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Rail News: BNSF Railway

In Memoriam: Robert Downing, the driving force behind the Burlington Northern Railroad merger


Robert Downing, the former president of the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) and driving force behind a merger that forged the Class I, died Aug. 2. He was 96.

Downing began his railroad career in 1935 at the Pennsylvania Railroad after graduating from Yale University with a civil engineering degree. He joined BN predecessor the Great Northern Railroad (GN) in 1938 as assistant to the superintendent at Whitefish, Mont., and worked his way up before and after a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. By the time he retired from BN in 1976, Downing had served as president and chief operating officer from 1971 to 1973, and vice chairman and COO from 1973 to 1976.

He was instrumental in the 1970 merger of the GN; Northern Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway that formed BN, a BNSF Railway Co. predecessor, according to an item posted on the “BNSF News” web page.

“Many historians have suggested that without Downing's diplomatic skills, the merger might never have come to fruition,” the news item states.

As COO, Downing suggested to BN’s board that the railroad build a line between Gillette, Wyo., and Orin Junction in the Powder River Basin to serve proposed low-sulfur coal mines — a line that became a key coal route for BNSF.

Although Downing stepped down from BN’s board in 1979, he remained active in rail historical societies and frequently advised BNSF executives, according to BNSF.

“I was honored to have called Bob a friend, and on numerous occasions I sought his counsel,” said BNSF Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Rose. “Bob's contributions to our railroad and the industry are immeasurable. He truly had a hand in shaping our company as we know it today. He was a great leader and a wonderful mentor, and we will miss him.”

A road on BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters campus is named after Downing.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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