The Burlington Northern, The West's First Mega Railroad
When created on March 2, 1970 the Burlington Northern became the largest
railroad in the United States, save for the soon-to-be bankrupt eastern
carrier, Penn Central, comprising a staggering nearly 27,000 mile
system. An attempt to create the BN occurred no less than three
previous times (all denied by the ICC on grounds of a monopoly) and was a
dream of tycoon James J. Hill who had an interest in every line that
comprised the system; the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; the Great
Northern; the Northern Pacific; and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle. During its early years the railroad struggled somewhat to remain a profitable operation but eventually became a highly respected and well-run company. In 1995 BN merged with the fabled Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe system to form today's mammoth BNSF Railway.
It is only been a little over a year into the BN era as recently painted U33C #5738 leads a quartet of units still clad in predecessor liveries as they lead an eastbound freight through the yard at Livingston, Montana during August of 1971.
When the railroad finally became a reality it dominated the West and
dwarfed every other system. The BN lasted for a quarter century until
the mega-merger movement got rolling again in the 1990s and it merged
with the legendary Santa Fe to form today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe
Railway, now known simply as the BNSF Railway, the West’s dominate
railroad along with the fabled Union Pacific. The BN was comprised of the Northwest’s most dominant lines; the GN and NP,
which had direct main lines serving Chicago and Seattle (via the
Burlington). Their counterpart in all of this was the SP&S, which
not only gave the carriers access to the ports of Seattle but also the markets of Portland, Tacoma, and northwestern Oregon.
In the end the BN would come to dominate the Northwest region, save
for the Milwaukee Road, which remained a significant competitor until
astonishingly abandoning its Pacific main line in 1980 giving the BN a
virtual monopoly on markets west of Montana. The first component of the
Burlington Northern was the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (better
known as the Burlington), a well-run railroad that connected most of the
Midwest and Plains’ largest markets. It is likely most famous for its Zephyr
lightweight streamlined trainsets which were revolutionary and
instantly successful with the public. Perhaps less recognized is the
company itself, which because of sound business practices throughout its
history was never in financial distress. The Burlington was also quite close with the communities it served making it beloved like few other railroads.
The second system to make up the BN was the Great Northern. Of
all the railroads James J. Hill owned or controlled, the Great Northern
Railway is by far his greatest masterpiece earning him the legendary nickname of Empire Builder.
Under his tenor the railroad would stretch from the Midwest to Pacific
Coast and of all the Northwestern roads the GN was by far the strongest
and most respected. Even after 30+ years of being gone the railroad
still holds strong influences and memories from its Empire Builder passenger train and beautiful dark green, orange, and yellow livery to its beloved mascot and emblem, Rocky the mountain goat (a common animal to the Rocky Mountains).
Lots of first-generation BN power sits at the yard in Superior, Wisconsin as it readies to lead a train during August of 1976.
While the Great Northern is no longer in operation it certainly
continues to live on in many ways aside from being an important
Northwestern gateway for successor BNSF Railway (the BNSF also continues
to employ a version of the GN’s famous dark green, orange, and yellow
paint scheme), a testament to the mark the railroad left on the
industry. For instance, the Great Northern can still be seen in today’s Empire Builder operated by Amtrak and its famous Cascade Tunnel in Washington.
The third component of the BN was the Northern Pacific
Railway, famous for its logo and its most important contribution,
helping to fuel the growth of
the western states it served when few communities were settled in the
West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The NP was the
first of the three major northwestern railroads to begin construction.
Unlike many other lines the Northern Pacific did not change names
numerous times throughout its existence and would likewise never acquire
numerous other smaller roads to form its system. The NP is also
remembered for its distinguished flagship passenger train, the North Coast Limited, which used a beautiful two-tone green livery.
The fourth and final piece of the BN system was the little
Spokane, Portland & Seattle. It may have been a small railroad in
terms of its actual size but it served as an important link for its
parents into the gateways of Portland and northwestern Oregon. The
little bridge line also was well liked in the many communities it
served, one reason for it obtaining its slogan, “The Northwest’s Own
Railway.” The SP&S was never an independent company and was
expressly created to ferry traffic back and forth for its owners, which
it did quite well for over 60 years. While the railroad did have its own
identity and played an important role it never operated any of its own
passenger trains and its parents always determined its direction.
A set of early second-generation power, SD24s, and a U28B lead a freight through Evansville, Indiana on July 27, 1980.
In 1980 BN added an additional railroad to its
sprawling system, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, better known as
the Frisco. For much of its history the Frisco was a financially
unstable company, which included a number of bankruptcies. However,
after its final bankruptcy in the late 1940s the railroad actually prospered quite well, particularly after the lucrative chemicals market sprang up in the deep south, which as a deciding factor in Burlington Northern's interest in the Frisco.
For the railroad's entire 25-year tenure it is often
referred to in the likes of an oak; strong, powerful, and well rooted.
After the Milwaukee Road bowed out of the Pacific Northwest market in 1980 BN took over the intermodal market from Seattle and Puget Sound and began earning
handsome profits to complement the other traffic it already moved.
However, it is interesting to note that the railroad had the chance to
purchase the Milwaukee's better engineered Pacific Extension
but ultimately chose not too (while BN did purchase the line over
Snoqualmie Pass it never used the route and sold it to the state of
Washington). Had the railroad done so, today the railroad could shave
hours off transit times between Chicago and Seattle. For more information on the historic BN system please click here to visit the Friends Of The Burlington Northern's website.
During the late BN era two SD60Ms, #9248 and #9259 (some of the newest power the road ever owned), are on the move with a unit coal train as they zip past an aging grain elevator at Spiritwood, North Dakota on August 19, 1994.
In any event, when the mega-merger movement began again in the
1990s and realizing that the Union Pacific was poised to grow
substantially by taking over the large Southern Pacific, the BN began
talking with the Santa Fe to see about forming their own giant Western
railroad. Approved by the ICC the new Burlington Northern Santa Fe
Railway (now known as the BNSF Railway) became reality on December 31,
1996 from the September 22, 1995 merger of the two railroads, comprising
a system that served every major market west of Alabama. Today the
system earns nearly the highest profits in the industry, has one of the
lowest operating ratios, and of all Class Is derives the most earnings
from COFC (Container On FlatCar) shipments. For a selection of photos and additional information highlighting the BN please click here.