A GN - NP Comparison by Mark Meyer
(A note from the GNR Page Webmaster...). Hello GN Fans! The following section
represents the work of Mark Meyer,
a Montana native and an Internet acquaintance of mine. Mark took the time and
trouble to sit down and put together this historical comparison of the Great
Northern and the Northern Pacific. I think it is very well done and an
interesting read. After some gentle prodding, I have received Mark's permission
to post this on the GNR Page. I hope you find this as entertaining as I did.
Now, I will turn this section over to Mark...
So, are you a fan of the Great Northern or the Northern Pacific? If you're like
most people, your answer is either "neither" or "both",
because if you didn't find both of their operations of interest (the history of
the two is so intertwined), you probably didn't care about either one!
Prior to the mega-mergers of the past 30 years, a number of railroads existed
that were natural rivals. New York Central and Pennsylvania were probably the
most notable, since, prior to the decline of railroading in the East, they were
the nation's largest in terms of passengers and freight handled. Which was best?
That debate could go on forever. Certainly, the popularity of The Twentieth
Century Limited eclipsed that of The Broadway Limited, but Pennsy's passenger
line between New York City and Washington, DC had no rival anywhere in the
United States. Most would agree Atlantic Coast Line to best Seaboard, mostly
because ACL handled more passengers and its main line had greater capacity and
was flatter than Seaboard's route along the fringe of the Piedmont. Yet, in this
case, the victory is not clearcut, in my opinion. While ACL had a better route
to Montgomery and the main freight route from Birmingham to Florida (the
AB&C route), it always impressed me that Seaboard offered the only
alternative to Southern for Northeast-to-Atlanta and Birmingham traffic, and was
the link (with L&N) between Jacksonville and New Orleans...and went directly
to Miami without having to hand off traffic to the Florida East Coast. At the
opposite end of the spectrum, it's obvious who would be the victor in an overall
contest between Illinois Central and Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio.
Here, then, is my comparison between the Great Northern and Northern Pacific.
The text presented is meant to be largely objective based on written
documentation or known factual material, not personal experiences....with some
humor, and even sarcasm, thrown in....
For the sake of the comparison, I will use an Official Guide of the Railways
from December, 1965.
St. Paul to Seattle
GN 31, Empire Builder, Running Time 35:55, Average Speed 49.61 MPH
NP 25, North Coast Limited, Running Time 38:45, Average Speed 48.83 MPH
GN 27, Western Star, Running Time 40:00, Average Speed 44.55 MPH
NP 1, Mainstreeter, Running time 49:50, Average Speed 37.97 MPH
Seattle to St. Paul
GN 32, Empire Builder, Running Time 37:50, Average Speed 47.10 MPH
NP 26, North Coast Limited, Running Time 39:10, Average Speed 48.30 MPH
GN 28, Western Star, Running Time 39:20, Average Speed 44.84 MPH
NP 2, Mainstreeter, Running Time 46:35, Average Speed 40.62 MPH
The statistics above are based on 1892 route-miles for NP trains, and 1782
route-miles for GN trains, except for GN train 28, whose route was only 1764
Obviously, the Empire Builder is faster than the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited
in both directions, but I believe that the westbound trip is a better
representation of the clear superiority of the GN route which encompasses not
only mileage, but grade and curvature. This is important, because the astute NP
fan could argue that the eastbound Vista-Dome North Coast Limited actually posts
a faster average speed than does the eastbound Empire Builder. This is true, but
look again. The eastbound Empire Builder is nearly 2 hours slower than its
westbound counterpart. Why? (The eastbound Vista-Dome North Coast Limited is but
25 miles slower eastbound than westbound.) Scheduling is clearly the reason. If
train 32 was two hours faster eastbound, depending on how the schedule was
changed, departure from Spokane would be well past midnight or arrival in the
Twin Cities would be well before dawn. The leisurely eastbound schedule allows
decent times at these important points.
The westbound Empire Builder needed no such schedule augmentation, and is able
to "show its stuff" by besting the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited by
nearly 3 hours. The Empire Builder during this time departed Chicago at 300 PM,
2 hours, 30 minutes later than the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, but still
managed to arrive Seattle 15 minutes ahead of it. The later departure time from
Chicago for the Empire Builder allowed passengers to connect inbound from
Detroit on NYC's Wolverine, from St. Louis on GM&O's Abraham Lincoln, from
Louisville on Monon's Thoroughbred, and from NYC's James Whitcomb Riley (which
was the Chicago connection at Cincinnati from C&O's George Washington and
N&W's Pocahontas.) Connections from these important trains were not
available to the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited due to its earlier departure.
While the normal procedure would be to compare GN trains 31/32 with NP trains
25/26 and compare GN trains 27/28 with NP trains 1/2, another running time
comparison is interesting. Note that the eastbound Western Star is but 10
minutes slower than the eastbound Vista-Dome North Coast Limited between Seattle
and St. Paul; between Seattle and Minneapolis the running times are identical.
Granted, the GN train has 128 fewer miles to go, but it makes 60 positive and
conditional stops between Seattle and Minneapolis, while NP 26 makes but 24.
And, given the nature of the Western Star during this period (a very heavy, long
train with much mail traffic), this is again reflective of the profile of the GN
route. Westbound, NP 25 was but 75 minutes quicker than GN 27, a much smaller
gap than between NP 25 and GN 31.
After comparing the Western Star with the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited the
more logical comparison between the Western Star and Mainstreeter would seem to
be pointless, and it pretty much is. With a St. Paul-Seattle schedule nearly 10
hours longer than that of the Western Star, it's difficult to really consider
the Mainstreeter to be a competitor in this market. Clearly, its purpose was to
serve intermediate communities. One point in defense of the westbound
Mainstreeter's schedule is that it had been intentionally lengthened to allow
for a decent arrival time in Seattle. If the westbound had the same running time
as the eastbound, it would have arrived in Seattle at the unpalatable hour of
Comparing the services offered on board the Empire Builder and Vista-Dome North
Coast Limited is tricky. The first to be streamlined in this market, the Empire
Builder has long been considered to be the premier train on the route. With
abundant lounge space, and more dome seats than any other train, the Empire
Builder truly was, in many respects, as the GN advertised,
"Incomparable". Yet, in my opinion, the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited, at least with regard to equipment was very much the equal of the Empire
Builder. And, though some have actually criticized the NP for placing
slumbercoaches on the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, I believe that these are
very useful cars, and were options not available on any GN train. The
stewardess-nurse service on the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited also was not a
feature available on the Empire Builder.
By 1965, the Western Star and Mainstreeter both offered similar coach seating
and meal/lounge service. The Western Star carried sleeping cars, but the only
sleeping service on the Mainstreeter was a slumbercoach. Personally, I like the
concept of slumbercoaches, and a train like the Mainstreeter would be a good
train on which to run them. Unfortunately, I believe they were a hindrance to
any long distance travel. It was bad enough that the both the eastbound AND
westbound Mainstreeter took three nights to make its trip, but to offer ONLY a
slumbercoach (and not a sleeping car) was a severe downgrading of the service.
After three nights on the train, one would tend to be a bit claustrophobic
riding in a slumbercoach room, especially considering that alternative places to
spend some time (domes, lounges) were scarce. But, as stated earlier, the slow
schedule probably did little to encourage transcontinental travel as it was.
(During this time, the eastbound Mainstreeter was only slightly faster between
Seattle and Chicago than the competing all-stop Greyhound run, and the westbound
train was actually slower. Interesting, considering that most of I-90/I-94 has
not been completed.)
Also noted in the Official Guide is that the car used for dining and lounge
service on the Mainstreeter operated only between St. Paul and Pasco, so the
train had no food or beverage service between Pasco and Seattle. While most of
the trip was at night, train 2 did depart Seattle at 945 PM, which would mean
that some people might want a nightcap or snack before settling down for the
night. The Western Star's food service cars ran through to/from Seattle.
Intermediate points on the transcontinental routes:
Some places on the transcontinental routes had supplemental service (other than
the Empire Builder, Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, Western Star, Mainstreeter).
Most notable are in Minnesota and North Dakota. Great Northern offered service
on two routes between the Twin Cities and Fargo-Moorhead, and ran a total of 5
trains (2 via Willmar, 3 via St. Cloud). In addition to the transcontinental
trains, GN ran the Dakotan(St. Paul-Grand Forks-Minot), Red River (St.
Paul-Fargo), and Winnipeg Limited(St. Paul- Winnipeg) through (or to) Fargo. All
of these trains featured on-board meal service, and the Winnipeg Limited (which
will be discussed in detail later), had sleeping car service.
The Dakotan was more or less a connecting train to the Western Star at Minot,
running on an alternative route, but the westbound train did offer a connection
with the overnight CB&Q Black Hawk at St. Paul with an arrival in Fargo over
2 hours ahead of the Western Star and Mainstreeter, which connected with the
same train. The Red River was scheduled specifically for patrons between the
Twin Cities and Fargo. The nocturnal Winnipeg Limited operated both ways between
the Twin Cities and Fargo a schedule similar to the Empire Builder, but via St.
Cloud instead of Willmar.
Northern Pacific ran one extra train on its transcontinental route through this
area, coach-only trains 3 and 4 between St. Paul and Mandan. The train was the
connection at Little Falls, MN with the NP train to and from International
Falls, but other than that it was a milk run in every sense of the word. Train 3
left St. Paul late in the evening and arrived Fargo at 446 AM before continuing
to Mandan. Train 4 connected with train 2 at Mandan and was the all-stop local
to St. Paul, arriving there at the odd time of 255 AM, too early or too late to
make decent connections.
Between St. Paul and Fargo, the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited was the speediest
train, and made but two intermediate stops; but all five Great Northern
passenger trains were quicker than the Mainstreeter and NP trains 3/4. While all
five GN runs through Fargo were full-service passenger trains offering somewhat
of a variety of departure times, it's obvious that the service offered by NP was
really no better than at any other point along its transcontinental route.
Another common point along the transcontinental route of both railroads is
Spokane. By 1965, local Spokane-Seattle trains had been discontinued, with only
the through trains from Chicago (St. Paul) to Seattle operating on these routes.
Great Northern, however, still operated a 6-day-per week Spokane to Seattle
sleeping car. The car, which was available for occupancy at 930 PM, rode the
Empire Builder westbound and Western Star eastbound. This compensated for the
Empire Builder's 1215 AM departure westbound and the Western Star's relatively
early 615 AM arrival at Spokane. Northern Pacific offered no additional local
This is the lone route where both railroads offered service, but where Northern
Pacific's service was superior to that of Great Northern. Three trains daily
were operated on the route between Seattle and Portland, one each by Northern
Pacific, Great Northern, and Union Pacific. Northern Pacific owned and
dispatched the route (though the UP trains used the Milwaukee Road from Tacoma
to Seattle). The Northern Pacific train (all trains were unnamed) offered meal
and lounge service (and sleeping car service one way, a through operation to
Oakland with Southern Pacific), while the Great Northern train offered only
minimal snack service by an on-board vendor. Though owned by the NP, the GN
train on this route made the local station stops, not served by the NP or UP
I do believe, however that since this technically was the NP's railroad, it is
discrediting that they did not offer any more passenger service than did the
tenants on their railroad. Passenger trains back then, even though unprofitable,
were considered by railroad management as good public relations tools. It's odd
NP didn't capitalize on this, but I suspect they didn't have the capital to do
it, so to speak!
Great Northern alone operated passenger service between the two largest
metropolitan areas in the region. Northern Pacific's parallel route terminated
at Sumas and was freight-only. Contrary to the GN train south of Seattle, the
Internationals between Seattle and Vancouver, BC offered parlor car/lounge
service and operated twice daily in each direction (in 1965).
The morning International offered a Vancouver connection for passengers on the
westbound Empire Builder at Everett, and the afternoon International from
Vancouver connected with the eastbound Empire Builder at Everett. Any passengers
using NP's Vista-Dome North Coast Limited to/from Seattle did not have the
benefit of direct connections with GN trains to/from Vancouver, BC.
In contrast to NP's route south of Seattle allowing trackage rights to
competitors, the route north of Seattle was GN's alone...well, except entering
the CN Vancouver station. Yes, one could travel all the way across Canada on
Canadian National, but the Super Continental and Panorama still needed Great
Northern rails to reach western Canada's major city. Today, VIA's popular
refurbished Canadian traverses former GN rails to reach its Vancouver terminus.
Great Northern was the clear leader on this route, offering the Winnipeg Limited
on an overnight schedule featuring coaches, sleeping cars, and breakfast/lounge
service. (The Soo Line also offered an overnight train, the Winnipeger, but it
had no meal service.) Northern Pacific's service was a Rail Diesel Car which
actually operated between Fargo and Winnipeg, via Hawley, Minnesota. Passengers
from the Twin Cities would ride the Mainstreeter to Hawley and detrain for an
immediate connection with the RDC. No food service was offered, but a box lunch
was available at Grand Forks. The NP train did (until later on) operate on a day
schedule, which, considering the equipment offered, would be a must. The NP
service was actually faster than the Winnipeg Limited westbound (but not
eastbound), on a route some 24 miles shorter (Great Northern had the shortest
freight route via Barnesville and Ada, MN, which was once the route of the
The Winnipeg Limited also connected with both directions at Fargo with the
Empire Builder to and from the west. While the middle-of-the-night transfer
might not be too tasteful for some, it did allow an all-Great Northern routing
between the major Canadian cities of Winnipeg, MB and Vancouver, BC via the
International at Everett, with minimal transfer times.
Twin Cities-Twin Ports
Like between Seattle and Portland, NP and GN (and before it was discontinued,
Soo Line), offered pool service between these endpoints (but on different
routes). Again, Great Northern provided the superior service. Mileage on the
routes was about the same. GN trains originated in St. Paul and the NP trains in
Minneapolis, which certainly wasn't a bonus for the NP, since their other trains
terminated in St. Paul.
Great Northern's Gopher was the premier train on the route featuring a
parlor-buffet car and 3 hour, 15 minute running time between St. Paul and Duluth
with only two intermediate stops between Minneapolis and Superior. Its companion
train, the Badger was on a somewhat longer schedule and made stops at the small
stations. The Gopher and Badger offered complementary schedules between St. Paul
and Duluth allowing day roundtrips from each origin point, as well as numerous
connections in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The "also-ran" on the route was NP's Twin Ports-Twin City Express,
which was the only NP passenger train other than the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited and Mainstreeter to have a name by this time. The train as coach-only
(no food service). Train 66 left Minneapolis at 1050 PM for a nearly 6-hour trip
to Duluth, posting a 445 AM arrival. The only positive aspect about this train
is that it afforded connections with inbound trains from Chicago at the Twin
Cities. Going the other way, NP train 65 was a bit faster at 4 hours, 40
minutes, and the just-after-midnight arrival in the Twin Cities was somewhat
more palatable, but the train connected with nothing.
Twin Ports-Pacific Northwest
Both GN and NP had a direct line west from the Twin Ports, but by 1965, GN
offered no passenger service, and bus service to Grand Forks via Bemidji was
awkward. GN routed passengers on the Gopher and Badger to Minneapolis instead.
NP at this time offered two trains daily between Duluth and the main line at
Staples, Minnesota. Nicknamed the "Staples Streetcars", both were Rail
Diesel Cars; one connected with the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, and the
other with the Mainstreeter. This did allow the NP to post the best time between
Duluth and Fargo, and sometimes beyond. The "Staples Streetcar"
connection to the North Coast Limited was faster in both directions than via
GN's Empire Builder and a connection to/from the Gopher or Badger at
Minneapolis. Between Seattle and Duluth, a Western Star/Gopher routing was
faster than using the Mainstreeter and its connection at Staples.
While NP receives accolades for providing this twice daily service west from
Duluth/Superior (but only running once a day to St. Paul/Minneapolis), the
trains fail miserably for comfort. For instance, I would wager that the vast
majority of Duluth-bound passengers on NP's Vista-Dome North Coast Limited would
skip the 345 AM transfer to an RDC at Staples, and continue through to
Minneapolis or St. Paul and then use GN's Badger to complete the trip.
Westbound, the 1000 PM transfer time in Staples might not be quite as bad, but
many instead probably opted for a parlor car seat on Great Northern's Gopher to
Minneapolis as a prelude to their voyage westward on the Vista-Dome North Coast
Summary of passenger service comparisons:
Which was the better train, Empire Builder or Vista-Dome North Coast Limited?
This topic could be debated ad nauseam, with the debate being largely
subjective, but the outcome, I believe is irrelevant. From the Super Chief to
the California Zephyr to the Capitol Limited and beyond, most railroads had a
premier passenger train, and NP and GN were no different. The true test of a
railroad's passenger service are the trains other than the flagship. It is here
that Great Northern's clear superiority is most evident.
By 1965, Northern Pacific operated but two trains with sleeping cars: The
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, and train 407(through to Oakland from Seattle
via SP; the Mainstreeter had but a slumbercoach) and only three trains with food
service. Other than the transcontinental trains, only the Seattle-Portland pool
train offered anything more than a coach seat. Other than that Seattle-Portland
train and the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, NP trains competing with GN trains
fail and fail miserably with regard to speed, frequency, and on-board services.
Most notably, one wonders why NP did not offer additional Seattle-Portland
service, or additional Twin Cities-Fargo service on a competitive schedule. Why
did Great Northern provide the best service between the Twin Cities and Duluth?
The NP route was no longer. The only conclusion can be that, as historically has
been proven, the NP was not financially able to create a competitive service,
and definitely unable to keep the services going once passenger trains began
feeling the strain of highway and airline competition.
More evidence of this is obvious as one looks at the period from 1965 to the
1970 merger. During this time, all Northern Pacific passenger trains except the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, Mainstreeter, and Seattle-Portland pool train
were discontinued. Great Northern experienced its share of cutbacks, too, but
the only segments to lose service since 1965 were Shelby-Great Falls and
Superior-Duluth (except for mixed trains).
I also would like to propose a "what if" scenario here. The "what
if" is a comparison of services offered if each railroad did not run their
flagship train, given that, completely for the sake of argument, that everything
else would remain the same.
During the time period indicated above (1965), WHAT IF the Empire Builder did
not exist, and everything else was the same? Clearly, in this case, the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited would be the undisputed front-running train
between Chicago and Seattle, due to the equipment offered. Yet, over all, this
would not make the NP the leading passenger carrier of the two. The Western
Star, due to its relatively fine equipment and with a competitive running time
would certainly capture a good share of passengers, especially considering its
service to Glacier National Park; and though GN would not be carrying the most
passengers between the Midwest and Pacific Northwest (since the Vista-Dome North
Coast Limited would be the preferred train, and the Mainstreeter would still be
there), it still would offer the best service between the Twin Cities and Twin
Ports, Fargo, and Winnipeg, as well as the only service between Seattle and
Vancouver, BC. Even without the Empire Builder, Great Northern's passenger
service would have been considered excellent, since most were
"full-service", i.e. not coach-only, trains.
Now, try if you will to imagine comparing GN and NP passenger service if the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited did not exist! For NP fans, this would be
inconceivable, and with good reason. Not only was the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited a great train, but it pretty much WAS Northern Pacific passenger
service. With the most of the remaining NP passenger services being inferior to
those of Great Northern, the lack of a Vista-Dome North Coast Limited would
place the NP in a position of complete obscurity. By 1965, without a sleeping
car, the Mainstreeter wouldn't even make a decent candidate to be considered as
Granted, such a comparison is irrelevant overall, but it does point out the
scope of the service offered on a broad scale. In the Official Guide of the
Railways from this period, Great Northern did, at the top of several of the
pages of its entry, tout the "Incomparable" Empire Builder, but also
was proud to mention its other "great" streamliners: The
Internationals, Western Star, and Red River (but surprisingly ignored the
Winnipeg Limited and Gopher/Badger, which also provided the best service on
their respective routes). In its entry in the Guide, the Northern Pacific
heading atop most of the pages (when not indicating "Main Street of the
Northwest, which referred to no specific train), boasted being the "Route
of Vista-Dome North Coast Limited", and then continued to brag about being
the "Route of the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited", and, of course,
they were the "Route of the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited", you know.
In reality, as stated above, there was little else to brag about.
Some headings would just have looked out of place: "The Mainstreeter; only
three nights enroute between Chicago and Seattle"; or "The
Mainstreeter between Seattle and Spokane. Overnight Every Night, No Extra
Fare." (Oops, that one had been used.) Well, how about: "Northern
Pacific. With the only daytime service between the Twin Cities and Winnipeg. Box
lunch available at Grand Forks." (They probably would have left that last
part out.) Or: "Northern Pacific: Route of the stainless-steel RDC (Railroading's
Deluxe Conveyance) fleet, connecting Duluth, Winnipeg, Lewiston to the 'Route of
the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited' ". Just doesn't have a ring to it......
For the comparison of passenger services, 1965 was chosen because it was a time
when many branch passenger operations had been pared, yet it was prior to the
massacre of trains that resulted from removal of U.S. Mail from American
passenger trains. For the most part, the year chosen is a good representation of
the superiority of Great Northern passenger service. NP fans might have chosen
sometime like January 1955 when the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited had domes and
the Empire Builder had not yet received its domes for the comparison. While one
train does not a rail passenger service make (unless you're the NP or WP,
possibly), other post-war years would have been just as unflattering to the NP.
**1947, when the new streamlined Empire Builder debuted and the North Coast
Limited was demoted to try to compete in schedule and equipment to GN's
secondary Oriental Limited;
**1951, when ANOTHER new Empire Builder (the "mid-century" version)
arrived on the scene, with the previous streamlined Empire Builder equipment
creating the new Western Star, making both the Empire Builder and Western Star
superior to the North Coast Limited.
**1960. When the Great Northern ceased running the Western Star via Grand Forks
and Great Falls, travel time between St. Paul and Helena via GN trains 27-3-235
was 2 hours, 57 minutes quicker than NP's only passenger service to Helena, the
Mainstreeter. Eastbound, trains 236-4-28 were 2 hours, 15 minutes faster than NP
**1969, when, by this time NP had reduced its all-time low of three trains
(25-26; 1-2; 407-408), GN still ran two trains from St. Paul to Seattle, once
north of Seattle to Vancouver, BC, once south of Seattle to Portland, twice
daily to Superior, WI, and in conjunction with its longer distance trains, ran
four times daily from the Twin Cities to Fargo.
"I would like to remind you that in recent years the Northern Pacific
Railroad has made an effort to discourage passenger service on the southern
route" -Senator Mike Mansfield, Senate Congressional Record, April 13,
COMPARING THE GRADES OF THE TRANSCONTINENTAL ROUTES:
Grades on Great Northern:
St. Paul-Minot, via Willmar, Westbound .4%, Eastbound, .4%
Minot-Williston, Westbound .65%, Eastbound .6%
Williston-Havre, Westbound .4%, Eastbound .4%
Havre-Whitefish, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound .8%
...(Helper grade eastbound 1.8% Nimrod/Java to Summit)
Whitefish-Spokane, Westbound .6%, Eastbound .7%
Spokane-Wenatchee, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound 1.0%
Wenatchee-Seattle, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound 1.0%
...(Helper grade westbound 1.6% to 2.2% Peshastin to Berne)
...(Helper grade eastbound 2.2% for 11 miles Skykomish to Scenic, then 8 miles
of 1.6% Scenic to Berne)
Grades on Northern Pacific:
St. Paul-Mandan, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound .4%
...(Westbound grade is between Fargo and Mandan. Both eastbound and
...westbound there are short stretches of grades in excess of those indicated
Mandan-Glendive, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound 1.0%
Glendive-Livingston, Westbound .5%, Eastbound downhill
Livingston-Helena, Westbound 1.0%, Eastbound 1.0%
...(Helper district both directions between Livingston and Bozeman.
...Westbound is 1.8% for 12 miles: Eastbound is 1.9% for 7 miles)
Helena-Missoula, Westbound downhill, Eastbound .4%
...(Helper district in both directions between Helena and Elliston.
...Westbound is 1.6% to 2.2% for 15 miles; Eastbound is 1.4% for 8 miles)
Missoula-Spokane, Westbound .8%, Eastbound .4%
...(Grade indicated is via St. Regis; Evaro Hill route is 2.2% in each
Spokane-Pasco, Westbound 1.1%, Eastbound 1.0%
Pasco-Seattle, Westbound .8%, Eastbound 1.1%
...(Helper district both directions between Easton and Lester.
...Westbound 2.2% for 6 miles: Eastbound 2.2% for 10.25 miles)
The Great Northern route is clearly superior. While NP trains encounter 1%
grades at numerous locations (westbound from St. Paul) prior to reaching the
Montana border, a westbound Great Northern train wouldn't see one until beyond
the mid-point of its journey, west of Havre, Montana. Great Northern's crossing
of the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, Montana is the lowest crossing in the
United States north of New Mexico, and the route, in either direction, has the
best profile of any Midwest-to-West Coast railroad in the United States.
To fully grasp the differences in grade, here's a comparison of what it would
like to operate a freight train of a specified size over the two routes:
Let's take a train of 7,000 tons (quite an average train by today's standards,
quite heavy by those in 1970) assigned two SD45 locomotives (7200 HP) for a trip
westbound from the Twin Cities; one train via GN, the other via NP.
The Great Northern train would leave its initial terminal and continue
unassisted to Havre. There, another unit would be added, and could be removed at
Essex (today, due to the routing via Flathead Tunnel, the unit could not be
removed until Rock Creek). The train could then continue with its original two
units to Spokane, where a third unit of similar size would again have to be
added for the trip to Wenatchee. At Wenatchee, the train would have to be split
in two or helped to Skykomish. The original three units could handle 3600 tons,
so another three unit engine consist or helper would be necessary for the
remaining tonnage. (Today, helpers are not used, trains are doubled as
necessary). The train could continue to Seattle from Skykomish with the three
units assigned at Spokane.
The Northern Pacific train departing the Twin Cities with its two units could
only continue unassisted to Dilworth, Minnesota, where another unit would have
to be added for the train to tackle the grades climbing from the Sheyenne and
James Rivers valleys, and this additional unit would remain on the train all the
way to Glendive to handle the heavier grades of Southwestern North Dakota. At
Glendive, the third unit could be removed, and the train could continue with the
original two units through to Livingston. At Livingston, a third unit would
again be necessary for use through to Blossburg, Montana. In addition, two more
SD45 units or equivalent would be necessary to help the train from Livingston to
the top of Bozemen Pass.
At Helena, another helper, this one with three units, would be required to push
the train to the top of Mullan Pass. Assuming the third road unit has cut at
Blossburg, the train could continue unassisted to Sandpoint, where again a third
unit would be required for Athol Hill (unless the train was exceptionally short,
such as a grain train, the two SD45 units could handle it). At Spokane, a third
unit would be required for the trip to Pasco (actually, the ruling grade between
Spokane and Pasco was immediately departing Spokane; a routing via the SP&S
would allow for a grade some .2% less than the NP).
From Pasco, the train would again require three units to make the hill near
Kiona, just west of Kennewick, and at Easton the train would require three more
units to either help the train or split the train in two. In this case the train
would again be assembled at Lester, Washington for the run into Seattle. Note
the numerous power modifications necessary in this scenario which is based on a
train operating with minimal power at any point on its route.
In reality, the Great Northern train would likely just run with two units
between the Twin Cities and Havre and three west of there, and arrange for three
more units at Wenatchee. The NP train would likely have three units assigned at
origin, operating through to destination, receiving helpers at Livingston,
Helena, and Easton. In any event, the result is the same: it takes more power,
more crews, more time, and more money to run a train on the NP route compared
with operating one via the GN route.
Another operating consideration is mileage. On the transcontinental route, Great
Northern had the clear advantage; The Empire Builder traveled 110 miles less
than the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, and GN freight had an even greater
mileage advantage (since GN freight usually bypassed Fargo, and most NP freight
used a longer route via St. Regis instead of Arlee). Even where GN did not have
the mileage edge on the NP, sometimes its favorable grades made it competitive
with NP. For instance, an all-GN routing between Billings, Montana and Seattle
is only 78 miles further than one on the NP, but westbound trains, for instance,
would not require additional power or helpers until Wenatchee, whereas NP trains
would already have been helped at Livingston and Helena (and Missoula if
operated via Evaro Hill) prior to reaching Easton, where it would have to be
helped over Stampede Pass.
Between Helena, Montana and St. Paul, Minnesota, an all-GN routing via Great
Falls, Havre, New Rockford, and Willmar was but 24 miles longer than on the NP
main between the two cities, but the difference is grade. Westbound the maximum
grade on GN is .65% between St. Paul and Sieben (only about 30 miles from
Helena), and .85% beyond. Eastbound, it's 1.1% for the 17 miles from Helena to
Silver City, then .6% maximum to St. Paul. This is in contrast to the numerous
grades at 1.0% on the NP across North Dakota, not to mention the climb over
Bozeman Pass (1.9% eastbound).
Overall Route Comparisons:
I've already outlined how the Great Northern transcontinental route is superior
to that of the Northern Pacific with regard to gradient and mileage. At merger
time 1970, the new BN routed most Twin Cities-Pacific Northwest tonnage to a
route that included mostly ex-GN trackage. Clearly, the GN route to the Pacific
Northwest was superior to that of the NP. Since both GN and NP were railroads
built to connect the upper Midwest with Pacific Northwest, the transcontinental
routes were the most important. But, to me, this is not where the GN clearly
outclasses the NP...it's the other routes.
Did you ever notice that most of the sites for the NPRHA convention are located
on the former NP main line? (Except for maybe Tacoma, which, since it was the
first primary NP destination when built would be considered on the
transcontinental main) Did you ever wonder why? Because those are the only
places where the former NP remains as an important railroad. Yet, the GNRHS
conventions have taken place in cities like Sioux City, Duluth, Great Falls, and
Bellingham, not exactly known as being along the ex-GN main line. Great Northern
had viable routes other than the transcontinental main.
Twenty-Eight years after the Northern Pacific disappeared, I can think of only
two of its routes (other than the transcontinental main) that are important to
today's Burlington Northern Santa Fe: Seattle-Portland(also used by Great
Northern), and Staples-Carlton(the route to Superior for unit coal trains.) Here
are some important BNSF lines and terminals located on former Great Northern
trackage that continue viable today and were NOT on the main transcontinental
The Mesabi Range: This trackage operates north and west of Duluth/Superior. On
average, two or three taconite trains operate daily (most handle pellets to
Allouez, but there are frequent all-rail movements to Granite City, IL, Chicago,
and other locations). Northern Pacific never served the Mesabi Range, but
instead went to the much-less-productive Cuyuna Range (off the Carlton to
Staples main at Deerwood); the trackage to Cuyuna Range from Deerwood is
To Winnipeg: The route from Crookston to Noyes (then to Winnipeg via CN) is
BNSF's sole route to the border in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota
today. Connecting routes at Crookston are all former GN routes (to Grand
Forks-Minot-Fargo, and to Superior). NP, of course, had a route to Winnipeg,
too, and some of it is still in service, mostly in North Dakota (from Grafton).
Savvy NP fans will point out that the CN route from Noyes/Emerson Jct. to
Winnipeg was actually constructed by the NP at the turn of the century. That's
true, but due to financial problems, NP sold the route (and others) to the
province of Manitoba in 1910, and it eventually became part of CN. Since it's
been quite awhile since the NP had it, and all the access on the US side is
former GN trackage, I think this qualifies as an ex-GN route.
Eastern South Dakota Cities: Great Northern routes in South Dakota have stood
the test of time. The route to Yankton from Sioux Falls has been abandoned, and
the route to Aberdeen from Breckenridge is currently not used as a through route
as a result of BN's acquisition of the South Dakota Core Railroad (former
Milwaukee trackage), but ex-GN terminals at Willmar, MN, Watertown, Sioux City,
and Sioux Falls continue to anchor rail operations in eastern South Dakota.
While several segments of ex-GN trackage have been abandoned in South Dakota,
overall, GN routes have fared better than those operated by the Milwaukee Road
and C&NW, once the major players in Eastern South Dakota. By the way, did
anyone besides me think that it was odd that GN, the principal railroad of
Northern North Dakota, served so much of South Dakota, while NP, the principal
railroad of Southern North Dakota, never entered South Dakota?
Sioux City, Iowa: Continues to be a major point for locals, through freight, and
grain gathering. The line from Willmar, Minnesota to Sioux City is BNSF's
leading grain producing route, and is slated to undergo massive upgrading in the
next few years to handle more through traffic. Northern Pacific didn't enter
Great Falls, Montana: Continues to be a major point for locals and grain
gathering, and it's the major yard on the only route in the Intermountain West
between Canada and Great Basin. The route is also used for ribbon rail loaded
trains from BNSF's Laurel, Montana rail plant destined for points west of
Sandpoint, ID; the reason: too much curvature on the ex-NP main (MRL) at
Lombard, Montana makes the trains susceptible to derailment. As of late, the
route is being used for grain and coal between the Midwest and West Coast,
avoiding former NP trackage (MRL). Recent capacity enhancements are in the works
to allow even more traffic to be diverted away from MRL. (See below)
Kettle Falls, WA: This route north from Spokane is busier than ever. Though no
longer going to Nelson, BC, the one-time terminus, the route has been upgraded
to handle ore shipments from Alaska which are moved by ship to Everett, then
rail to Spokane and to Waneta, BC for the smelter at Trail. Lumber products
round out the rest of the traffic. It's amazing that BNSF is so important to
this area of British Columbia, where GN's Hill and CP's Van Horne had fought for
dominance. It's one area in Canada where the GN (long after it was no longer the
GN) triumphed over CP.
Vancouver, BC: The route from Everett north to Vancouver, BC is also busier than
ever. The route serves the Roberts Bank, BC Superport, and still provides
trackage rights to Canadian National to enter Vancouver, western Canada's major
city. NP did have a parallel route in the area. Originally running from Black
River and Seattle to Sumas, the route is intermittently abandoned south of
Sedro-Woolley, but in service beyond. Daily trains for Sumas now originate at
Everett, and use ex-GN trackage to Sedro-Woolley and former NP trackage to Sumas
where an interchange is made with CP and the Southern Railway of British
Columbia. The ex-NP branch to Bellingham is nearly all abandoned.
To California: The extension of the "Oregon Trunk" to Klamath Falls
and on to Bieber features 2 to 3 trains daily over most of the route. Since the
UP-SP merger, BNSF has purchased the line from Bieber to Keddie where trackage
rights are used both directions on former WP main line. The ex-GN yard at
Klamath Falls is the focal point of route, not only marshaling trains on
north-south routes, but occasionally originating trains that operate toward
Denver on UP trackage rights. Northern Pacific didn't enter California. They had
their chance to make the construction of the route to Bieber a joint effort with
the GN, but didn't think it was viable (or didn't have the money?), and didn't
want to jeopardize their friendly connection with the SP at Portland. Great
Northern's construction of the "Inside Gateway" has guaranteed that
there will be rail competition along the west coast.
As stated earlier, when trying to think of a former Northern Pacific station
that was not on the transcontinental main but would qualify as even a minor
terminal today, I can't think of one.
Some objective, some subjective....
A....To access the Orient, James J. Hill formed the Great Northern Pacific
Steamship Company. The two major vessels were appropriately named the Great
Northern and the Northern Pacific. The Great Northern in latter years served in
World War I and World War II( renamed the H.F. Alexander). The Northern Pacific
sunk in 1917. Meaningless, perhaps, but reflective of the relative financial
conditions of the two companies nonetheless.
B....While only 8% of trackage in the U.S. was land-grant, the Northern
main fell into this category. While some of the early predecessor roads that
formed the Great Northern in the Midwest had land grant roots, the railroad
overall was mostly privately financed. Only during the depression did GN not
declare dividends, and unlike most railroads (including the NP) during this
period of time, the GN never was insolvent.
C....Heralds, Logos, Symbols, etc. Few symbols nationwide were more recognized
than Rocky, the Great Northern Goat. Not only was this animal a logical choice,
since its habitat could be viewed from Great Northern trains, but sure-footed
"Rocky" also exemplified Great Northern's rock-solid financial
position. Truly appropriate, truly an American classic. I would, however, ask
the average NP fan to define the word "Monad", and I'm sure most
couldn't. The symbol used by the Northern Pacific is most accurately described
as that of Yin and Yang, with origins in ancient China. For this reason alone,
when I hear the NP referred to as the "All-American Railroad", I take
one look at the Yin Yang symbol and know that moniker isn't accurate, since it
is not of American origin and has religious and philosophical meanings. While in
use by the NP, the symbol was well known, but what, if anything, was it supposed
to represent, and how many were aware of its meaning? The puzzling thing for me
is that the Northern Pacific with a rich history and traversing a diverse and
beautiful landscape (it was, as they said, "The Yellowstone Park
Line") couldn't come up with something more, well, at least
D....Names of Passenger Trains during the "modern" era. Yes, I agree,
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited was a classic. But what about the rest? I admit
that names like the Alaskan, might have been a stretch, but who came up with
Mainstreeter? I know where it comes from, but there isn't a lot of creativity
here. As defined: 1.) resident of section of country centering around its small
towns (but I thought NP went to all the big towns), and 2.) One characterized by
materialistic self-complacent provincialism. Wow. But, again, like the symbol of
yin and yang, considering where the NP went, Mainstreeter was the best they
could do? And what about the rest of the NP passenger trains? Why did most of
them (except the abortive Twin Ports-Twin City Express) not have names?
Actually, this was probably appropriate, because given their nature (mostly
coach-only), they hardly deserved to be called anything. By contrast, GN came up
with all the best names: Winnipeg Limited, Gopher, Badger, Red River, Dakotan,
Internationals. You had some idea of where they went from the name, and the
names were all relevant. The lack of creativity on the part of the Northern
Pacific is amazing.
E....Railroad Stations. I know that many NP fans are proud of some of their
ornate stations. They are beautiful. Certainly more fancy than many
corresponding ones on the Great Northern. They would have been worthwhile if 1.)
The NP throughout the years had proved to be so financially well-off that such
facilities could be justified, and 2.)The amount of passenger and freight
traffic generated supported the construction of buildings this size. For the
most part, neither is true. By the way, where was this "Hennepin Ave.
Station" used by the NP in Minneapolis, their largest on-line city? I can't
find reference to it anywhere except NP timetables.
F....Service to National Parks. Great Northern's service to Glacier National
Park is famous. The railroad lobbied Congress for its creation, which today is
one of the nation's top ten most visited, in spite of its location away from
centers of population and its short season. Here, Great Northern originated the
slogan "See America First". Many of the hotels constructed by GN are
still in use today, and remind visitors of the importance railroads played in
settling America. Glacier National Park was the only national park along the
main line of a railroad (sorry, NP fans, Theodore Roosevelt was not upgraded to
national park status until 1978, 8 years after the NP ceased to exist.).
The NP was "The Yellowstone Park Line" touting its service to that
park, certainly more-visited than Glacier. Yet, NP's influence over Yellowstone
could not match the effect GN had on Glacier. Glacier was almost a GN creation
(the GN had a lot to gain from its being designated a national park), but
Yellowstone, the world's first national park, was named in 1872, before the NP
was constructed. Certainly, NP contributed to Yellowstone, but so did Union
Pacific, and to a lesser extent, Burlington. And during the 50's and 60's
airports in nearby Jackson, Belgrade, and West Yellowstone siphoned off rail
Glacier National Park even today, remains relatively inaccessible. And, being a
Montanan, I'm partial to Glacier...after all, most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming.
And, as the saying goes in Montana, whether you be in Glendive or Kalispell,
"Glacier has all the beauty, Yellowstone gets all the glory."
G....On line scenery. Could anyone deny that the NP featured more scenery than
the GN? Not me. In fact, about 110 miles and 3 to 10 hours more depending on
which NP train you were riding. But we've already discussed how slow the NP
trains were. Yes, overall, on the transcontinental routes, the NP route was much
more scenic, and Great Northern got a lot of good press about serving Glacier
National Park without it being mentioned how little there was to see between
Minot and Cut Bank aboard the westbound Empire Builder. I will say one thing in
the defense of the Great Northern's route, however. Judging the NP to be more
scenic is tainted by the fact that this determination is Montana-oriented. When
they think about scenery, everything I've ever read bases the choice on what you
see traveling across Montana on the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited or the Empire
However, if you were a resident of Western Washington, and Seattle in particular,
and the only impression of your area would be from an inbound passenger train,
would you choose the GN route or the NP? On the longest days of the year, riders
on the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited into Seattle would see some spectacular
mountains and get a good view of the Cascades just prior to arriving at Stampede
summit. But after dropping into the Green River watershed, that route is a
tunnel of trees until the train magically appeared at East Auburn. From there to
Seattle, it's typical suburbia and big city industrial areas right up to the
arrival at King Street Station. You don't see one drop of salt water. You don't
see the Pike Place Market or Seattle Waterfront or the Space Needle or the
Chittenden Locks or Shilshole Bay Marina (proof Seattleites have more boats per
capita than anyone!) or Puget Sound or Ferries or the Olympic Mountains or Mount
Baker or Sunset Falls. Truly, these are the essence of Western Washington. They
are, of course, all visible, even today, from the Empire Builder.
H....On line population. The Northern Pacific called itself the "Main
Street of the Northwest" because it served more of the bigger cities along
the way. Did it serve more people than did the GN? Again, things are relative.
For one thing, even today, even "major" cities like Fargo, Billings,
and even Spokane hardly qualify as major metropolitan areas, so that claim is
relatively pointless. Much like the scenery argument, it is apparent that Great
Northern hauled more freight than did the Northern Pacific even though it ran
through an area that was somewhat less populated and somewhat less scenic than
did the NP. One reason is, of course, GN's superior route had a lot do with
attracting traffic, and the other is that GN, went many more places than did NP
and really did serve more people.
While GN served a greater on-line population in Minnesota and North Dakota than
did NP, the Northern Pacific route across Montana and Washington was two to
three times as populous as the GN route - IF you only looked at the
transcontinental route. Remember, GN served places like Butte, Helena, Great
Falls, and Billings in Montana which fed the main line. In Washington State,
clearly the domain of the NP, GN was helped by its Everett-Vancouver, BC main,
an area where the NP was weak. Again, Great Northern cities off the
transcontinental route are some of its greatest strengths. In other words, while
Miles City, Billings, Butte, Missoula, and Yakima really are bigger than
Glasgow, Havre, Cut Bank, Kalispell, and Wenatchee, Great Northern served a lot
more people in British Columbia, South Dakota, Iowa, and California than did the
I....Freight train schedules from the Official Guide of the Railways, 1965. Not
a lot of specific information can be derived from the railroads' freight
schedules, but some things are of interest. NP fans might be interested in
knowing that NP trains 600/601 were actually scheduled to be faster than GN
trains 82/97 between the Twin Cites and Seattle. Both 600 and 601 were faster
than the Mainstreeter, as it had limited on-line pickups and setouts. The
Burlington schedules are the best indication, however, of what was moving where.
All the trains indicated between Chicago and the Twin Cities (81/83/97westbound
and 82/88 eastbound) correspond in time AND SYMBOL to connecting Great Northern
trains to and from the Northwest. The obvious conclusion is that these were
through trains, and much of the traffic was, as GN was the preferred connection.
Burlington power often ran west of the Twin Cities as did GN power operating to
Chicago. At Laurel, Montana, trains 79/80 to/from Lincoln were run-through
trains with Great Northern. It was not unusual to see Burlington power operate
west of Laurel on GN freight trains, either. In another touch of class, GN named
some of their freight trains, and like the passenger trains, the name did a fair
job of indicating where they ran: Winnipeger, Fargo Fast, Valley Special, Great
Lakes, Northern States. Texas, West Coaster. NP didn't name any of its freight
trains, but after they came up with Mainstreeter and Twin Ports-Twin City
Express for two of their passenger trains, I'm glad they left well enough alone!
J....Always linked. Like it or not, ever since the turn of the century (when
James J. Hill acquired control of the NP and CB&Q), the operations of GN,
NP, and CB&Q have been linked. I get the impression that many in the NP camp
deny this to be the case, but that doesn't change reality. Anyway, this also
wasn't necessarily to the benefit of GN operations, either. When I compared the
Empire Builder and Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, I chose a schedule from a
time when the trains operated separately. Later on, when the trains were
combined between Chicago and St. Paul, the Empire Builder suffered from the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited's longer route and running time.
Combined out of Chicago, the Chicago departure was based on the arrival time of
the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited in Seattle. It had to arrive early enough to
allow the equipment to be turned the same day. The Empire Builder missed several
connections when the departure time had to be moved up to accommodate the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited's schedule. Then, when the trains were separated
west of St. Paul, it could not be placed on its optimum running time because 1.)
it would then arrive Seattle prior to 600 AM, and 2.)Portland passengers would
then be penalized in Spokane or Pasco waiting for the Portland cars off the
always-slower Vista-Dome North Coast Limited.
This scheduling problem was the same eastbound, too, but most pronounced just
prior to Amtrak day, 1971. The Empire Builder departed Seattle at 345 PM, which
was somewhat later than its 1965 departure time, but it was based on the
scheduled arrival time necessary to pick up the Portland cars in Spokane, which,
of course, was based on when the Portland train had to deliver its Vista-Dome
North Coast Limited cars at Pasco. Even though the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited left Seattle 75 minutes ahead of the Empire Builder, the Empire Builder
was 4 minutes ahead leaving Spokane. By Fargo, the lead was 2 hours, 18 minutes,
arriving at 1225 AM. Since it had to wait for the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited
which wouldn't arrive St. Paul until 750 AM, the Empire Builder's running time
between Fargo and St. Paul averaged only 39.1 MPH. In addition, it is common
knowledge that it was then not unusual for the Empire Builder to wait for a
late-running Vista-Dome North Coast Limited. I understand the reason was the
numerous slow track restrictions along the former NP route.
MISCELLANEOUS OBSERVATIONS (continued):
Some objective, some subjective....
K....A Black Day. I continue to be intrigued by the fact that Merger Day, 1970
is indicated in black on the NPRHA calendar every year. I get the impression
that some in charge of producing this calendar wish to show this in a negative
light. Regardless of the actual intent, by showing this in this way, it is
imposing one person's or group's opinion on everyone else. I have no doubt that
many on the former Northern Pacific dreaded the prospect of merger.
Those in Livingston, Montana were especially vocal. They realized through
traffic would immediately be diverted to the Great Northern (which did happen).
Yet, it's interesting that these people could reasonably expect the NP not to
have merged. Railroading was in the decline in the late 1960's..could the NP had
made it alone? It's hard to say, but I still think that indicating merger day as
a "black" day is a judgment call whose place is not on the NPRHA
calendar. After all, the NP was merged, so someone must have thought it was a
good idea. No doubt there were many GN and CB&Q employees who disliked the
prospect of the merger, due the uncertainty of it all. GN employees in places
like Butte and Helena probably feared their jobs would be lost as traffic was
shifted to the larger NP yard facilities.
Overall, however, it is my opinion that most NP employees, acknowledging that
their routes were usually inferior to that of GN, dreaded the day when many
trains operating over the NP would be shifted to GN routes.
L....Operating Capacity. In addition to mileage and grade, track capacity also
affected a railroad's ability to handle traffic. Here, too, the NP was
inadequate. At merger time, it's interesting to compare the siding capacities in
Western North Dakota and Eastern Montana:
Between Mandan, ND and Huntley, MT, sidings greater than 7,000 feet in length:
...(All single track/ABS)(out of 59 sidings indicated in the timetable)
Lehigh, ND - 7,498
Beach, ND - 11,564
Marsh, MT - 7,117
Rosebud, MT - 7,081
Finch, MT - 10,800
Custer, MT - 7,019
Between Minot, ND and Havre, MT, siding less than 7,000 feet in length:
...(CTC or DT251-254 territory)(out of 35 sidings indicated in the timetable)
White Earth, ND - 6,967
Tioga, ND - 5,648 (not a controlled siding, this is CTC territory)
Frazer, MT - 6,322 (not a controlled siding, this is CTC territory)
Not only were very few of NP's sidings inadequate for the longer trains of the
future, but few were anchored to allow trains greater than 100 tons per
operative brake to use the siding. Since all coal trains are this heavy, it made
for some interesting dispatching, especially if there was a westbound train,
such as a grain train, that was also over 100 tons per operative brake. Such
restrictions were virtually unheard of on GN trackage, even off the main line.
Some Great Northern "branch lines" even had main line capacity with
regard to siding length. For instance, in the 320 miles between Mossmain,
MT(Laurel) and Shelby, MT, Great Northern had 12 sidings of 6,200 feet in length
or greater, longer than the average siding between Mandan and Glendive, which is
known to be a very torturous railroad. To be fair, the NP between St. Paul and
Magnolia (west of Casselton) was mostly double track (GN owned one track from
Minneapolis to Sauk Rapids) and was CTC with long sidings between Laurel and
Spokane. As I understand, this was in anticipation of the merger, when the Twin
Cites-Casselton main would handle the transcontinental traffic, and
Huntley-Spokane route would handle interchange traffic off the CB&Q from the
south and east.
M....Montana Rail Link. The top news story of 1987 in Montana was the creation
of Montana Rail Link when the BN(ex-NP) main line (and branches) were
sold/leased most of the way between Huntley and Sandpoint. Since then, MRL has
enjoyed 10 prosperous years of operating BN and BNSF trains between Laurel,
Montana and Spokane, Washington, which is the vast majority of traffic on this
route. As indicated above, changes are in the wind in the latter 1990's. BNSF
has shifted all coal and some grain shipments off MRL to a route via Great
Falls. The ability to shift this volume of traffic to what is basically a
320-mile ex-GN branch line (from Laurel to Shelby) without any capacity
improvements is a tribute to its construction by the Great Northern (see
"L" above), since the siding locations and lengths were not changed
since the 1970 merger.
Since the traffic had been rerouted in 1997, BNSF has constructed a couple of
additional sidings and has lengthened others, with more improvements planned.
Depending on the extent to which the traffic on the MRL will or can (again,
their contract guarantees a certain number of trains )or will be routed, change
is certainly in store for the ex-NP route in Western Montana. Just about
everyone in Montana has opinion on MRL, and it usually ranges from being the
savior of the route (since BN threatened to abandon the line and route all the
traffic via Great Falls earlier), to being considered a big blow to labor in
that MRL employees operate the railroad with fewer work-rule restrictions than
were in place on the NP/BN.
In the course of its ten years of existence, MRL has gained quite a following in
the railfan community due to the volume of traffic, exotic power, and its scenic
route. Many NP fans either are proud of the notoriety MRL has received in the
railfan community, or are still somewhat embarrassed that "their" main
line railroad was chosen to be "sold" and run as a regional carrier,
which, considering the through nature of most of the traffic on the line, is an
Regardless of varied opinions on this controversial topic, one thing is clear:
BNSF's decision to route the traffic is clearly based on economics. They really
don't care how their traffic gets from Laurel to Spokane and vice versa, as long
as it's as cheaply or as dependably as possible. While there are likely some
political considerations also, cost is the prime factor. This is where NP/GN
comparison becomes relevant. While it is easy to think that BNSF is attempting
to pressure MRL to accepting their trains at a lesser cost, it's important to
remember why this section of the railroad was transferred to a regional carrier.
The former Northern Pacific main line between Laurel and Sandpoint can be an
expensive route over which to operate a train, and it's entirely possible, in
fact, quit likely, that BNSF can do it cheaper in some instances on its own
This is a comparison of the operation of a standard 14000-ton (108 car) grain
train over the two routes.
Via MRL: A train inbound from Sheridan, WY will have four SD40-2 units or
equivalent. At Laurel, a 5th unit of equal horsepower will need to be added.
When the train arrives at Livingston, MRL pushes the train on the rear with a
minimum of four 3000-HP units for the assault on Bozeman Pass. The helpers are
removed at Bozeman, and the train continues unassisted to Helena (all 5 units
are needed for 1.0% climb up Winston Hill).
At Helena, TWO 4-unit helpers (all 3000 HP), or a total of 8 ADDITIONAL units
are required to push the train to the top of Mullan Pass at Blossburg. The
helper consists are cut in the train one-third, and two-thirds back. Needless to
say, this a time-consuming procedure at Helena, which is also the case at
Blossburg (or Elliston or Garrison) when the helper units are cut out. And, of
course, it requires TWO helper crews for each train. (And, just to clarify, a
grain train can make the top of the hill with 12 units, instead of 13, which
would be the 5 road units and two 4-unit helpers.) At Missoula, the common
procedure is to cut one of the five road units off and return it to Laurel,
where power is always short.
Via BNSF/Great Falls: A train inbound from Sheridan, WY with four SD40-2 units
or equivalent will require no additional power at Laurel, and will turn north at
Mossmain without entering Laurel terminal. A fifth unit is required eventually,
and every attempt is made to add the unit at Great Falls, but the train can
continue to Shelby without it, since the ruling grade is only .6%.
From Shelby, it's only a bit over 80 miles to the top of the Continental Divide
at Summit. These trains receive a helper between Cut Bank and Glacier Park
(between 60 and 12 miles from Summit) for the pull through Bison. The helper
consist usually is two SD40-2 units, but can be less. The only reason the helper
is added (to the rear) is to prevent "breaking in two" at the east
switch at Bison. In no instance is the helper cut in. Usually, these trains
retain their 5 units through to Spokane, though it is not uncommon to cut one at
Troy and work it back to Whitefish or Havre.
The all-BNSF route is about 96 miles further that via MRL, but requires two less
helper crews and many fewer locomotives. The advantage of the BNSF routing is
most evident when these trains are operated with distributed power west of Great
Falls. In this case, the train is repowered with four C44-9 units (usually), two
on the point and two remotely-controlled on the rear.
When this is done, the train requires no additional power for the remainder of
its trip to Spokane, eliminating any helper costs. Even if distributed power was
a consideration on an MRL routing, additional power would still be required in
some form at Livingston and Helena in a quantity that more or less makes using
distributed power pointless on this route. Regardless of any political decision
that may influence the routing of trains away from Montana Rail Link, the
reality is that their railroad is still the torturous ex-NP main line, over
which operating heavy trains is difficult. It might actually come to pass that
the MRL will be the savior of this line if the contract guaranteeing a certain
amount of traffic turns out to be the primary reason for its use.
Overall, there is very little of the former NP main line where very heavy trains
can be operated efficiently. Some routes will survive in spite of their grades
due to earlier management decisions, such as Spokane to Pasco (ask an SP&S
fan which route between these cities was best by far and why!), where no
alternate exists. Other routes will be threatened, and the MRL is not alone.
This is a personal observation only, but eventually, BNSFwill realize that
loaded coal trains can operate between Glendive and Casselton via Minot (instead
of Mandan) with fewer people (no helper crew as is now required from Glendive to
Fryburg), and 40% less power (1.0% grade versus .6%), while traversing only
about 50 more miles (and in some cases actually LESS mileage, depending on the
destination of the train, in the case of those going to Grand Forks, Winnipeg,
or Cohasset, MN.). The former Milwaukee Road line east of Terry, Montana also
offers a route east with lesser grade, and in some instances, fewer route miles
(depending on the destination of the train) than the ex-NP line.
N....Amtrak Service. This topic was not included in the comparison of GN and NP
passenger service because Amtrak was created after the Burlington Northern
merger of 1970. It's also a vague area to discuss due to the political nature of
Amtrak, i.e., that many are based on political influence rather than those of an
objective nature. Some comparison is justified, however. Obviously, the biggest
point in any NP-GN Amtrak comparison would be the selection of the Empire
Builder as Amtrak's lone Chicago-Seattle train in 1971. Most of its route
traveled ex-GN trackage, except for the part of the route between Sandpoint and
Seattle, which was NP. The decision to keep service on the ex-GN route and
discontinue that on the ex-NP route was based on public need (there was little
alternative public transportation along the former GN line), and existing
ridership (which was a product of public need to a certain extent, but also
characterized the level of service provided).
In June of 1971, Montana's senator Mike Mansfield (the Senate Majority Leader)
was able to influence Amtrak to agree to start passenger service over the former
NP route. Initially, the train (the North Coast Hiawatha) was combined with the
Empire Builder at Minneapolis and Spokane (and again, causing Empire Builder
passengers to wait for a slower train on the ex-NP route). This was probably the
first time in modern history that the NP main line had passenger service over
more of its route than did the GN line (since the Empire Builder was routed via
Yakima), even though the North Coast Hiawatha operate tri-weekly most of the
In 1973, the North Coast Hiawatha operated as a separate train the whole way
from Chicago to Seattle, but ran via the ex-GN route between Spokane and
Seattle, allowing for both the ex-GN and ex-NP routes to have passenger service
over most of their main lines (and, at times, for the first time ever, for a
passenger train operating on the former NP route through Southern Montana to
post a faster running time between the Twin Cities and Seattle, since the Empire
Builder ran via the ex-NP route between Spokane and Seattle.)
In 1974, Amtrak ran a train between Spokane and Seattle, just for patrons of the
World's Fair that year in Spokane (the Expo '74). The train used the former GN
route due to the continuing ridiculously long running time of the ex-NP line via
Yakima. (The GN route featured a slow 8.5 hour schedule as it was!)
In 1978, budget restraints resulted in the Empire Builder being reduced in
frequency to four days per week, with the North Coast Hiawatha continuing at
three days per week in effect, providing one daily train by one route or the
other. In the fall of 1979, further cutbacks resulted in the elimination of
several long distance trains nationwide, including the North Coast Hiawatha. The
Empire Builder was reduced to only three days per week, and was rerouted between
Minneapolis and Moorhead from the ex-GN main via Willmar to the joint GN-NP main
to St. Cloud and ex-NP main to Moorhead.
This meant that the ex-NP transcontinental main had passenger service between
Minneapolis and Moorhead(Fargo) and between Sandpoint and Seattle, with ex-GN
route retaining service all the way from Fargo to Sandpoint. In 1981, owing
mostly to BN's desire to downgrade the former NP main west of Pasco, Amtrak
rerouted the Empire Builder between Spokane and Seattle to the faster ex-GN
route via Wenatchee. At the same time, Amtrak added a Portland section to the
Empire Builder from Spokane, which uses mostly ex-NP track between Spokane and
Pasco. In 1982, the Empire Builder began operating daily, and has remained so,
except for a period of two years in parts of 1995, 1996, and 1997.
The Empire Builder continues as one of Amtrak's most popular trains (during the
summer is often Amtrak's most-ridden train, and always produces the greatest
number of passenger miles per train mile of any Amtrak train) being a
transportation anomaly carrying many riders on America's most sparsely-populated
Amtrak route. The vast majority of the route is ex-GN with only St. Cloud-Fargo(remember
the GN owned one main from Minneapolis to St. Cloud) and Sandpoint-Pasco as
being former NP trackage.
Most of the former NP transcontinental main line is devoid of passenger service
today. While rail passenger service through southern Montana would be a welcome
transportation addition, it's interesting that now most Montanans, regardless of
their residence, acknowledge that the Empire Builder is a vital resource to
transportation-starved northern Montana. It's now only the rare fanatic railfan
or uninformed out-of-stater that makes a comment on Amtrak using the wrong route
Thanks largely to the state of Washington, the NP-GN-UP joint main line between
Seattle and Portland has continued to see three trains per day operated by
Amtrak, with certain exceptions. This was the service level offered prior to
Amtrak, and though technically an NP route, as stated earlier, the continued
presence of passenger service is not an NP endorsement, since the host railroad
provided no more service than the tenant roads did over most of the life of the
Amtrak operated service between the Twin Cities and Twin Ports (endpoints varied
on both ends of the run) between 1975 and 1985. Needless to say, this train used
the ex-GN trackage, since the ex-NP route was downgraded (and partially
abandoned) after the merger. This service was sometimes subsidized by the state
Amtrak operated service over the ex-GN route of the Internationals between
Seattle and Vancouver, BC between 1972 and 1981. Thanks to the state of
Washington, which is also responsible for augmenting Portland-Seattle service,
trains between Seattle and Vancouver, BC began running again in 1995, and
continue to do so.
Clearly, the Empire Builder has stood the test of time as an Amtrak train, in an
era where few other intercity passenger trains remain, running on mostly an
ex-GN route, including serving Grand Forks, which is not on BNSF's main freight
route, which is yet another unique feature! Except for the Seattle-Portland
line, which at one time featured trains operated by three railroads, the only
cities along the ex-NP transcontinental route with passenger service are those
that are lucky enough to be along the short distances where former NP track is
used by the Amtrak Empire Builder. And while the North Coast Hiawatha would have
been an NP fan's last hope for continuing on the tradition of the Vista-Dome
North Coast Limited, this train is rapidly becoming a footnote at Amtrak,
operating for less than 30% of Amtrak's history.
Indeed, both the North-Star/Arrowhead(Twin Cities-Twin Ports) and the Pacific
International/Mount Baker International, which are/were operated on
non-transcontinental ex-GN trackage, have more seniority as Amtrak trains that
does the North Coast Hiawatha. And, if Amtrak service offered on ex-NP lines is
compared to NP-operated service in 1965, it's interesting to note that not only
do the vast majority of ex-NP stations NOT have rail passenger service, but many
are located on lines which have been abandoned totally or partially (i.e.
Pullman to Lewiston, to International Falls, the Winnipeg branch, the Twin
Ports-Twin Cities line).
O....Stampede Pass Renaissance. 1996 saw the reopening of the ex-NP main line
across Stampede Pass, which was Northern Pacific's crossing of the Cascade
Mountains. For more than a decade prior to this, the line over the pass itself
was unused. The line east of Cle Elum was sold to short line Washington Central
Railroad. Due capacity restraints on its two remaining lines across Washington
(the ex-GN line via Wenatchee and the ex-SP&S line via Wishram), BNSF made
the decision to buy back the line sold to Washington Central and upgrade the
entire route. The cost was rumored to be about $135 million. Needless to say,
this was BIG NEWS among Northern Pacific fans, and understandably so. With more
of their railroad abandoned or shortlined than any of the other three major
original BN merger partners, it certainly qualifies as good news when an
abandoned route is revived.
Unfortunately, even though BNSF originally announced that the route would be
handling up to 12 trains daily, this traffic has never materialized since the
line has reopened. One reason is that the clearance in Stampede tunnel was never
increased to handle today's stack trains. Another contributing factor is the
chronic shortage of motive power. Sometimes, it is necessary to run trains from
Pasco to Seattle via Wishram simply because a sufficient number of engines do
not exist to power the train via Stampede Pass (a 2.2% grade versus 1% via
Vancouver, at Napavine). Hopefully, BNSF will see the traffic increases it had
originally forecast. With all the euphoria over minimal traffic returning to the
former NP main in Washington State, it's somewhat ironic that other BNSF routes
in the Northwest that have seen traffic increases seem to have been largely
ignored in the railfan community.
By some coincidence, two examples (both previously discussed) are former Great
Northern lines: (Laurel)Mossmain-Shelby and Bend-Bieber. The Mossmain-Shelby
route is seeing more traffic than ever (being routed away from an ex-NP route),
and the "Inside Gateway" is seeing traffic frequency approaching that
when the Great Northern, Western Pacific, and Santa Fe cooperated to run
numerous trains between Washington, Oregon, and California. Not only are these
routes "branch" lines (when compared to GN's Midwest-Pacific Northwest
"main" line), but both now often experience a train frequency greater
than that of the ex-NP main line over Stampede Pass. Both of these routes
involve a fundamental change in the operation of traffic over their respective
lines, so, in the whole scope of things, it's interesting they don't merit the
same amount of publicity as does Stampede Pass.
P....Reliability. Another area where the NP crowd has the greatest pride is the
perceived reliability of their route. I have seen stories about many GN detours
on NP, and another contributing factor to this is the fine photography of NP
historian Warren McGee, an NP employee from Livingston. Numerous photos have
documented GN trains on NP track (to the point that one such photo appears on
the NPRHA calendar!), especially during extensive flooding in 1948(near Libby)
and 1964(Glacier National Park). I remember reading in one railroad publication
(I believe it was TRAINS), where Mr. McGee had worked an NP train while
detouring over another railroad, which, according to the article, is a tribute
to the reliability of the NP route.
While I cannot dispute the individual stories (or would I want to), I can also
add that in 17 years of working as a dispatcher on the BN Montana division which
more or less handled ex-GN trackage within Montana, there were numerous detours
of "south line" trains for flooding at places like Livingston,
Garrison(1975), and Thompson Falls. And while I never worked for the railroad
until after it had become the BN, I can state without fear of contradiction that
I saw NP's Mainstreeter changing crews in Cut Bank more than once. In other
words, such comparisons based on operational exceptions are relatively
pointless, except in certain circumstances (such as the BNSF ex-SLSF "River
Subdivision" near Cape Girardeau Missouri, which everyone knows is going to
succumb to Mississippi River floodwaters sometime during each Spring.
Although it IS true that there are people that actually believe that the Spring,
1983 mud slide at Thistle, Utah was God's way of telling Amtrak NOT to reroute
the then-San Francisco Zephyr off the UP onto the Rio Grande between Denver and
Ogden!!!). And, incidentally, I can't help but think that part of Mr. McGee's
attraction to the detouring Empire Builder in 1948 (it ran from Havre to Helena,
then via NP west to avoid flooding at Libby) was a chance to see a bonafide
streamliner is his part of the state, unlike the pokey North Coast Limited, that
would not achieve streamliner status for years.
And, as another observation, I wonder if the detouring Empire Builder, in spite
of its circuitous routing would STILL best the endpoint-to-endpoint running time
of the North Coast Limited, which would not be speeded up to become the "Faster"(but
never fastEST) version until 1952. In addition, in the winter of 1977-1978, the
Amtrak Empire Builder, which, at that time operated via the former NP between
Spokane and Seattle, detoured either via the Milwaukee Road or the ex-GN route
for about five months due to washouts on the Stampede Pass line. After the train
started detouring via Wenatchee, I can remember selling Amtrak tickets in
Northern Montana and explaining to confused passengers who were concerned about
the train detouring. "In this case", I explained, "detouring
means that you get to Seattle about an hour and a half earlier than
FANTASY RIDE COMPARISON:
Wouldn't it be great to ride the Empire Builder or Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited of 1965 again? Well, unless time travel is invented, it isn't possible,
but I would like to simulate such a trip...just to compare the schedules of
It is just after noon at Chicago Union Station, and the Chicago, Burlington, and
Quincy Railroad is once again about to dispatch one of its crack streamliners -
The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, for a westbound departure. Passengers who
arrived early in the morning connecting from eastern roads like B&O, NYC,
PRR, and EL are already in the station, since their transfer time is quite
adequate. At 1230 PM, CB&Q 25 departs Chicago Union Station for Seattle and
The prime competitor to the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, of course, is the
"Incomparable" Empire Builder. But Empire Builder patrons needn't
hurry. Their train won't depart for two and one-half hours later, at 300 PM. As
300 PM approaches, passengers filter in from La Salle Street Station off NYC's
Wolverine from Detroit, and James Whitcomb Riley from Cincinnati and
Indianapolis. And, right there at Union Station, connecting passengers arrive
from St. Louis and Springfield, IL off GM&O's Abraham Lincoln, with ample
time to make their Empire Builder connection. These passengers were all able to
depart cities within 300 miles of Chicago and connect with the Empire Builder
with minimal layover. A connection to the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited would
not be possible without leaving on a train the evening before, due to its
earlier departure from Chicago.
It is now 300 PM, and train 31, the Empire Builder (combined with the Afternoon
Zephyr) departs Chicago. By this time, the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited is
already running "Where Nature Smiles 300 Miles" along the Mississippi
River between Savanna and Dubuque, some 160 miles from Chicago. Both the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited and Empire Builder post comparable running time
along the CB&Q racetrack to the Twin Cities. The Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited arrives at St. Paul at 720 PM and becomes Northern Pacific train 25,
departing at 745 PM. After a quick 10-minute stop at the Great Northern station
in Minneapolis, NP 25 is clear of the Twin Cities at 820 PM.
The Empire Builder is still 75 minutes east of St. Paul on the CB&Q.
CB&Q train 31 arrives at St. Paul at 945 PM and becomes Great Northern train
31, which leaves at 1020 PM. Departure from Minneapolis is at 1050 PM, still
exactly two and one-half hours behind the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, which,
by this time, is already over halfway across the state of Minnesota. NP train 25
during this time posted the fastest running time of any train between
Minneapolis and Fargo, the next common point for these trains. In addition, GN
train 31 takes a route some 10 miles further, and posts a station dwell time at
Fargo some six minutes longer than NP 25. The result: The Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited departs Fargo at 1223 AM, almost 3 hours ahead of the Empire Builder
which departs at 321 AM. It's the biggest lead NP 25 has had in "the
race" so far.
But the Empire Builder has a straight shot across North Dakota via the Surrey
cut-off. So does the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited, too, but it's interesting
to note that on their respective routes across the Flickertail state, the Empire
Builder will move about 70 miles to the north of the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited, but by the Montana border, will have traveled fewer than 10 miles more!
NP 25 is hampered by the North Dakota badlands that slow the train down and add
miles of curvature. The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited greets the dawn at its
first Montana station stop at Glendive, at 637 AM, about 40 miles from North
The Empire Builder doesn't arrive at its first Montana stop, Wolf Point (some 80
miles from the North Dakota border) until 1020 AM. For the time being, the
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited's lead would seem secure. But Glendive is where
the mileage difference between the GN and NP routes begins to become obvious.
While the GN route across Northern Montana, clearly IS IN Northern Montana, one
can't say the same thing about the NP. Glendive, in fact, is in Northeast
Montana, being closer to Saskatchewan than to Wyoming. While the NP is
considered the "south line" railroad in Montana, it enters the state
in Northeast Montana, and after leaving Missoula, exits the state in Northwest
Montana. The penalty for this route is the extra miles.
The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited clips off mile after scenic mile along the
Yellowstone River. Arrival at Livingston is at 1257 PM. While some 340 rail
miles west of Glendive at this point, the train is almost some 100 miles south
of Glendive's latitude. At 107 PM, NP 25 departs Livingston, tackling its first
really BIG hill, Bozeman Pass. Meanwhile, The Empire Builder is still out on the
Montana prairie...it leaves its major intermediate servicing point of Havre at
140 PM, just as the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited is dropping into the Gallatin
Valley at Bozeman.
Departing Havre, the Empire Builder is still in the prairie, but that's not to
say the grade hasn't increased. After the relatively mild crossing of the
de Missouri in North Dakota, it's been river grade to Havre. Now, west of Havre,
the grade climbs to 1%. Yet, even later in the day when assaulting the
Continental Divide, it will not face a climb to match that which the Vista-Dome
North Coast Limited has already conquered atop Bozeman Pass.
About 75 minutes west of Bozeman, the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited gears up
for its next formidable obstacle - the Continental Divide at Homestake Pass.
It's a slow, curving climb to the top with a magnificent view of Butte on the
other side. The grade is 2.2%. Arrival at Butte is 419 PM. Meanwhile, almost
exactly due north, the Empire Builder has just left Cut Bank at 403 PM. Finally,
after viewing mountains to the south and north throughout the late morning and
afternoon, the face of the Continental Divide and Glacier National Park lie
straight ahead for GN 31.
Things don't look too good for the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited at this point.
After a commanding lead at Fargo, circuitry and grade has eaten away at its lead
over the Empire Builder. One salvation does remain, however, as leaving Butte,
NP 25 has many miles of valley floor running to look forward to - mostly at fast
speeds. GN 31 has yet to ascend and descend its first mountains of the day. As a
result, the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited exits Missoula at 644 PM, some 26
minutes before the Empire Builder leaves the corresponding western Montana stop
Ahead lies the next common point for these two trains: Spokane, Washington. But
the Empire Builder isn't able to close the gap any more enroute to Spokane. The
GN route veers well to the north leaving Whitefish in search of a level route,
and its line between Sandpoint (also a point common to the GN and NP main, but
not a stop for either of these trains) and Spokane is somewhat longer than that
of the NP. By the time GN 31 arrives in Spokane at 1145 PM, NP 25 has been
there(in at 1047 PM) - and gone(out at 1100 PM). Switching out the Portland cars
for the SP&S delays the Empire Builder even more. It departs Spokane at 1215
AM, an hour and 15 minutes behind the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited. Yet, in
spite of arriving at Spokane some 58 minutes behind the Vista-Dome North Coast
Limited, it has picked up exactly two hours on NP 25 since leaving Fargo, North
Of course, an advantage that the Empire Builder has, in spite of its 75-minute
deficit leaving Spokane, is that it has shed its Portland cars. The Vista-Dome
North Coast Limited still must accomplish this - but at Pasco, and will
experience a similar delay. Another problem for NP train 25 - the one that will
ultimately doom it to lose the race, is Northern Pacific's incredibly circuitous
route across Washington State. By the time the Vista- Dome North Coast Limited
has arrived at Pasco, it will have traveled as many miles going south as it has
going west. Indeed, Pasco is only about 20 miles from the Oregon border! After
setting out its Portland cars, departure for NP 25 is at 216 AM.
The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited continues north and west up the Yakima River
valley. Departure from Yakima is at 415 AM. Meanwhile to the north, the Empire
Builder has started its assault on the first steep climb of its trip: the climb
to Cascade Tunnel, where the grade stiffens to 1.6% and eventually 2.2%. (Of
course, by now, such climbs are "old hat" to the Vista-Dome North
Coast Limited, which has already topped two 2.2% hills (Pipestone and Evaro),
one 1.8% hill(Bozeman Pass), and has another to go (2.2% Stampede Pass)). By the
time NP 25 has departed Ellensburg at 513 AM, GN 31 is inside 7.79-mile Cascade
Tunnel - already on the "downhill run", whereas Stampede Pass still
lies ahead for the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited.
At 655 AM, the Empire Builder arrives at a Pacific port. Well, it's Everett,
along Possession Sound - not Seattle. Station dwell time here is some 20
minutes-longest of any stop along the route, except for St. Paul and Spokane,
which, unlike Everett, are understandable. Here, passengers for Bellingham and
Vancouver, British Columbia detrain to await GN's morning International train.
Departure for GN 31 is finally at 715 AM. Ahead lies the scenic run along the
Sound to the Emerald City. Departure from the Seattle suburb of Edmonds is at
At the same time (almost, anyway, 743 AM) the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited
emerges from its run along the Green River at East Auburn, where there is a
9-minute delay to detrain passengers enroute to Tacoma, via a connecting bus.
Departing East Auburn at 752 AM, NP 25 swings north onto the Portland-Seattle
main to make a mad dash for Seattle. Just south of Seattle, the Vista-Dome North
Coast Limited meets GN train 460, a local train from Seattle destined for Tacoma
and Portland. NP train 25 arrives at its terminus, Seattle's King Street Station
at 830 AM, some 1892 miles from St. Paul. But it has company. Already in the
station, having arrived some 15 minutes earlier, is GN train 31, the Empire
Builder, only 1782 miles from St. Paul.
Yes, in spite of spotting the Vista-Dome North Coast Limited some 2 hours, 30
minutes at Chicago, the shorter distance and lesser grade has allowed GN 31 to
overtake its competitor. In addition, Empire Builder passengers are winners in
another respect: connections. That same GN train 460 that met the inbound
Vista-Dome North Coast Limited just outside of King Street Station has already
received passengers from GN 31, affording passengers a faster trip between, for
instance, Spokane and Tacoma than was available via NP train 25, without the
hassle of a bus trip from East Auburn. And, were you riding the Vista-Dome North
Coast Limited enroute to Vancouver, BC? Too bad, because while GN's morning
International train made direct connections with the Empire Builder in Everett
(see above), passengers off NP train 25 would have over six hours awaiting Great
Northern's afternoon International for passage to Western Canada's major city.
Did you enjoy the race? I bet most of you knew who would win ALL ALONG.
Returning eastbound, we will compare the secondary trains on each route,
Northern Pacific's Mainstreeter, train 2, and Great Northern's Western Star,
train 28. It's evening at Seattle's King Street Station and both trains are in
the station. Both trains are going east, but the Mainstreeter is facing south
and the Western Star facing north. The Mainstreeter is the first to depart at
945 PM; the Western Star follows at 1000 PM. Both trains climb the Cascade
mountains in the darkness.
At Ellensburg, the Mainstreeter turns south toward Yakima and then southeast to
Pasco, arriving there at 431 AM. This is also the place where NP 2 receives
passengers off SP&S train 4 from Portland. Unfortunately for these
passengers, who left Portland at the same time the Mainstreeter departed
Seattle, they have been waiting since 200 AM! NP 2 departs Pasco at 500 AM, and
arrives in Spokane at 801 AM, some 10 hours, 16 minutes and 396 rail miles from
But GN's route from Seattle to Spokane is 67 miles shorter, so by this time, GN
28 isn't even in Washington, having just departed the station stop of Priest
River, Idaho at 759 AM. The Western Star had arrived Spokane at 615 AM, dropped
its local Seattle-Spokane sleeper, and received its passengers from SP&S
train 4, who had but an hour layover between trains. Departure was 645 AM.
The Mainstreeter departs Spokane at 830 AM, an hour and 45 minutes behind the
Western Star, which has gained two hours on NP 2 to that point. The next common
point for the two trains is Sandpoint, ID. The Mainstreeter narrows its
competitor's lead to only 1 hour, 23 minutes here.
In Western Montana, GN 28 departs Whitefish at 210 PM; NP 2 departs Missoula at
330 PM. The Western Star exits the mountains at Glacier Park Station at 435 PM.
By this time, the Mainstreeter has to traverse two more mountain passes. As the
Western Star departs Havre, (835 PM) midway across the state of Montana, the
Mainstreeter is approaching Logan, still well in Southwest Montana. When it
finally exits the mountains for good at Livingston at 1025 PM, the Western Star
is midway across Eastern Montana, between Malta and Glasgow.
When GN train 28 arrives at Williston, the first North Dakota stop at 220
AM(Mountain Time), the Mainstreeter is between Custer and Hysham, some 200 miles
from the North Dakota border. The Western Star arrives Minot at 550 AM and
detrains its passengers for the Dakotan and continues its limited-stop trip
across North Dakota, and is already east of New Rockford when the Mainstreeter
enters North Dakota around 815 AM(Central Time). When the Western Star exits
North Dakota at Fargo at 1002 AM, the Mainstreeter is only a few minutes out of
Unlike its westbound counterpart and the Empire Builder, the Western Star takes
a route from Fargo to Minneapolis about 18 miles shorter via St. Cloud. This
route is also shorter than the Mainstreeter will take. Arrival for GN train 28
in Minneapolis is at 240 PM, posting a Seattle to Minneapolis running time
equaling that of the eastbound North Coast Limited. Meanwhile, back in North
Dakota (still), the Mainstreeter has just departed Jamestown.
The Western Star exits Minneapolis at 250 PM and completes its run on GN in St.
Paul arriving there at 320 PM. Passengers that don't want to wait for overnight
sleeping car service to Chicago via CB&Q's Black Hawk elect to transfer to
CB&Q's Afternoon Zephyr, which departs St. Paul at 400 PM.
Back in North Dakota, the Mainstreeter finally arrives in Fargo at 415 PM, some
6 hours, 22 minutes after the Western Star has passed through. NP 2 completes
its trip on NP rails arriving at St. Paul Union Depot at 1020 PM, a full 7 hours
behind the Western Star, with a running time some 7 hours, 15 minutes longer.
As Mainstreeter passengers await departure of their connection to Chicago
(CB&Q's Black Hawk due out at 1120 PM), Chicago passengers off GN's Western
Star have already arrived in Chicago at 1045 PM, still in time to connect to
trains like the Midnight Special, Manhattan Limited, and Motor City Special.
Mainstreeter passengers will not arrive in Chicago until the next morning at 740
AM, almost 9 hours later.
So, there's my comparison between the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. What
does it mean? Not a lot, really. Is the reason I prefer the GN because it's
superior to the NP in nearly every aspect noted here? No, because, frankly,
being better than a competing railroad isn't good enough. The Great Northern was
only a medium-size railroad, yet was a railroad of superlatives. It has best
gradient of ANY railroad between the Midwest and West Coast, it constructed
Cascade Tunnel, the longest in North America (at the time, but still longest in
the U.S.), it constructed the Allouez Ore Docks, largest in the world (when in
full operation), was the only transcontinental railroad constructed without
benefit of land grant, and was instrumental in the creation of Glacier National
Park (the "Crown of the Continent"). There are other points that set
the Great Northern apart, but suffice it to say that the Great Northern didn't
get to be "Great" simply by topping the Northern Pacific.
It is also true, however, that this does not there is anything inherently flawed
about the Northern Pacific. Like any other railroad, it has its idiosyncrasies
that make it unique. It has a rich history...but as far as anything special, I
just can't see it. (The NP has always been somewhat of an "underdog",
but compared to the Milwaukee or Erie, not even close.) It is my opinion that
many fans of the Northern Pacific either suffer from an inferiority complex or
take themselves too seriously.
I have friend that had once worked for the GN, NP, and Milwaukee. His
observation about the company officers of these railroads is that while those on
the GN and Milwaukee were, for the most part, personable and quite approachable,
those on the NP tended to be distant in the eyes of their subordinates. Another
friend who is a big fan of the NP once told me in front of numerous others that
James J. Hill's importance in American Railroading has always "been blown
way out of proportion, especially by the GN crowd". While he is entitled to
his opinion, it's interesting that in their July 1998 issue, an article in
TRAINS magazine listed Hill as the most influential "Railroad Titan"
in the history of North American railroading. Granted, whether you love him or
hate him, Hill was a tough act to top.
Growing up in Cut Bank, Montana as I did, all the railroaders I knew worked for
the Great Northern, as did my father, who was a telegrapher for GN and BN for 37
years. Dad went to telegrapher's school in Superior, Wisconsin in 1946.
Following the war, most railroads, especially "out west" needed
telegraphers. He wanted to go to Montana, Idaho, or Washington, and chose Great
Northern over NP or Milwaukee due to its financial stability. Following the
mergers over the years, I have come to know many former Northern Pacific
employees, and can truly say that most are indeed fine railroaders. While one
railroad might have had a faster route or a better passenger service, there is a
particular "art" in making your specific piece of railroad work, and
the NP employees certainly knew their stuff, too.
Admittedly, I don't have a personal story to relate about the Northern Pacific,
and if I did, perhaps I'd feel differently. However, my respect for the Great
Northern, as I hopefully have indicated here, is also not based on a specific
personal experience, but on the preponderance of facts that point to the
conclusion, that, indeed, it was "Great".
Mark Meyer (onetime resident of Cut Bank, Montana)