KCS has been making news for a long time

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, March 26, 2021

Kansas City Southern's 10 'Green Giant' 2-10-4s were the last word in the road's steam power. In 1939, one of the potent machines tackles Rich Mountain with a freight. Preston George
It seems inevitable when you think about it. For decades, Kansas City Southern has stood out as a feisty, independent creature in a world of monsters. Beyond the omnipresent Big Six of Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National, and Canadian Pacific, there has been KCS, carrying on with a 120-year-old name, a brilliant retro paint scheme, and a successful business strategy capitalizing on Mexican trade. An entity that interesting can’t last, can it?

Apparently not. On June 28, Canadian Pacific and KCS are scheduled to file merger plans with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), projecting a railroad that will be the first to have significant operations in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It’s expected the CP-KCS merger will successfully negotiate all the usual regulatory minefields and win approval. With that, the KCS as we’ve known it will disappear.

It would be easy to lament this development, but equally hard to deny the advantages, at least from a wide industry perspective. Meanwhile, the proposed merger offers a chance to look back on some interesting moments in KCS history. Over the past few decades, the route of “Streamlined Hospitality” has frequently made news disproportionate to its size. For example:

• A monster of a Texas type: Although relatively unheralded in the history books, KCS’s huge J-class 2-10-4 steam locomotives of 1937 were among the finest products ever to come out of Lima Locomotive Works. They were the first U.S. engines with staybolt-fastened boilers to push pressure to 310 psi (later reduced to 300), a reservoir of power necessary for assignments on the rugged 432-mile Northern Division between Kansas City and De Queen, Ark., where the big engines regularly lugged 1,800 tons up a 1.8 percent ruling grade. The 900-class machines had huge boilers (painted green!), delivering an extraordinary 93,300 lbs. of tractive force to 70-inch drivers.

KCS fielded only 10 of these beasts, but they made a strong impression on Trains Editor David P. Morgan, who concluded “these 900s explain much about the progress made in steam power design during the 1930s.” Interestingly, half the engines (900–904) burned oil, the other half (905–909) used coal. An attempt by KCS to keep both kinds of online customers happy?  

KCS was well into its 1970s renaissance when brilliant white SD40-2 No. 629 led a train across the Neches River at Beaumont, Texas, in November 1976. Photo by John F. Bjorklund, (c) Center for Railroad Photography & Art
• The big comeback of 1973: By 1972, KCS was in rough shape. Most of the work it had performed in the 1950s to improve track and infrastructure unraveled. Derailments became frighteningly common. In January 1974 alone, the railroad experienced 41 mainline derailments at a cost to the railroad of $1.8 million. It fell to a new president, Thomas S. Carter, to fix everything. Armed with a $75 million commitment from his board — in those days a huge sum for a mid-size railroad — KCS went to work, replacing ties en masse, organizing large resurfacing gangs, changing the way it used remote-controlled diesels over its most rugged territory. By the time he reached the November 1976 deadline imposed by his board, Carter had largely accomplished what might have seemed impossible: have KCS ready for the coming surge of traffic, fed in part by Powder River coal.

Suddenly KCS’s blindingly white hood units symbolized relative prosperity. “Not even Government-funded Conrail, when it came along three years later, could equal in proportion what Kansas City Southern accomplished after 1973,” wrote Fred W. Frailey. Not quite Lazarus, perhaps, but close.

Powered by a former Maine Central E7 and capped by an ex-New York Central observation car, KCS New Orleans–Kansas City train 10 backs into the station at Shreveport in July 1966. J. David Ingles
• Bucking the passenger trend . . . for a while: As the dismantling of the privately operated intercity passenger train continued apace in the late 1950s and early ’60s, KCS fought back, becoming something of an outlier with improvements to its modest service, led by trains 1 and 2, the Southern Belle. The railroad bought high-quality used cars (notably ex-New York Central observation cars); painted them in handsome black, red, and orange; modernized car interiors and food service; bought 10 new coaches from Pullman-Standard in 1965; proudly hung on to sleeping-car service; and generally advertised itself as pro-passenger. It helped that its main Kansas City–New Orleans route lacked direct Interstate highway competition.

All this led President William Deramus III to loudly declare (in a memorable November 1967 Trains headline), “We have no intention of going out of the passenger business.” Yet it took only three more issues of the magazine for Deramus to reverse himself. In February 1968, in a short piece headlined “Sorry About That,” Trains reported that news that KCS had filed with the ICC to dump all its passenger trains after losing RPO contracts. It was a good ride while it lasted.

After decades of solid white, then gray, KCS's revival of the 'Southern Belle' paint scheme made the road a fan favorite. ET44AC 5018 was just a visitor on Canadian Pacific when it worked through Milwaukee in early 2020, but these will be its home rails if the CP-KCS merger goes through. Robert S. McGonigal
• The legacy of William Deramus III: Most railroads can claim to have had a CEO or two with an outsized reputation. KCS had it in Deramus, who in 1961 succeeded his nearly equally famous father, William Deramus Jr., at the railroad. In truth, the younger Deramus is more noteworthy in some quarters for his leadership first of Chicago Great Western in 1949 and later for his valiant battle to save the Katy. But his tenure at KCS was all of a pattern. Deramus had the guts to damn the torpedoes and shake things up. He did it by making the tough decision on KCS passenger trains and he did it by using the railroad as a platform to radically diversify. His creation of KCS Industries in 1962 led to lucrative excursions into such sectors as finance, insurance, data processing, and broadcasting — a move that didn’t make him popular with railroading’s true believers, but nonetheless a move that endures.

Sometime a few months from now, the STB is likely to bless Canadian Pacific’s embrace of KCS and another famous flag will fall. In 2007, historian George H. Drury wrote, “The Kansas City Southern had (and has) a streak of unconventionality.” So true, George. Maybe that’s what we’ll miss the most. 

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