On March 21, 2021, the Canadian Pacific Railroad announced that it was buying the Kansas City Southern Railroad for $25 billion.  To understand the strategic and geographic implications of this very important business deal, we must first go back in time. 

The acquisition will reduce the number of big “class 1” North American railroads from seven to six.  Sixty years ago, there were over 100 class 1 railroads.  This gradual change represents among the most significant industry consolidations in US history.  And more consolidation may lie ahead.

The railroad is one of the great technological achievements of civilization.  The technology itself – metal wheels rolling almost frictionless on metal rails – is largely unchanged over its 200-year history.  The American system, the largest on earth with over 120,000 miles of track, can move a ton of freight 480 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.  (See our article on the history of the diesel locomotive.)

The railroads were also America’s first giant industry, leading the way in accounting, management, and organizational policies.  In 1900, railroad stocks overwhelmingly dominated stock trading, with few other publicly owned companies in other industries.  The Philadelphia-based, industry-leading Pennsylvania Railroad was one of the greatest and most successful companies in American history.

Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1 electric locomotives, designed by Raymond Loewy, at the Army-Navy Football Game, Philadelphia

Unlike most other industries that we study here at the American Business History Center, the long saga of the railroad industry allows us to see the full arc of the industry’s evolution, from small beginnings to full maturity, from thousands of tiny railroads to six giants.  It seems reasonable to expect that one or two more rounds of big mergers might take place in the future, leaving us with two to four major companies.

As a child in the 1950s, your author (and everyone else) stopped and watched as trains passed by road crossings, with the markings of dozens of railroads on the passing boxcars.  At that time, there were over 100 class 1 railroads in the United States and many more smaller “roads.”  They represented every corner of America, from the Bangor & Aroostook of Maine and the Florida East Coast Railroad to the Denver & Rio Grande Western in the Rocky Mountains.

The following paragraphs provide a summary of the mergers and consolidations that resulted in this massive reduction in the number of railroads serving us.

The Industry Structure: Rooted in Geography

Like all transportation companies, the railroad industry is firmly rooted in the geography of the territory served.  For railroads, maps are as important as financial statements.

Most of our railroads began as tiny, short links between neighboring cities, then gradually expanded to serve bigger regions.  For example, the Pennsylvania’s archrival on the New York to Chicago route, the New York Central, was created in 1853 by Erastus Corning.  He merged these short lines connecting Albany to Buffalo:

  • Albany and Schenectady Railroad
  • Utica and Schenectady Railroad
  • Syracuse and Utica Railroad
  • Auburn and Syracuse Railroad
  • Buffalo and Rochester Railroad
  • Schenectady and Troy Railroad
  • Rochester, Lockport, and Niagara Falls Railroad
  • Buffalo and Lockport Railroad
  • Mohawk Valley Railroad
  • Syracuse and Utica Direct Railroad

In 1867, shipping entrepreneur Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt united this system with his line that ran from New York City to Albany to create a more powerful New York Central.  By gaining control of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern in 1877, the company gained access to Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago.  This line between New York and Chicago was the route of the most famous passenger train in America, the Twentieth Century Limited.  It was called “the water level route,” indicating that by following the Hudson River, the Erie Canal, and the shores of the Great Lakes, it provided a smoother ride than going through the Appalachian Mountains on the competing Pennsylvania Railroad.  The 1906 acquisition of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, & St. Louis (the “Big Four”) extended the New York Central’s service to cover Ohio, Indiana, and parts of Illinois.

1930s Hudson type streamlined steam locomotive, designed by Henry Dreyfuss

By 1900, thousands of these mergers and acquisitions resulted in the formation of the main railroads, a structure that remained largely intact for the next sixty years under the watchful eye of the federal Interstate Commerce Commission (created in 1887).

These big railroads were generally limited to three key regions.  Few railroads crossed the lines into adjoining regions.

The East

The big eastern district served the industrial heartland in the northeastern quadrant of the United States.  This region stretched from New England and the Middle Atlantic States west to Chicago and St. Louis, with a southern border at Washington, Cincinnati, and Louisville.  The largest and oldest lines were the Pennsylvania, the New York Central, and the Baltimore & Ohio, formed to connect “the west” to, respectively, the cities and ports of New York (and Boston), Philadelphia, and Baltimore.  The Erie followed a circuitous route from New York to Chicago and the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western (the “Lackawanna”) was a smaller line that connected New York to Buffalo.  The New York, Chicago, & St. Louis (the “Nickel Plate”) connected Buffalo (but not New York City) with Chicago and St. Louis.  The Chesapeake & Ohio and Norfolk & Western connected the coal mines of West Virginia and Kentucky to eastern ports, in a high volume and very lucrative trade.

“Linking 13 great states and the nation,” pioneer railroad Baltimore & Ohio

The South

The southern district covered the US east of the Mississippi River and south of Washington, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis – roughly the old Mason-Dixon line.  In fact, most of the southern railroads did not enter Washington, but ended at Richmond, where the small Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (RF&P) carried the freight and passengers on into the District of Columbia.

The largest companies in the south were the Southern Railway, the Atlantic Coast Line, the Louisville & Nashville, and the Seaboard Airline Railroad (so called because it was like riding on air).  The Illinois Central was unusual in that it crossed into the eastern territory, running from Chicago to New Orleans, roughly parallel to its smaller competitor the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio.  These two railroads, along with the Louisville & Nashville, were somewhat rare in that they were essentially narrow north-and-south lines.

Thus these big eastern and southern railroads did not cross the Mississippi River.  The few that did served as “bridge carriers” and including the Wabash from Buffalo to Kansas City and the St. Louis-San Francisco (the “Frisco”) from Kansas City to Mobile (but, contrary to the hopes of those who named it, never getting anywhere close to San Francisco). 

The West

The huge western territory was a bit more complex.  The Northern Pacific and the Great Northern went from St. Paul/Minneapolis to the Pacific Northwest.  The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific (the “Milwaukee Road”) was a less successful latecomer to this route.  The Union Pacific, a key link in the original “transcontinental” route (that is, from the Midwest toward the west coast) finished in 1869, stretched from Omaha to Salt Lake City, later reaching the Pacific Coast.  The Southern Pacific ran down the Pacific Coast from Portland to San Diego, then eastward across the southern states and Texas to New Orleans.  The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (the “Santa Fe”) was the only western line to go from California all the way into Chicago. 

Typical locomotive used on the Santa Fe Super Chief passenger trains

The Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific (the “Rock Island”) was an odd line that ran from Chicago to Denver, Houston, and, of all places, Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  Smaller roads like the Denver & Rio Grande Western and the Western Pacific served smaller territories.  The “granger” railroads including the Chicago & Northwestern and the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (the “Burlington”) served the rich farmlands and wheat-growing regions of Iowa, Wisconsin, and nearby agricultural states.  The Missouri Pacific (“Mopac”), the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT or “Katy”), and the St. Louis-Southwestern (the “Cotton Belt”) connected the Midwest to Texas.

Most major routes (“city pairs”) were served by at least two big railroads and sometimes smaller companies. 

As passengers and the far more important freight travelled around the nation, they passed from one railroad to the next at key junction points along the district boundaries, including Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, Memphis, and New Orleans.  Each railroad tended to develop relationships with railroads on “the other side of the line,” whether the Mississippi River or the Mason-Dixon line.  The railroad became concerned if a line was feeding them traffic at one of these key exchange points, then switched to (or was acquired by) their competitor.  Thus geographic strategies were at the core of everything the railroads did, including which lines they acquired.

With this system of geographies solidly intact for almost a century, no one ever created a coast-to-coast system in the United States.  Jay Gould and his son tried and failed, as later did the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland.

Unlike the United States, Canada had two transcontinental railroads, the privately financed Canadian Pacific and the government-owned Canadian National, which was privatized and became a public company in 1995 (Bill Gates is a major stockholder).

However, passengers wanted to travel further and did not care about these artificial boundaries.  So the railroads worked together to form “through trains” which crossed from railroad to railroad but did not require travelers to get out of their coach or sleeping car (“Pullman”).  Crack through trains included the Silver Meteor from New York to Miami and the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, each running over three different railroads.  As competition from buses and private autos, and later airlines, arose in the twentieth century, the railroads add more such services.

Seaboard Air Line’s “Orange Blossom Special” Diesel-Electric between New York and Florida

This huge system of railroads was supported by many ancillary services and companies.  Fred Harvey and the Van Noy Company, where Walt Disney worked, operated depot restaurants and concessions on the trains.  The Union New Company had hundreds of newsstands in the terminals and depots.  The Pullman Company designed, built, and operated sleeping cars (as well as its own “company town” outside Chicago).  “Express” companies including American Express, Adams Express, Southern Express, and Wells Fargo carried high-value parcels like jewelry and cash; each railroad had an agreement with one of these express companies to provide such services.

Some of these railroads expanded beyond trains.  The Southern Pacific connected its eastern terminus at New Orleans to New York via steamships.  When buses proved to be a more efficient way to serve smaller towns in the 1920s and 1930s, many of the railroads created bus companies; several of these later became Greyhound and Trailways, the two big American bus operators.  The Pennsylvania and other railroads also invested in airlines, including participation in early cross-country air travel in which passengers traveled by train at night and by airplane during the day (early landing fields sometimes had bonfires, but not lights). 

The Canadian Pacific operated a chain of hotels including the famous Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, ships across both the Atlantic and Pacific, and even an international airline (Canadian Pacific Airlines, later named Canadian Airlines until purchased by Air Canada in 2000).

The structure described in the preceding paragraphs worked well for decades.  However, by the 1960s, many of the biggest railroads were in financial trouble.  They lost their passengers to the airlines and autos, but passengers were more about prestige than profits.  The real pain came from the rise of trucking, aided in large part by the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system in the 1950s through the 1970s.  While the highways were funded by taxpayers, the railroads had to privately finance their terminals, tracks, and equipment.  By the 1960s, many of those assets were in disrepair, and some of the railroads were badly managed, run by leaders locked into past glories.

Thus began the era in which over 100 class 1 railroads collapsed into just six today.  What follows is an outline version of that massive industry consolidation, touching on the most important mergers out of the hundreds of smaller ones that took place over the last sixty years.  (In the process, the big railroads also shed many small branch lines, creating a whole industry of “short line” railroads, not covered in this article.)  Prior to those events, here were the largest American railroads, ranked by revenue:

By comparison, in 1955 other transportation companies were smaller than the big railroads.  The Pennsylvania Railroad was almost four times the size of the biggest airline.  Two railroads had higher profits than the total revenues of Northwest or Delta Airlines.  These numbers are from the Fortune list of the fifty largest transportation companies:

The Great Mergers

The 1960s

In the first of a rising wave of mergers, in 1960 two relatively weak railroads, the Erie and the Lackawanna, merged to form the Erie Lackawanna, adding more routes from the New York area toward Buffalo, connecting to the Erie line on through to Chicago.  (In the above table, in 1955 the two roads had a combined profit of $3 million.)

Bigger news was the 1964 takeover of the midsized roads Wabash and Nickel Plate by the very prosperous coal-carrying Norfolk & Western (N&W).  In 1955, the three had made a total profit of $72 million, right up there with the biggest railroads.  This important consolidation took the N&W to a new level, adding entry into major points from Buffalo to Kansas City.

Catching the merger fever from their neighbor the N&W, 1967 witnessed the combination of the two carriers which ran from Richmond to Florida, the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line.  This new combination adopted the name Seaboard Coast Line.  Seven years later, they combined with other railroads they controlled, including the Louisville & Nashville, forming the powerhouse southern system called “The Family Lines.”

As the consolidation trend accelerated, the two former giants, the Pennsylvania and New York Central, both fallen on harder times, merged to form the Penn Central in 1968 (one of the biggest mergers in US history up to that time).  Included in the merger were other smaller northeastern lines such as the New York, New Haven, & Hartford, which served New York and Boston.  This was the first merger allowed in which competition was in large part eliminated, as the two had fought over the New York to Midwest traffic for decades.

But Penn Central management was disastrous, the two cultures clashed, and within two years the company became the biggest bankruptcy in US history up to that time.  In order to save this critical freight network serving the nation’s industrial heartland, the federal government took over in 1976, forming the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) out of the corporate wreckage and adding in other weak eastern lines such as the Erie Lackawanna.  The company became a ward of the state and was considered hopeless as a for-profit business.

Penn Central Transportation Network

Despite the wreck of the Penn Central, mergers continued apace in the south and west, where business and profits were better than in the declining “rustbelt” that Penn Central served. 

The 1970s

1970 was the year that the dreams of the great (and long gone) railroader Jim Hill finally came true.  Hill built the Great Northern, the first “transcontinental” (from St. Paul west) built without major government subsidies (land grans).  Hill’s road was profitable from the outset.  He then took control of the government-supported competitor the Northern Pacific, which was not nearly as profitable, and the well-run Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy (the “Burlington”).  He tried to merge the three roads, but the government would not permit it.  Still, the three remained under common ownership and sometimes management.  Finally, in 1970, 54 years after Hill’s death, the government allowed the three to merge, creating the Burlington Northern.

Another important development in 1970 was the creation of Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation) by the federal government.  Most railroads were relieved to exit the passenger business, although the Rock Island, Denver & Rio Grande Western, and the Southern kept their passenger services for a while.  The Southern continued to operate the pride of its services, the Southern Crescent, a through-train from New York to Atlanta, until the late 1970s.  But for most of the country, Amtrak took over passenger services beginning in 1971.  (For a somewhat contrarian but provocative view of American passenger trains, their past, and their future, see this book.)

Amtrak original routes, 1971

In 1972-73, the industry had one smaller merger and one big one.  The smaller deal was the acquisition of the Gulf, Mobile, & Ohio by longtime rival Illinois Central (see maps above). 

The big deal was the consolidation of the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Western Maryland into the Chessie System, though the companies retained separate operations for a while.  The C&O claimed descent from the canal work of George Washington and used Chessie the cat as its logo (indicating you could sleep like a kitten on their trains).  The B&O was one of the earliest US railroads and had some of the most progressive managements over the course of its history.  This was therefore a historic merger and perhaps a response to the expanded Norfolk & Western which had gained better access to the Midwest by buying the Wabash and Nickel Plate roads.  (The B&O roundhouse and museum in Baltimore is one of the best in America.)

The Chessie system: B&O in black, C&O in blue, Western Maryland in red

Two important government actions then reshaped the industry.  In 1976 the government took over the Penn Central and other failed eastern railroads, creating Conrail.  And in 1980, the deregulation begun by President Jimmy Carter resulted in the Staggers Act, which effectively ended the tight regulation of the railroads by the feds.

The 1980s

With the reduction in regulation, 1980 saw three key changes in the structure of the industry.  In that year, the Rock Island died, though some track segments were picked up by other railroads.

On a more positive note, the Burlington Northern took over the St. Louis San Francisco, the “Frisco,” extending the company’s reach eastward into the south.

The purchase of the Frisco extended BN’s reach into Alabama

But the biggest 1980 news of all was the merger of the Family Lines (including the Seaboard Coast Line and Louisville and Nashville) with the Chessie system (the C&O and B&O).  This merger of those two relatively-recently formed combinations meant that there was now one huge railroad serving all of the south and much of the east and Midwest, something entirely new – and threatening to competitors, especially the Southern Railway.  The new firm, named CSX Transportation, even added that critical little link between Richmond and Washington, the RF&P, in 1991.  This merger was also one of the very few true “mergers of equals” in US business history, with the old owners each getting roughly half of the new company, and the two management teams sharing leadership.  While CSX has had some ups and downs, the merger worked amazingly well compared to most such attempts at “sharing power.”

The new giant: CSX

Because of the huge impact of the CSX on the traditional boundaries and structure of the national railroad industry, that 1980 merger was a major turning point.  Two years later, in 1982, the next big move in the west took place, as the big Union Pacific acquired the large Missouri Pacific, the line with the most exposure to booming Texas with the added bonus of access to Chicago, the nation’s most important rail hub.  The following year, in 1983, the UP also bought the Western Pacific which added San Francisco to the giant system.

Thus by 1983, two big western groups had been formed: the Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific.  That left the other two, the Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (the “Santa Fe”) in a weaker position, out in the cold.  So late that year, those two agreed to merge, forming the Santa Fe Southern Pacific.  The Southern Pacific, at one point the largest landowner in California and one of the most profitable railroads, had not been as well run as the Santa Fe, which had the upper hand.  Despite deregulation being on the rise, the antitrust division of the Department of Justice objected in 1985, and the still-lingering-on Interstate Commerce Commission over-ruled the merger in 1986-7.  It thus took five to seven years for the feds to make up their minds and force dissolution of the deal, regardless of the fact that the companies had already begun to repaint their locomotives with new logos.  It would be another nine years until this “mess in the west” was straightened out, in 1996.  (Keep in mind that virtually every merger in this story was fought, to one degree or another, by competing railroads, ready to testify to the unfairness of the deal and how it would hurt shippers.)

In the meanwhile, smaller consolidations continued.  In 1985, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie (the “Soo Line”) – controlled by the Canadian Pacific – bought the remnants of the troubled Milwaukee Road.  For the first time, the big Canadian railroads were reaching deeper in the United States. 

In 1988, the Union Pacific bought the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (the MKT or “Katy”), further strengthening their Texas service, and the Southern Pacific bought the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

The 1990s

The next big move was in the south.  In 1990, finally responding to the young giant CSX, two well-run and profitable lines, the Southern and the Norfolk & Western, merged to form the Norfolk Southern.  With the creation of the Norfolk Southern, the system in the south now had two large companies that covered the region, settling into a pattern that continues to this day.

The Norfolk Southern when created in 1990 in green; the red lines come later in our story

In 1995, the Interstate Commerce Commission was at last disbanded, giving the railroads more freedom, but they were still subject to antitrust laws and actions.  In that year, the Union Pacific also acquired the Chicago & Northwestern, strengthening its lines in the upper Midwest.

Chicago & Northwestern

Big news followed in 1996 when the giant western systems were finally “rationalized,” satisfying both the antitrust regulators and the railroads themselves.  The Burlington Northern got the Santa Fe, becoming the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (the BNSF, the nation’s largest railroad by revenues) and the Union Pacific got the Southern Pacific, retaining the corporate Union Pacific name and becoming the second largest railroad.  Thus, like the south, the western system was now largely intact.  (Note that in many of these deals, railroads acquired trackage rights over other railroads, meaning they could run their trains over the other railroad, in order to insure fair access to key cities.)

The BNSF after the Burlington Northern acquired the Santa Fe
The Union Pacific after acquiring the Southern Pacific

In the midst of these giant deals, less attention was paid to the fact that the President of Mexico decided to privatize the Mexican freight railroad system (there is very little passenger rail service in Mexico).  A major line from the Texas border to Mexico City came up for sale, with the (relatively) little Kansas City Southern (KCS) outbidding the Union Pacific and others.  The KCS bought part ownership in 1996 and took full control in 2005.  The KCS had to acquire and improve tracks between Port Arthur, Texas, and the Mexican border in order to connect its system.  This move, seen as pricey at the time, would prove to be one of the most visionary strategic steps by any American railroad, as NAFTA and other trade agreements took effect, including the rise of Mexico as a key automaking nation.

Kansas City Southern and its extension through Mexico

With the competitive strategies in the west and the south now settled, in 1997 it came time to finally figure out the critical northeast.  The disaster that was Conrail was, to everyone’s surprise, turned into a profitable railroad by the remarkable retired President of the Southern Railway, Stanley Crane.  Still owned by the federal government, there was great debate about whether to take Conrail public or sell it to another railroad.  Crane’s former employer the Norfolk Southern badly wanted it, but of course the CSX was not fond of this idea. 

So Conrail went public, the largest Initial Public Offering (IPO) up to that time, an unbelievable evolution of the organization that had once been the nation’s biggest bankruptcy.  Once public, the eastern railroads again pursued Conrail.  It only made sense that if two railroads, the BNSF and Union Pacific, controlled the nation’s rails west of the Mississippi, then two railroads could “own” the territory east of the river. 

In the final event, with antitrust approval, CSX and Norfolk Southern (see red routes on Norfolk Southern map above) split Conrail in two, each getting what they wanted and permitting fair access for both roads to the major cities and ports.  For the most part, the Norfolk Southern got the old Pennsylvania routes and CSX took over the old New York Central.  Full operations under the new owners began in 1999.  (The full story of Crane’s miracle and Conrail is told here.)

CSX after the Conrail deal
Norfolk Southern after the Conrail deal

One might think that now, with two big roads in the west and two in the east, and a small company (KCS) dangling into Mexico, everything was settled in the USA.  But such was not to be the case. 

While the United States to this day does not have a true transcontinental railroad, Canada always had its two powerhouses, the Canadian Pacific (CP) and Canadian National (CN), both well-run railroads.  And their eyes were on the USA.  So in 1998, the Canadian National swooped down and bought the Illinois Central (IC), one of the few old class 1 lines that had not participated in the rationalization of the east and west.  The IC still controlled the important Chicago to New Orleans corridor.  With this move, the Canadian National became the first “tri-coastal” railroad in North America, reaching the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico.  In addition, the CN got an excellent railroad manager from the IC, Hunter Harrison, who had revolutionary ideas about how to streamline freight service.  Under his leadership, the formerly government-owned Canadian National became the most profitable railroad of them all.  Today, almost every railroad is adopting his ideas to one degree or another.  (His story told in this book.)

Canadian National connected more dots than any other railroad

The Twenty-first Century, Unlimited?

With these giant systems intact, the merger mania quieted down for a while as railroad leaders focused their energies on improving operations and profitability.  In 2009, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought the nation’s biggest railroad by revenue, the BNSF.  The total value of the deal, including assumption of debt, was about $44 billion.  The famous investor clearly believes in the importance and future of the industry, when it is well run.

Yet there was one more move to be made, and that was announced in March of 2021.  Throughout the above stories, the Canadian Pacific had remained remarkably quiet.  But that all changed when they announced they were buying the Kansas City Southern (and its now very valuable Mexican line) for $25 billion.  With this merger, the number of class 1 railroads shrinks from seven to six, from the hundred-plus that existed sixty years ago.

Canadian Pacific reaches the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Mexico
The big North American railroads in the US prior to the CP+KCS deal;
CN in green, CP in brown, KCS in light brown
2015 Freight traffic tonnage flows in the United States: trains in green, trucks in purple, boats in blue
2018 Traffic flows, railroads only. Note the Wyoming coal in blue

For comparison with our earlier table of financial data, here are the largest American transportation companies in the 2019 Fortune 500, published in 2020 (the BNSF, with corporate revenues of about $23.5 billion, is excluded because it is no longer an independent public company):

Here are the 2019 operating revenues (excluding income from non-railroad sources) of the seven North American Class 1 railroads, from online data service Statista (note that the Canadian Pacific will still be the smallest even after buying the Kansas City Southern):

What Next?

For over a century, financiers, empire builders, and railroad executives have dreamed of a true American transcontinental railroad.  But while the two Canadian companies have moved through and beyond that goal, it remains unattained by the four big US railroads.  Almost all the big mergers described in the preceding paragraphs were intended to “level the playing field,” to make competitors more even.  But now the Canadians seem to have some advantage. 

Considering this history, it is almost hard to imagine that the two eastern and two western giants will not at some point try to pair up.  As in the past, it might take years – usually about a decade – before the next big moves.  But history indicates that we might expect to see either CSX+UP and NS+BNSF, or CSX+BNSF and NS+UP.  With Warren Buffett controlling the biggest card in the deck, his thinking and strategy, or that of his railroad executives, would have to play a critical role in agreeing to any deals.  And many squabbles over trackage rights, the sharing of routes, and trading of track segments like in the Conrail deal can be anticipated.  If this were to occur, the US would end up with two big railroads rather than the present four.

And beyond that, if the US and Canadian governments would approve it, why not add the CN and CP to the mix, resulting in two companies covering all of North America?  Stranger things have happened in the long and illustrious history of our great railroad system.  The giant chess game of railroad strategy continues …

Gary Hoover

Executive Director

American Business History Center

Learning More About the Railroads (and Trains)


There are thousands and thousands of books about the major railroads, the industry, and the locomotives, freight cars, passenger cars, and depots.  Here are some of the best.

Reference books, but some with great illustrations and very readable, easy to read in small chunks:

Railroads Across North America: An Illustrated History – an outstanding look at individual roads and railroad topics in general, lavishly illustrated

Train: The Definitive Visual History – a DK book full of great pictures, for all ages, with more emphasis on the trains and locomotives than on the companies

Rails Around the World: Two Centuries of Trains and Locomotives – a new picture book, including railroads around the world, with emphasis on the locomotives rather than the railroad companies

The Routledge Historical Atlas of the American Railroads – a shorter and less expensive guide to the individual railroads and how the system evolved over time, by one of the top railroad historians

The Historical Atlas of North American Railroads – a larger book covering more history, more pictures, and a bargain, but not as much information on the companies themselves

The Historical Guide to North American Railroads, 3rd Edition – more comprehensive, includes a deep history of each former railroad that has been absorbed into a bigger system

Encyclopedia of North American Railroads – the most comprehensive reference, “encyclopedic,” about the history, including all the companies as well as key people and important topics

North American Railroad Family Trees: An Infographic History of the Industry’s Mergers and Evolution – sort of a longer version of this article, with charts showing all the railroads that were merged, including smaller ones not covered in this article

North American Railroads: The Illustrated Encyclopedia – a picture book with a couple of pages on each of 100 different railroads, not truly encyclopedic

Books meant to be read sequentially, unlike the above reference books which are easy to dip in and out of:

Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869 –a history by well-known historian Stephen Ambrose

The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America – a complete general history

The North American Railroad: Its Origin, Evolution, and Geography – a serious history book, by a great geographer, a bargain used compared to some of the other titles in this list

And very different, probably not for the casual reader:

Railroad: What It Is, What It Does: The Introduction to Railroading – for those interested in how railroads and trains really work, full of technical details (for the “gearheads and nerds”)

Beyond Books

For some great maps and posters about railroad history, see https://transitmap.net/store/.

The wonderful old logos of the railroads, called “heralds” in the industry, are on his poster here:  https://cambooth.net/project-1959-railroad-heralds/.

Trains magazine, one of the best-written and best-edited periodicals in any field we have studied, is the bible for train lovers.  Publisher Kalmbach has outstanding maps and charts showing the evolution and “family trees” of the railroads, such as the one at https://kalmbachhobbystore.com/product/poster/83001.  

The company also publishes excellent books and video discs.

For free YouTube videos of the big Union Pacific trains that run past the headquarters of the American Business History Center (as well as other videos of life in Flatonia, Texas), check out https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf0e0dCduhR8lKWxNWw9rsA/videos. Lastly, if you want to try your hand at forming your own system, seek out a copy of the classic (and out-of-print)  Avalon Hill board game Rail Baron.  The game is incredibly realistic, based on the actual railroads and maps in this article.  Copies can usually be found on eBay.  There is even a version of the game for Windows.

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