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.  

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).

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.

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.

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. 

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