The Heritage of BNSF

The age of great railroad mergers produced the BNSF of today. A leader in the industry and a favorite of investors, BNSF will likely remain in the forefront for years to come. Yet, the affiliation of today’s giant races its roots to the early part of the 20th century.

Empire Builder James J. Hill saw merit and profit from the affiliation of the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Burlington and Spokane, Portland & Seattle. To accomplish that goal the Northern Securities Company was established with the cooperation of Hill, Edward Harriman, J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. The timing was awful, and the over-zealous anti-trust stance of Theodore Roosevelt and his Justice Department ended that when the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was enforced.

The loose affiliation of the railroads continued and by the 1960s they were once actively pursuing a merger. That activity produced the Burlington Northern Railroad. Later the Frisco was acquired and after much turmoil, the merger with the Santa Fe was completed on December 31, 1996. The merged property was so successful it attracted the attention Warren Buffet who added it to his Berkshire Hathaway empire.

As a merged railway or individually, the BNSF and its forebearers had distinct personalities and characteristics.  The GN and NP had to conquer step mountain grade in all types of extreme weather conditions. Their motive power reflected the need for power over speed. GN steam locomotives were unique in that they featured, in common with the PRR, Belparie Fireboxes. NP locomotives featured large electric headlights that had an extension on top that displayed the road number. NP purchased the first 4-8-4 locomotives that thereafter were named “Northerns”.

Both railroads offered conservative passenger service that had the reputation for being well-run but later expanded that to serve the evolving National Park System. In the late 1940s GN invested in several new lightweight streamlines that featured their signature Orange and Gren motif. NP followed suit but the original green and brown livery gave way to the classic two-tone green paint scheme created by Raymond Loewy that is fondly recalled.

Burlington made good on their slogan “Everywhere West” and their greater system reflected aggressive planning and sharp focus. Like its northern partners, Burlington was always on the forefront with introducing the most advanced locomotive and car designs that culminated with early applications of diesel-electrics and stainless-steel passenger car construction. Burlington was also the eastern extension of the GN and NP from Minneapolis to Chicago.

Frisco (St. Louis San-Francisco Railway) was one of two railroads that built across Indian Territory. The line struggled in its early years but after 1916 acquired a reputation for a lean, aggressive and profitable freight carrier. Those reasons made that railroad an excellent addition to the BN fold in 1980.

Santa Fe never missed a beat when it came to being an industry leader. That Chicago-based carrier was an early and active practitioner of improving steam power and later adopted an intelligent mix of steam and early diesel-electrics between 1937 and 1941. In that same era, they fielded the eye-catching War Bonnet scheme that remains an all-time classic in railroading.

Merged BNSF tapped the strengths of all of that is among the top transporters of intermodal freight in North America. It also hauls bulk cargo, including enough coal to generate around 25% of the electricity produced in the United States. The company also paid heritage to its past by experimenting with locomotive liveries that reflected their storied past. The current orange and green are the culmination of that effort.

We now celebrate that history and the current success of BNSF and encourage you to see how adding some western influence can add to your model railroading experience. This website is loaded with quality models that capture the best of BNSF and its colorful predecessors. Our renowned Rewards Program, damage-free, packing standards and swift shipping make that effort worthwhile.

(M B Klein, FAW)