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Robert W. Downing Played a Key Role in Railroad History


Robert W. Downing, former president of the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN), passed away on Aug. 2 at the age of 96.

Downing was instrumental in the 1970 merger of the Great Northern (GN); Northern Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway that created BN, a predecessor of BNSF. Many historians have suggested that without Downing's diplomatic skills, the merger might never have come to fruition. In 2004, Downing recalled his memories of the merger: "We went out of our way to ensure everybody in our companies understood that this was not a takeover. It was a merger of equals, that everybody would be treated equally, and that we respected the way they were doing things."

Downing began his railroad career in 1935 on the Pennsylvania Railroad after graduating from Yale University with a civil engineering degree. He went to work for the GN in 1938 as assistant to the superintendent at Whitefish, Mont., and worked his way up, with time out for military serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, eventually retiring from BN in 1976. He served as president and chief operating officer from 1971 to 1973, and as vice chairman and chief operating officer from 1973 to 1976.

As chief operating officer, Downing suggested to the BN board of directors that a line be built between Gillette, Wyo., and Orin Junction in the Powder River Basin to serve the proposed low-sulfur coal mines. In an interview with Larry Kaufman, author of Leaders Count: The Story of BNSF Railway, Downing recalled that meeting with the board: "Some of those board members asked some pretty pointed questions, but in the end they approved....After the meeting Lou [Menk, CEO and chairman] and I were breathing our sighs of relief. He said, 'You know, Bob, I hope this works, because if it doesn't, you and I are both going to be looking for a job.'"

Last September, Downing visited the Joint Line to view the fourth mainline track at Logan Hill. In an interview with Trains magazine he said, "I didn't have the slightest idea in 1974 that it would be so busy. I figured that ultimately we would have a double-track railroad from Gillette to Orin Junction."

Though Downing stepped down from the board of directors in 1979, he continued to be active in rail historical societies and would frequently advise BNSF executives. Said BNSF Chairman, President and CEO Matt Rose: "I was honored to have called Bob a friend, and on numerous occasions I sought his counsel. 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 the BNSF campus in Fort Worth is named for Downing.

About the photo: Robert W. Downing visited the BNSF line near Converse Junction, Wyo., last fall at the age of 96. Photo by John Gruber.

BNSF Headquarters

BNSF Railway Company
2650 Lou Menk Dr. 2nd Floor
P.O. Box 961057
Fort Worth, TX 76161-0057
Phone: (817) 352-1000

For more information on the company and its transportation solutions, visit the BNSF Web site at www.bnsf.com

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