The 1990s were busy for railroads, nationally and in Grant County. Consolidations of large roads continued, as well as continued reduction in miles of track operated by those same large roads.
Railroads look to mergers to help promote their competitive position in relationship to other railroads and trucking companies. As a product of mergers, the Burlington Northern had most of its respective lines put together and was looking around for ways to stay ahead of its closest rival, the Union Pacific. In order to do so, BN looked for another railroad that would compliment its traffic base, and not need too much government interference to make it work.
On June 30, 1994, the Burlington Northern and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe announced plans to merge; they were respectively the largest and smallest by mileage of the "Super Seven," the largest of the then-twelve U.S. Class I railroads. The two systems complemented each other with little overlap. The BN had a major source of traffic in its coal lines out of Wyoming, and the Santa Fe had the best intermodal program of any line. After much wrangling with the Union Pacific for the Santa Fe, BN bought the Santa Fe, and on September 22, 1995, the railroad’s holding companies merged. On December 31, 1996, the railroads were combined as the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF).
Both the Santa Fe and the BN had been ridding themselves of branchlines since 1980, with the Santa Fe side being much more aggressive with their removals. So now the combined road, the BNSF, looked hard at the remaining BN lines.
A few of the remaining unprofitable lines in the Palouse were ripped up in the 1990s, along with the last remnant of the Northern Pacific Wahluke Branch between Mesa and Basin City in 1996. BNSF sold its Central Washington branch, which ran between Cheney and Coulee City, on September 19, 1996. The new shortline railroad which started operations on the line was called the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC). The Palouse River part of the name was for another BNSF line that it purchased at the same time.
A section of line that the BN had sold back in 1986 was purchased back by the BNSF, and then turned over to a new shortline. The Washington Central (WCRC), which served the Moses Lake area, also operated a former Northern Pacific/Burlington Northern mainline from Kennewick through Yakima to Cle Elum. BNSF wanted it back, to add capacity to freight being transported from the west side of the state. BNSF bought the WCRC on December 4, 1996. Since the BNSF was not interested in operating the line to Moses Lake, it was turned over to the Columbia Basin Railway (CBRW), also on December 4, 1996, which was owned by the same people who had run the WCRC. No changes were made in day-to-day operations, because the same locomotives were used between the WCRC and CBRW.
The BN had been an industry leader in the number of grain hopper cars it operated in the 1990s, and it looked to any source to increase its fleet. But there were still shortages. The BN/BNSF earned more money hauling grain from the Midwest to ports in the Pacific Northwest than they could through shorter-distance trips within Washington. This reduced the supply of empty grain cars for Eastern Washington grain shippers.
The first “Washington Grain Train” was a joint effort between the Port of Walla Walla and the Washington State Department of Transportation. This train was purchased in 1994 with money Washington State received from the Washington State Energy Office. These federal funds came from money awarded to the government as a result of successful litigation against oil companies, who had overcharged consumers. The first train operated near Walla Walla, and generated enough revenue to pay for another train.
The second train, serving the Moses Lake area, was unveiled in April 2000, and was established as a partnership between the State, the Port of Moses Lake, and wheat farmers in Grant and Adams Counties.
There is now a third train operating in the Whitman County area. These cars are bright yellow in color, and the ones serving the Moses Lake area are lettered for the CBRW, along with the large Grain Train graphics.
As the 1990s closed, major railroads were facing boom times and struggling to handle the traffic, but shortlines were facing a lack of traffic, and their decisions were to initiate major changes in the 2000s.