The History of the Santa Fe Railway

The Santa Fe Railway – officially known as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway or ATSF – is undoubtably one of the most well recognized railroads in American history.

Somewhat surprisingly, the ATSF mainline didn’t actually serve the city of Santa Fe, which was only reachable via a branch line. However thanks to the railroad, the Santa Fe name became synonymous with innovations in rail technology, and fast, dependable transportation, with the railroad eventually becoming one of the world’s most iconic transportation companies. 

Early Days of the Santa Fe Railway & Santa Fe Locomotives

One of the first trains on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) | Santa Fe Locomotive One of the first trains on the track of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) | Santa Fe Locomotive

The AT&SF was chartered in February 1859 by Cyrus Holliday, a visionary who saw economic opportunity for the transport of goods between the Territory of Kansas and both the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Construction was launched within a decade, in October 1868, with train services commencing out of Topeka, Kansas just one year later, while the expansion of the railroad continued.

Construction of the Santa Fe wasn’t always smooth, with one dispute in the late 1870’s with the Denver & Rio Grande railroad requiring federal intervention. This dispute went far beyond the politics of business and even involved the use of physical force and armed conflict between the two railroad companies in a period known as the Royal Gorge Railroad War.

Following resolution of this conflict, the Santa Fe locomotive began to expand quickly through the rest of the 19th and into the 20th century. One landmark of note was reached in 1881, when the Santa Fe connected with the Southern Pacific railway at Deming, New Mexico. This formed the United States’ second transcontinental railroad, after the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific in 1869.

A Leader in Passenger Transportation and Comfort

Early passenger trains on the Santa Fe locomotives were faced with a problem – passengers needed to eat. With no onboard services, passengers were faced with having to rush off the train at certain designated stops to procure food from local establishments, the produce of which were often low quality and almost inedible. Entrepreneur Fred Harvey witnessed this problem firsthand, and proposed offering fine-dining for all within the train station complex. In 1876, Mr Harvey was given permission by the railroad to open a lunch counter at the Topeka Depot, and the idea quickly took off. The partnership between Mr Harvey and the ATSF would lead to 84 “Harvey House” restaurants and hotels, and would eventually lead the Santa Fe to become one of the first railroads to offer onboard dining services on the trains themselves. 

Photo of a red 1930s Santa Fe locomotive on the track (ATSF) Black and white image of a 1930s train on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) | Santa Fe Locomotive

Throughout the 20th century, the Santa Fe continued to innovate in the passenger market. No train was more exemplary of this than the famous Super Chief. Launched in the mid 1930s, the train ran between Los Angeles and Chicago, where it connected with other railroads taking passengers to the east. Brand new diesel locomotives were procured specifically for the route, while passengers were treated to lightweight stainless steel pullman coaches, and innovations such as Pullman-Standard “Pleasure Domes”

The success of the Super Chief between the 30s and 60s is ultimately what earned the Santa Fe its place in history. With fine dining, fast service, and onboard amenities such as barber shops and parlor cars, combined with the incredible views of the southwest, the train quickly became the route of choice for traveling movie stars and celebrities. This earned the service the nickname “train of the stars” and ensured that it would also feature in many early Hollywood movies. Thanks to this exposure, the iconic Santa Fe red and silver “warbonnet” paint scheme continues to be emblematic of rail travel in popular culture today. 

A 1960s Santa Fe locomotive red and silver “warbonnet” train on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF)

Although the most popular route, the Super Chief wasn’t the only “named” train on the Santa Fe system. Other iconic services included the Golden Gate, San Francisco Chief, and the El Capitan, some of which also featured their own unique and innovative rolling stock, such as the Budd Hi-Levels, which served as the inspiration for Amtrak’s modern double decker Superliner cars

Passenger service on the Santa Fe ceased in 1971 upon the creation of Amtrak, however you can still ride on some of their most iconic routes to this day, including the route of the Super Chief on Amtrak’s popular Southwest Chief, or down the California coast on the Pacific Surfliner.

ATSF Becomes a Freight Railroading Innovator 

Santa Fe locomotive freight car Santa Fe train hauling freight on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF)

Although passenger travel is what really put the Santa Fe on the map, the railroad was also a leader in freight transportation, and in fact ran a much wider freight network for much of its existence. In the early 1950s, the ATSF was one of the first railroads to experiment with intermodal operations, instituting TOFC (trailer on flat car) or “PiggyBack” service in 1953. It was also one of the first railroads to employ specially designed autorack cars to transport newly built automobiles from factory to distribution facilities. 

Much of their passenger technology also had a great influence on the freight industry, with the success of their early passenger diesels helping to accelerate the nationwide transition from steam to diesel power for both types of services. 

ATSF Proposes Merger with Southern Pacific

Yellow and red Santa Fe locomotive on the track Red and yellow Southern Pacific train on a railroad track

While the ATSF continued to run freight services beyond the closure of their passenger operations, the business was looking closely at merger opportunities. The first public announcements of this intent were made in December 1983, when a merger was proposed with the Southern Pacific.

Both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific were so confident that this merger would go ahead, they began repainting locomotives and non-revenue rolling stock, with many locomotives from both railroads appearing in a new paint scheme known by fans as “Kodachrome” for its similarity to the corporate colors of Kodak film. 

However, in 1985 the US Justice Department announced it’s opposition to the merger, on the grounds of diminishing competition due to there being a high number of duplicate routes. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) confirmed it would not allow the merger to go ahead in July 1986, and an appeal by the businesses against this decision was struck down in 1987.

Santa Fe Railway Merges with Burlington Northern

A blue and yellow Santa Fe locomotive on the Burlington Northern train route Blue and yellow Santa Fe car next to a green car on railroad tracks

Following the failed merger with the SP, the Santa Fe continued to seek merger opportunities, and in June 1994 the company confirmed many long-standing rumors when it announced plans to merge with the expansive Burlington Northern (itself a result of the merger between the Chicago Burlington and Quincy, and the Great Northern Railway). 

The merger between the Santa Fe and Burlington Northern was quickly approved by shareholders of both businesses. Both companies also came to agreements with other class one railroads about how they would operate in return for them not opposing the merger.

The ICC approved the merger in July 1995, and the last ATSF service ran on December 31st, 1996.

The Santa Fe Railway Today

A BNSF train traveling on the coast A BNSF train car on a railroad track

Under the new name of BNSF (standing officially for Burlington Northern, Santa Fe), the combined routes of the ATSF and BN make up the largest single class one railroad in the United States, covering 28 states and featuring over 32,500 miles of track.

BNSF exclusively operates freight trains (although operation of some state-funded commuter trains is managed by the railroad in Illinois). It serves all sectors of industry, with intermodal traffic continuing to be one of it’s most lucrative commodities, along with ethanol, crude oil, and frac sand, among others. 

Although operating under a different name, the railroad maintains a connection to its roots from both the ATSF and BN sides of the operation, with locomotives wearing paint schemes inspired by the iconic green and orange of the Great Northern Railway, and many bearing an adaptation of the Santa Fe’s timeless Warbonnet logo. Additionally, a selection of Santa Fe locomotives still bearing their original ATSF paint scheme continue to ply the system.  

Build Your Santa Fe Railway at Home

Blue and yellow Santa Fe locomotiveRed and yellow Santa Fe Railway model train

If you want to bring the iconic Santa Fe Railway to your railroad, we have everything you need to get started – from beginner train sets, to detailed cars, locomotives, and structures! Shop our Santa Fe Locomotive options here

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