The day Burlington Northern showed the way

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, March 6, 2020

On March 2, 1970, six brand-new Burlington Northern GP38s, ordered by Spokane, Portland & Seattle but delivered in the new carrier's image, lead a freight west out of the fog at Cicero, Ill., just outside Chicago. Harold A. Edmonson
March 2, 1970, was a foggy morning at the former Burlington yard in Cicero, just west of Chicago. Pete Briggs, a former public relations manager with the Q and suddenly doing the same work for brand-new Burlington Northern, stood in the yard with Hedrich-Blessing photographer Bob Harr to get shots of BN’s first Seattle-bound train featuring all BN power, a sextet of brand new GP38s in Cascade green.

“Alas,” says Pete, “that morning was totally foggy and the diesels disappeared in the mist. Bob reluctantly took a few shots using his preferred and very expensive 8x10 Deardorff view camera. He left it set up on a tripod on an adjacent track, hoping the fog would clear. Bob and I had our backs to the tracks a car-length away when we heard a crash.” 

Aghast, Briggs and Barr saw that a cut of cars had quietly crept up and broadsided Barr’s camera. Fortunately, he had a back-up, Pete reports. “Bob more than made up for it the next day when he took his classic shot of the same train crossing the Gassman Coulee bridge in North Dakota.”

Perhaps it was an inauspicious start in Cicero for the new BN, that long-dreamed-of combination of Great Northern; Northern Pacific; Spokane, Portland & Seattle; and Burlington. But it was a glorious day, too, for the new railroad had finally cleared decades of hurdles that included the state of Minnesota, the Sherman Antitrust Act, the ICC, the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Transportation Union, not to mention a mashup of distinct and proud corporate cultures. 

Also on that foggy March 2, four E units — two in the new BN green-and-white scheme and two still in CB&Q silver — head west with the combined Empire Builder/North Coast Limited/Afternoon Zephyr. Harold A. Edmonson
Suddenly, the newest railroad in America was also the largest, with 23,600 route miles — longer, even, than the two Canadian transcontinental carriers — stretching from Vancouver, B.C., to Chicago and Galveston. It boasted a roster of nearly 2,000 diesels. Amtrak was still more than a year away, so the first BN passenger timetable of April 26 was a 28-page affair, hurriedly mixing under one banner all those CB&Q Zephyrs with age-old rivals North Coast Limited and Empire Builder

In the end, the fog of that first day would clear on what became the most successful railroad merger of its era. Its timing was perfect. Here was an industry about to be rocked in a few months by the Penn Central bankruptcy, passenger trains were stumbling through the contentious gestation of Amtrak, and weak sisters like Rock Island and Milwaukee Road were showing alarming vital signs. Suddenly a muscular BN emerges on the scene and things don’t look so hopeless.  

This week is the 50th anniversary of the BN merger, so I checked in with a former executive on the railroad, Bill Greenwood, a former BN chief operating officer, now retired and active in the Lexington Group in Transportation History and other historical circles. The very day the merger took effect, he reported to the new office in Omaha as the regional manager of freight equipment. As such, he had a front-row view as the pieces came together. 

Out at the engine terminal in Dilworth, Minn., a former Northern Pacific facility serving Fargo-Moorhead, GP9 1760 wears fresh BN Cascade green while RS1 802 still carries its full NP livery and number on May 14, 1970. J. David Ingles
“We really hit the ground running,” Greenwood recalls. “Every one of us was new in that office, and most of what we were doing at that point was trying to simply get organized. It was about making it happen, and we knew what to do.” 

If BN was ready to go on Day One — as ready as any new company can be — some of the credit goes to that very same U.S. Supreme Court that had held up the initial merger back in 1968, issuing an injunction essentially telling the various railroads to take more time to get their act together. “That desist order in 1968 was good luck,” says Greenwood. “It provided us with two more years in which we saw big changes in leadership and organization, all of which resulted in better organization and execution when the time finally came.” 

That delay led to a critical move, says Greenwood: the elevation of NP President Lou Menk to the top job in the new company. “Menk was designated after the court decision and proved to be head and shoulders above the other candidates in terms of understanding railroading from a strong operating background. I still say he was the best railroad leader of the 1970s, by far.”

The court-ordered pause also gave the emerging BN management a chance to at least try to adequately represent each component railroad. It was a complex organization taking shape, but one made up of human beings. “We wanted to make sure the leadership of all the department heads and regions were equally balanced between the three railroads [CB&Q, GN, and NP],” explains Greenwood. “It wound up with Burlington getting most of the operating positions, while GN was really good at strategic thinking in marketing, strategic planning, and administrative stuff.” The NP, apparently, brought a bit less to the table, and SP&S traditionally followed the lead of its two owners, GN and NP. 

You can understand why BN people such as Greenwood felt pretty good in March 1970. They had bucked the trend, helping a new railroad get off to a smooth start. Ahead lay greater glories for BN: status as the Number One coal hauler in the United States; owner of an unusually diverse and trend-setting roster of diesels; successful absorption of the Frisco in 1980, and full partner in another historic merger, with Santa Fe, in 1995.

Back in the June 1970 issue of Trains, Editor David P. Morgan wrote about the new BN in hopeful tones. “If everything James J. Hill stood for and worked toward has merit, if the super railroad doctrine preached by John W. Barriger has any validity, if there is any lesson to be learned from Canada’s two true transcons, if the conclusions reached by an ICC examiner on the basis of 15,004 pages of testimony are rational, then Burlington Northern will be a blessing to an industry in need of one.”

It was, David, it was.

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