Railroads of the modern era jumped at the chance to become bigger and more efficient. For years, the largest of the railroads were referred to as the Super Seven. Today, that number has been whittled down even further. The stage is set for a day in the near future when there will be two major rail systems in the West; three in the East; a few regional railroads running secondary rail lines unwanted by their larger cousins; and hundreds of shortlines taking over smaller branch lines.
Through a series of mergers, several super-railroads have been created. These giant railroads take several forms. Some are the creation of a marriage of equals-such as Chessie System and Family Lines, or Norfolk & Western and Southern, or the combination of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe in the mid-1990s.
The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe merger created the nation's largest railroad, with almost 30,000 miles of track. Even before the merger, Burlington was the nation's biggest coal hauler. Thanks to the demand for low-sulphur coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin, BN hauls more coal for utilities than any other railroad in the nation. Santa Fe's specialty was the high-speed piggyback train, toting truck trailers and containers across the nation. From Chicago to Los Angeles, Santa Fe's silver and red "war bonnet" paint scheme led some of the country's fastest TOFC (Trailer On Flat Car) runs.
Taking a different approach, Union Pacific has grown by purchasing railroads. Over the last 15 years, the UP has acquired the Western Pacific, Missouri Pacific, Missouri-Kansas-Texas, and Chicago & North Western, Southern Pacific, and Denver & Rio Grande Western lines, creating a blanket across the West and the Midwest.
At the end of 1995, Union Pacific sought to bring Southern Pacific-itself a combination of the SP and Rio Grande-under its control to counterbalance the BN-Santa Fe combination. That made the UP the nation's largest railroad with slightly more than 30,000 miles. The move came more than a decade after an early 1980s attempt to merge the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. That deal went awry when the I.C.C. failed to give its approval.
Ironically, the dream of a true transcontinental railroad remains just that-a dream. In all of the mergers of recent years, none has dared unsettle the balance of trading partners on either side of the Mississippi River. That is likely to change some time in the twenty-first century. Industry experts point out that it is only a matter of time before mergers between the remaining East Coast and West Coast railroads take place. The U.S. railroad map may eventually show three, or perhaps two, major rail systems crisscrossing the mighty Mississippi.