Source: adapted from Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Note: Several rail carriers have track use rights on segments owned by other carriers. Also, carriers have parent companies that may own specific segments and are therefore indirectly owning them.
The North American rail transport system is characterized by a high level of geographical specialization, with large private rail carriers servicing large regional markets. The system is privately owned and operated, and each carrier has its facilities and, thus, its markets along the segments it controls. The rail system is the outcome of substantial capital investments occurring over several decades with the accumulation of impressive infrastructure and equipment assets. However, such a characteristic created issues about continuity within the North American rail network, particularly in the United States. Mergers have improved this continuity, but a limit has been reached in the network size of most rail operators.
Attempts have been made to synchronize the interactions between rail operators for long-distance trade with the setting of intermodal unit trains. Often bilateral, trilateral, or even quadrilateral arrangements are made between rail carriers and shipping companies to improve the intermodal interface at the major gateways or at points of interlining between major networks. Chicago is the largest interlining center in North America, handling around 10 million TEUs per year, a location at the junction of the Eastern, Western, and Canadian rail systems.
Starting with the setting of NAFTA in 1994, rail mergers resulted in the involvement of Canadian and American operators offering cross-border services. Canadian National and Canadian Pacific acquired lines in the United States, enabling better connections with the Chicago hub as well as with New Orleans when CN purchased the Illinois Central Railroad in 1998. This made CN the only rail carrier in North America with a tri-coastal strategy (Pacific, Atlantic, Gulf). In 1998 Kansas City Southern purchased Transportación Ferroviaria Mexicana to form Kansas City Southern de México, which links the port of Lazaro Cardenas to Kansas City and passes through the leading economic centers of Mexico (Mexico City, Monterrey). In 2021, Canadian Pacific acquired KCS, including its Mexican assets, forming the second North American railway having access to three maritime ranges. This merger was ratified by the Surface Transportation Board in 2023 with an oversight period.