Haugan (Greyhound, three trips daily on US 10) as well as Lavina, Ryegate, Barber, Shawmut, Two Dot, and Martinsdale (Canyon Transportation, one bus daily between Billings and Helena via Harlowton and Townsend).  Stopping the train at these locations would simply had added time to a schedule (which by 1961 was already over 2 hours slower than the Empire Builder westbound), and probably wouldn't be huge generators of ridership.

Though I errored in including Miles City in the list of NP exclusivity, I wouldn't have included Terry and Forsyth regardless.  The original premise was cities with a population of 3,000 or more, and neither community achieved this threshold.  But the whole exercise was meant as a generalization of how little exclusivity (and population) could be attributed to Milwaukee Road service.  And even beyond that, I excluded (and probably shouldn't've) Laurel and Toppenish because they weren't stops for the North Coast Limited - the most direct NP competition for the Olympian Hiawatha - but both communities had well over 3,000 people the year the Olympian Hiawatha went away.  Then there's Cheney, WA that met the population criteria and where the NP stopped its Mainstreeter and the UP its Hinkle-Spokane train, but the Olympian Hiawatha (operating on UP) didn't stop.  But, any way you look at it, it's hardly a mystery as to why the Milwaukee bowed out before the others and wasn't missed when they did.

 

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Posted by VerMontanan on Thursday, April 1, 2021 6:56 PM

wjstix

May be of interest to note that the Olympian began in 1911, making it older than the Empire Builder by almost 20 years. 

Also of interest to note is that Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited began in 1900 - 11 years before the creation of the Olympian, and was discontinued in 1971, 10 years after the discontinuance of the Olympian Hiawatha.  Its 71 years of operation is the same as that of the Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension as a whole (1909-1980).

That the Olympian began operation before the Empire Builder is not a mystery.  The Empire Builder is named after James J. Hill, who was still alive and well in 1911 when the Olympian was inaugurated.  The "Empire Builder" moniker is therefore a posthumous eponym.  It's unlikely that Hill would have tolerated a passenger train named for him while he was still alive given his famous (or infamous) quote, "The passenger train is like the male teat - neither useful or ornamental."  Nonetheless, the Empire Builder celebrates 92 years of continuous operation this year.

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Posted by Erik_Mag on Friday, April 2, 2021 12:26 AM

Mark,

I had my tongue partly in cheek when mentioning Terry and Forsyth (the Milw line was on the north side of  the Yellowstone river when passing Forsyth). Did give a bit of thought to mentioning Hathaway...

I was 33 months when riding the Olympian Hiawatha, so only have a few vignettes of the trip in my memory, including one that may have been switching from diesel to electric power. I rode the North Coast Hiawatha in 1976 and remember a lot more of that trip.

As for stops vs timekeeping, it wouldn't have been too bad of an issue with the passenger Joe's that could provide 10,000 dbhp for a short term. OTOH, they were only usable on 440 miles of the route.

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Posted by wjstix on Friday, April 2, 2021 9:46 AM

VerMontanan
That the Olympian began operation before the Empire Builder is not a mystery.

My point was that the Olympian Hiawatha was not a new train that started after WW2, but rather a revamped version of a longstanding train, the Olympian. The Milwaukee didn't just decide in the 1940's to start competing head-to-head with the Builder and NCL.

Stix
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Posted by TRR on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 10:33 AM

VerMontanan
Mr. Sol's "expertise" is debatable. On the website indicated and elsewhere, one will find his treatises on the Milwaukee Road. Specific to the Olympian Hiawatha, one of his claims is especially entertaining from the "American Rails" website: "From these numbers it is clear to see that despite what you may have previously read or understood about Milwaukee's Northwest flagship, the railroad was far more efficient than its competitors with transcontinental rail service."

 

In a characteristic fashion, I did not write the quote attributed to me.

Milwaukee Road was the most experienced of the "three railroads mentioned," by far. It's primary markets for the transcontinental service in 1955 were: Butte, Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma.

In 1955, the Milwaukee succeeded in getting the "Union Pacific" passenger contract. This gave the Milwaukee Road passenger service, over the UP, to Butte, Spokane, Seattle, and Tacoma. After that, add on Portland, San Franciso, Denver and Los Angeles.

Now, why would Milwaukee Road even "want" to offer TWO passenger routes to Butte, Spokane, Portland and Seattle, and why would it want to turn down adding passenger service to Denver, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles? Milwaukee began moving quickly to preserve and expand its passenger services, and, at the same time, clear the schedule on its own line for high speed freight service, while increasing profitability from its passenger service. The slogan was "All Freight by '58."

Railroad service abandonments "being what they were" in that era, the abandonment could not occur until 1961, despite Milwaukee Road serving those key destinations over Union Pacific.

The Milwaukee turned the money-losing transcontinental passenger operation -- GN and NP were crying loudly about their losses -- and made it profitable.

From "an actual source:"

"The so-called "City" trains are presently being operated jointly with the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacificby the Milwaukee betweon Chicago and Omaha. These operations are covered by a contract which provides for a one-year termination notice from either party. As shown in the following Table IX, during the year 1962 the Milwaukee realized a net gain of $1,604,086 based on out-of-pocket expenses in the operation of the City trains between Chicago and Omaha. Revenues on these trains were $5,590,478, and out-of-pocket operating expenses were $3,986,392."  Report of Committee on Possible Mergers of Union Pacific-Rock Island-Southern Pacific Railroads, May 3, 1963. P. 21.

Turning a money-losing operation into a profitable endeavor was difficult for railroads in general in the 1960s. Mr. Meyer, anxious as always to discuss what he does not know, does not know that either.

Best regards, Michael Sol

 

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Posted by TRR on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 9:33 PM

VerMontanan
The Empire Builder is named after James J. Hill, who was still alive and well in 1911 when the Olympian was inaugurated. The "Empire Builder" moniker is therefore a posthumous eponym. It's unlikely that Hill would have tolerated a passenger train named for him while he was still alive given his famous (or infamous) quote, "The passenger train is like the male teat - neither useful or ornamental." Nonetheless, the Empire Builder celebrates 92 years of continuous operation this year.

And the Empire Builder is "just as profitable!" That is, yet another complete fabrication by Mr. Meyer.

"ABOARD THE EMPIRE BUILDER (Reuters) - Its passengers are mostly silver-haired retirees, oil-field workers and a few young families gazing out the windows of Amtrak’s least-profitable and third-longest line, rumbling from Chicago through eight states and on to the American West Coast."

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amtrak-finances-insight/to-see-why-amtraks-losses-mount-hop-on-the-empire-builder-train-idUSKBN0OD17R20150528

Best regards, Michael Sol

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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 12:00 AM

Welcome back.  It's been too long.

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Posted by rcdrye on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 6:03 AM

At the same time the "City" trains were generating a small positive cash flow for the Milwaukee, the Olympian Hi was costing about $4.00 for every $2.50 of revenue, according to ICC reports of the period.

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 8:34 AM

You know what the REAL problem was?

The "Olympian Hiawatha" didn't have a "Great Big Baked Potato" and the Northern Pacific did.  HOW do you compete with that?  

Wink

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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 9:22 AM

Flintlock76
The "Olympian Hiawatha" didn't have a "Great Big Baked Potato" and the Northern Pacific did.  HOW do you compete with that?

With Skytop sleepers.

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 11:10 AM

Overmod

 

 
Flintlock76
The "Olympian Hiawatha" didn't have a "Great Big Baked Potato" and the Northern Pacific did.  HOW do you compete with that?

 

With Skytop sleepers.

 

 

You can't eat Skytop sleepers, unless you're Godzilla.  Sometimes filling the ol' stomach is a lot more important than enjoying the scenery!  Dinner

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Posted by BaltACD on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 12:16 PM

Flintlock76
You know what the REAL problem was?

The "Olympian Hiawatha" didn't have a "Great Big Baked Potato" and the Northern Pacific did.  HOW do you compete with that?  

Wink

Tastes Great - Less Filling

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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 12:25 PM

Yes, but it is uncomfortable to sleep in a potato -- the butter congeals overnight and is hard to remove from sleepwear on a moving train.


The Northern Pacific diner cookbook mentioned that the Great Big Baked Potatoes were unsalable items in general commerce; nobody wanted a meal for a family of eight rolled up in one Irish overcoat -- not even rooming houses.  So the NP agent could get them at a knockdown price... to be sold for a value better than gold.

In fact I wish I had me one right about now, with the pound and a half of creamery butter it would take to get it all down.  I'd let you know next Tuesday, when I finished, how good it was...

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 4:24 PM

Overmod
So the NP agent could get them at a knockdown price... to be sold for a value better than gold.

And quite the success story they were, too!

https://streamlinermemories.info/?p=3700

There was even a song written about it which "Wanswheel" found for me!

Trust me, it's not something Michael Buble' or Taylor Swift are likely to cover.

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Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 5:25 PM

Flintlock76
There was even a song written about it which "Wanswheel" found for me!

http://bonafidaho.com/GreatBigBakedPotatoFinalHTMP3.mp3

Make a great concert closer for someone not over proud of themself, just like that Bolcom piece about something NEVER found on the NP:  the lime jello marshmallow cottage cheese surprise...

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Posted by Flintlock76 on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 6:43 PM

Thanks Mod-man, you made my evening!

Of course, I'm just a little depressed thinking my two unobtainable "Holy Grails" are an "Electro-Burger" on a North Shore Electroliner and a Northern Pacific "Great Big Baked Potato."

Oh well, as the saying goes:

Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened!

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Posted by Erik_Mag on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 10:11 PM

One "Holy Grail" for me would have been a ride on the Electroliner with the field shunts in use. Now if only the North Shore track and signalling been up for the tasks of handling 105 - 110 mph top speeds...

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Posted by TRR on Sunday, April 25, 2021 3:05 PM
All of the passenger services on the Northern Tier lost money. That was, recall, the argument behind creating Amtrak in the first place. The Northern Pacific, running the route comparable to the Milwaukee Olympian Hiawatha, was losing $2 million a year. The ICC, rejecting an NP plea to abandon half of its transcontinental passenger services said "Nope! You're not losing ENOUGH!" "NP, Discontinuance of Trains," Finance Docket 25718, Interstate Commerce Commission.
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Posted by wjstix on Monday, April 26, 2021 12:41 PM

The 'last nail in the coffin' of private railroad passenger service was the federal government taking mail off of the trains in the 1960's. There were a lot of railroads whose passenger service was at least breaking even with the mail contracts, but found they were losing money at an alarming rate when that indirect subsidy ended.

Stix

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