Modern history


American Railroads in the Twenty-first Century

On the morning of Saturday, January 12, 1957, the Santa Fe’s vaunted Super Chief and stalwart El Capitan left Dearborn Station in Chicago westbound as usual. But there was one major difference. They were no longer two separate trains but a combined consist. Due to declining passenger traffic, the Santa Fe had consolidated the schedules of its two crack streamliners into one train. Its published schedule was still thirty-nine and three-quarters hours, but as the nation looked ahead toward new frontiers, this suddenly seemed terribly slow.

Overhead, new Boeing 707 jets were beginning to whisk Hollywood stars as well as ordinary folks across what was once a contested empire in less than five hours. On that raw winter’s day, few paused to notice that the moment marked the beginning of the end for the nation’s premier transcontinental passenger trains.

Within a few years, the entire American railroad system was in chaos and disrepair. The once-proud streamliners of the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and other roads had been ingloriously swept into Amtrak, which in its early form often seemed more of a graveyard caretaker than a public conveyance. The bankruptcy of the vaunted Penn Central merger was taken as gospel that bigger was not always better and that bigger certainly did not ensure profitability.

Out west, the successors to Harriman’s Union Pacific, Huntington’s Southern Pacific, and Colonel Holliday’s Santa Fe hung on to their freight business and pondered their fate. The Denver and Rio Grande Western proved that it still had a feisty streak by opting out of Amtrak and operating the Zephyr on its own between Denver and Salt Lake City.

The eventual demise of the Zephyr in 1983 came with more bad news for the Denver and Rio Grande Western. The Union Pacific acquired the Rio Grande’s friendly competition at both ends of its system: the Missouri Pacific to the east and the Western Pacific to the west, and left General Palmer’s legacy rather isolated.

Then an event that would have been unthinkable to Collis P. Huntington and William Barstow Strong occurred. In 1984 the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe attempted to merge. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) denied the union as monopolistic two years later, but a trend had been set. Bigger might indeed be better. (The ICC itself would be phased out in 1995.)

Meanwhile, in 1985, a Denver oil tycoon, Philip Anschutz, acquired the struggling Denver and Rio Grande Western. Three years later, the direction of Anschutz’s thinking was revealed when his Rio Grande holding company also acquired the Southern Pacific as it staggered out of its attempted merger with the Santa Fe.

Faced with this combined competition in the Southwest and the Union Pacific’s growing network across the nation’s midsection, the Santa Fe went shopping for another partner. Colonel Holliday’s road found it in the Burlington Northern, and the merger of the two roads into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe was finalized in 1995. The western railroad merger mania was completed the following year when Philip Anschutz sold the combined Southern Pacific–Denver and Rio Grande Western system to the Union Pacific.

The immediate casualty of this consolidation of the West’s railroads into two corporate giants was the Royal Gorge route through the Rockies. The Union Pacific chose to run most of its freight through Wyoming and relegate the Moffat Tunnel line to regional coal trains and the Amtrak route of the reborn California Zephyr. The line through the Royal Gorge and over Tennessee Pass that the Rio Grande and Santa Fe had fought over so hard saw its last train in 1997.

These titanic railroad mergers—a situation that occurred in the East as well with the emergence of the Norfolk Southern and CSX behemoths—left rail fans and historians mourning a disappearing past. But nostalgia for logos, paint schemes, and train names aside, the first decade of the twenty-first century has been incredibly good for railroads.

Energy demands for coal, cross-country container shipments, just-in-time deliveries, and the strains of higher fuel prices and growing air congestion have all given railroads greater market share. Even Amtrak has become an increasingly pleasant way to travel. And just when it seemed that the days of railroad empire builders like Huntington, Palmer, Strong, and Ripley were a thing of the past, financial guru Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway made a bullish bet on America’s rails by acquiring the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in 2010.

Railroads, it seems, still have a very important role to play in American commerce. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the American Southwest. Drive I-40 across Arizona and New Mexico, and you are rarely out of sight of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight hurrying west or east. The Los Angeles-to-Chicago corridor that was so fiercely contested for more than a quarter century remains one of the most heavily traveled rail routes in North America; and the railroad that first led the way west from Topeka toward Santa Fe continues to lead America into the future.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!