Map of 5 biggest railroads in North America

The Largest and Most Profitable Railroads In The US

Map of top 5 biggest railroads in North America
Top 5 Class I Railroads

Now, categorized by operating revenue, this is the 2018 North American biggest railroads map. The USA rail network is dominated by 5 railroad companies. Read below to see how the 2021 railroad revenue’s compared.

The Largest US Railroads

Union Pacific is mapped in pink throughout the western United States against BNSF which is mapped in blue. Over in the east CSX mapped in green competes with Norfolk Southern. Canadian National cuts throw the mid west and spanning east to west throughout Canada. The top railroads dominate the rail market with a market cap in the tens of billions.

In the center of this mess, connecting it all, is Chicago: the largest US rail gateway. The Harbor Belt Railroad and the Belt Railway of Chicago are deserving of a shout out. Without them, traffic would come to a halt. Both switching railroads sort this mess out every day and keep traffic moving. There is another major rail center located in East St. Louis.

The seven “Class I” major railroads dominate the US and Canadian railroad industry. Included above, are 5. Most of which formed as a result of a wave of consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s.

All said and done, the “Class I” railroad track miles totals about 92,000. The track managed and owned by these companies are crucial to moving goods to and from our ports for importing and exporting goods.

How do the 2018 railroad revenues compare to 2021?

Short answer:

Not good. In 2021 the seven Class I freight railroad companies generated $80.3 billion in operating revenue. However, in 2018 the railroads generated $93.3 billion.

Missing from the maps above are:

Canadian Pacific Railway and Kansas City Southern. When combined, they generated less than $10 billion in revenue.

Top 5 2021 Railroads

1. BNSF Railway $23.3 Billion Revenue

  • Number of employees: ~35,000
  • Rail network: 32,500 route miles
BNSF Train
A BNSF train waiting for departure.

Now Warren Buffet’s locomotive gem, BNSF’s history dates back 170 years to 1849, when the 12-mile Aurora Branch Railroad was founded in Illinois. With a rail network of 32,500 route miles in 28 states and three Canadian provinces, BNSF is one of North America’s leading freight transportation companies.

On Feb. 12 2010, BNSF became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc which owns it to this day and continues to haul many different commodities, most notable coal and grain, as well as intermodal freight.

2. Union Pacific Railroad$21.8 Billion Revenue

  • Number of employees: 32,124
  • Rail network: 32,100 route miles
Union Pacific Train
A Union Pacific train parked at a stop.

Another famous American railroad and a big competitor to BNSF, Union Pacific extended the American railway system to the Pacific coast. It was financed largely in part by federal loans and land grants.

With its acquisition of Southern Pacific rail in 1996, Union Pacific became the largest railroad in Northern America. It relies heavily on commodities such as coal, automobiles, foods, forest and agricultural products, and chemicals and is one of the largest intermodal shippers in the country.

3. CSX Transportation – $12.5 Billion Revenue

  • Number of employees: ~25,000
  • Rail network: 20,000 route miles
CSX train heads to its next destination
A CSX train heads to its next destination. (Photo: CSX)

Founded in 1827, CSX serves nearly two-thirds of the American population. The CSX story begins with America’s first common carrier, The Baltimore and Ohio railroad (B&O), ringing a bell from Monopoly the board game.

An interesting piece of history to note:

When the B&O operation began in 1830, its trains were pulled by horses. Several years later, the term “horsepower” was created to convince potential buyers of the value of the steam engine by comparing it to the work done by horses.

In 2021, CSX reported $12.5 revenue, officially surpassing Canadian National’s $11.5 billion revenue.

4. Canadian National Railway$11.5 Billion Revenue

  • Number of employees: 24,000
  • Rail network: ~20,000 route miles
Canadian national railway group
Montreal-based Canadian National is Canada’s largest railway group by revenue © Bloomberg

Canadian National’s overall rail network covers approximately 20,000 route miles. In 2021, Canadian National reported $11.5 billion in annual revenue. The Canadian National Railways (CNR) was incorporated on June 6, 1919, comprising several railways that had become bankrupt and fallen into federal government hands, along with some railways already owned by the government.

On November 17, 1995, the federal government privatized CN.

5. Norfolk Southern Railway – $11.14 Billion Revenue

  • Number of employees: 20,200
  • Rail network: 21,300 miles
Norfolk Southern freight train rolls through Pittsburgh
A Norfolk Southern freight train rolls through downtown Pittsburgh on Monday, March 26, 2018. (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

Turns out, Norfolk Southern has served the freight transportation for nearly two centuries. The company operated 21,300 miles serving in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

The primary business function of Norfolk Southern Corporation is the rail transportation of raw materials, intermediate products, and finished goods across the Southeast, East, and Midwest United States. Norfolk Southern is a major transporter of domestic and export coal.

Sources and Tools Used

On a final note, this map was made using the sources listed below as well as QGIS which is completely open source and free. Rail data was pulled from The Rail Network.

Sources:
https://data-usdot.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/north-american-rail-lines
https://www.bnsf.com/about-bnsf/financial-information/
http://www.nscorp.com/content/nscorp/en/news/norfolk-southern-reports-fourth-quarter-and-full-year-2018-resul.html
https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/CSX/csx/revenue

https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/NSC/norfolk-southern/revenue
https://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/cni/financials
https://www.up.com/media/releases/180124-4q-2018-earnings.htm

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6 thoughts on “The Largest and Most Profitable Railroads In The US

    1. Today, there is still one steam locomotive operating on a Class I railroad in the U.S., the Union Pacific 84

  1. I think it is unfair to identify the mess in Chicago, without giving a shout out to the two major switching railroads that sort this mess out every day – the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, with its distinctive black locomotives with orange stripes, and the Belt Railway of Chicago. Switching roads rule and keep the traffic moving.

  2. The updated railroad map of North America has been a great work while keeping the operating revenue quite clear of every Railroad company mentioned. In addition, they have generated high railroad employee opportunities and connected complex rail networks. So, again, great work; keep updating!

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