Nationwide Nomenclature

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Now that CSX and Norfolk Southern have digested Conrail thoroughly, and there are two large railroads in both the east and west, it’s probably time to consider what many consider to be likely in U.S. railroading’s future:  two transcontinental mega-systems.  The key questions, of course, are who will be paired with whom, and what will the resulting entities be called?  And in addition, now that we are in 2019, celebrating the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the United States' first “transcontinental” railroad, it’s probably appropriate to consider the more detailed ramifications of such an event.

I suggest that the Conrail division has given us a model which could be useful in determining how four become two—work out where you want each to go, and then cut and paste accordingly.  This method may also provide an answer to the second question above, since road name doesn’t necessarily have to be a function of existing corporate entities, although there probably is merit in looking at history. 

In fact, it might be better to select names for the new systems first, and then get on with the route selection process.  (By the way, let’s restrict this to the U.S. for the moment; I don’t think we’re quite ready yet for the Canadian International, North American Pacific, or the Ferrocarriles Norte Americanos, although they could be the subject for a future installment of this discussion.)

Railroading being a traditional business, one oft-used method for merging names is their straightforward combination—witness today’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or Norfolk Southern.  At the opposite extreme is what could be termed the “synthetic” method, a la the CSX, or Conrail.   Utilizing either of these is fraught with problems, however.  BNSFCSX is even longer than some of the more complicated recent freight train symbol conventions, and could cause crews utilizing the radio to revert to the simplistic, and possibly dangerous, practice of referring to movements solely by engine number.  (That may not be any bargain, either, with five digit usage becoming commonplace.)  Other combinations would produce results suggesting the undoing of previous amalgamations.  While Sunset Route partisans might be pleased with the ring of Norfolk Southern Pacific, those in Omaha might not concur.

A logical question, then, is how should the naming criteria for these behemoths be determined?  Ideally, the names should be simple, reflect geography, and incorporate tradition, to the extent possible.  Thus, one is likely to be the Union Pacific.  With apologies to the other contenders, this new Colossus of Roads (the one with the penchant for “Pacific” in its acquisitions) was spiked down largely to unite the Pacific with the rest of the country; so why not the Atlantic, also?

Having chosen one name with historically western overtones, it looks like the BNSF is out of the running for the other slot.  Indeed, the answer should be obvious—the Norfolk & Western, which has the nice touch of combining an eastern/southern place name with the carrier’s new transcontinental reach. While the NS has announced its intention to decamp from its Virginia port city namesake, I think that selecting “Western and Atlantic” might be just too much of an anachronism.  “Norfolk & Western” also is geographically accurate, although this could be a bit subtle for some people’s taste. 

So, in the manner of the 1869 telegraph message announcing the completion of what was then termed a transcontinental railroad--it’s “done”.  If only the determination of the route structures turns out to be as simple.  And I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the application of Pevler blue and gold to today's massive six-axle locomotives; NS heritage unit 8103, at least, should feel quite at home!

Photo by George W. Hamlin, NS train 228 at Cedarville, Virginia, November 12, 2016

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