The History of Norfolk Southern

The Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) is one of the “big four” class one freight railroads currently headquartered in the United States. While the Union Pacific and BNSF dominate the western half of the country, the Norfolk Southern Railway operates alongside CSX as one of the largest operators based east of the Mississippi.

Maintaining 21,500 route miles, the Norfolk Southern Railway operates down the eastern seaboard from New York to Florida, with trackage rights over other railroads extending as far north as Maine. In addition to it’s eastern trunk lines, the railroad also maintains a web of mainline routes across the south and midwest, with services extending across the Mississippi River through Missouri and Iowa, with additional trackage rights through Louisiana and into Texas.  

Early Days

The Norfolk Southern Railway is primarily the result of a merger between the Southern Railway and the Norfolk and Western, both of which can be traced to charters signed between 1827 and 1830 in the southern states of South Carolina and Virginia, respectively. The earliest recorded railroad in the region was the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. This was the first company in the United States to offer regular scheduled passenger services, debuting steam-hauled travel on six miles of track out of Charleston in 1830. By 1833, the line was extended to a length of 136 miles, linking Charleston to Hamburg, making it the longest single railroad line in the world at the time. 

As railroad mania began to spread, the General Assembly of Virginia chartered the City Point Railroad in 1836, which began operation on nine miles of track between Hopewell and Petersburg in 1838. In 1854 (now under the name “Appomattox Railroad”) the line was purchased by the Southside Railroad, which provided a direct link from Petersburg to the Richmond and Danville Railway, which would later become part of the Southern.  

The Civil War began in 1861 and lasted until 1865. This was a defining event in the history of southern railroading. The devastation caused by the war encouraged a wave of rebuilding and reorganizing during what became known as the Reconstruction Era, which ultimately led to the creation of both the Southern and the N&W. 

Formation of the Southern and Norfolk and Western Systems

In 1893, J.P. Morgan took control of the Richmond and Danville Railroad to assist with financial hardships (He assumed his destiny as a banking mogul many years later). The Richmond and Danville, along with the Memphis and Charleston and the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad became the original incarnation of Southern Railway in 1894. 

In a similar move during the same postwar period, the Virginian Southside Railroad merged with the Norfolk and Petersburg and Virginia and Tennessee Railroad to form the 408 mile Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad. Not long after being chartered, the 1873 Financial Panic thrust this newly formed railroad into bankruptcy, and it was forced to reorganize once again, launching under the new name of Norfolk and Western in 1881.  

Establishment as Railroad Giants 

Thanks to the merger of 1893, the Southern Railway quickly became the dominant railroad in the southern United States, operating over 4,400 miles of track, which included a controlling interest in the Alabama Great Southern, and Georgia Southern and Florida railroads. Southern’s first president, Samuel Spencer, was instrumental in the growth of the railroad. Acquisitions of lines would continue, and the building of new locomotives would accelerate through the opening of new shops. Spencer also diversified Southern’s business to make the company less reliant on agricultural products. Sadly, he died in a train collision on the railroad in November 1906.

By the end of the 19th century, the Norfolk and Western was also gaining a firm foothold in the mid-atlantic region, and was making a name for itself as a leading exporter of coal from Appalachia to feed the growing industrial revolution. The purchase of the unfinished New River Railroad in 1883 granted the company direct access to the rich mining territories of West Virginia, sealing the railroad’s fate as a primary coal hauler. 

Pioneers in the Industry

The Southern was constantly pushing the envelope in technological advancements, becoming an early adopter of CTC (Centralized Traffic Control), a consolidated system for managing signaling across the railroad – a job which would have previously been managed by local signal operators. The railroad was also quick to install double track across it’s trunk routes to increase efficiency and capacity, and when the innovation of diesel power came to market, the Southern again was quick to jump on the technology, becoming the first class one railroad to fully dieselize. Steam locomotives on the system were retired completely by 1953.  

Being primarily a coal hauler, the Norfolk and Western was conversely the last class one railroad to retire mainline steam, reluctantly purchasing it’s first diesels in 1955 – two years after the Southern had completely dieselized. However this slow transition did lead to some of the last and most impressive advancements in steam technology, with the development of massive coal haulers such as the 2-6-6-4 Class A, and fast passenger locomotives such as the sleek, art deco Class J. The Norfolk and Western completed the transition from steam to diesel by the mid 1960s, but not before the era was immortalized by famed photographer O. Winston Link

Later Mergers & Acquisitions

As railroad mergers began to once again grow in popularity during the 1960’s, the Southern continued to expand at a more modest rate. In 1963, Southern’s interest in the Central of Georgia Railroad became an acquisition, and in 1974 the original Norfolk Southern railroad (a short line in the Norfolk, Virginia region) was acquired. An attempt to purchase the Monon System to gain access to Chicago failed, and the Southern remained, for the most part, a regional operator. 

In contrast, the Norfolk and Western went through considerable growth during this period. A merger with the Virginian Railway (another mid-atlantic coal hauler) was approved in 1959, and in 1964 the Wabash, Nickel Plate Road, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and Akron, Canton, and Youngstown were all rolled into the Norfolk and Western system. This advanced the N&W as a major player in midwestern transportation, diversifying its operations from primarily being coal based. 

In 1980, following similar trends set forth by other major class one railroads, the profitable Southern and Norfolk and Western agreed to merge to form the Norfolk Southern Railway.

Nineteen years later, the well-established Norfolk Southern acquired 50% of the Conrail system. This brought the trackage of the former Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central into the Norfolk Southern network, creating the massive system that exists today.  In 2012, Norfolk Southern painted 20 brand new locomotives into “Heritage Schemes” reflecting the railroads which made up the various mergers of the last century. See this excellent “family tree” highlighting the companies that came together to form today’s Norfolk Southern Railway. 

Norfolk Southern Today

Today, the Norfolk Southern Railway is still one of the largest transporters of coal in the United States. NS is also prominent in the distribution of automotive parts and finished vehicles, and operates the largest intermodal network in the eastern United States, with container traffic making up to 25% of the railroad’s total business. 

NS is still prominent in the industrial development sector, continuing Samuel Spencer’s legacy. The railroad has produced several custom locomotive types for their operations, based on improvements of older models. These include the SD60E, based on EMD products, and the AC44C6M, based on GE locomotive bases. The railroad currently employs over 26,000 people and operates 4,100 locomotives and 54,400 freight cars.

Adding Norfolk Southern Locomotives to Your Railroad

Thanks to a wide range of products in all scales, you can bring the trains of the Norfolk Southern Railway to your model railroad, including models such as the GP39X (the last locomotive produced for the Southern Railway – later reclassified as GP49 by NS), and members of the NS Heritage locomotive fleet

Start your Norfolk Southern collection today at!

Banner image by Tyler Denbow