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This new holding company purchased the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (often called the "Santa Fe") and Burlington Northern Railroad, and formally merged the railways into the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway on December 31, 1996.On January 24, 2005, the railroad's name was officially changed to BNSF Railway Company using the initials of its original name.It has three transcontinental routes that provide rail connections between the western and eastern United States.BNSF trains traveled over 169 million miles (272 million km) in 2010, more than any other North American railroad.The Interstate Commerce Commission denied a proposed merger with the Southern Pacific Transportation Company in the 1980s. Its main lines included Chicago-Seattle with branches to Texas (ex-Burlington) and Birmingham, Alabama (ex-Frisco), and access to the low-sulfur coal of Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The long-rumored announcement was delayed by a disagreement over the disposition of Santa Fe Pacific Gold Corporation, a gold mining subsidiary that ATSF agreed to sell to stockholders.

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Unlike BN and ATSF, UP and SP had significant overlap, where the end of competition between the two risked creating a monopoly for freight carriage in much of the West.

The ATSF trackage in California's Central Valley was linked to BN's line into Oregon, through trackage rights over UP between Stockton and Keddie and acquisition of UP's section of the "Inside Gateway" to the beginning of BN trackage at Bieber.

In Texas, BNSF received rights in several directions from the Houston area: west over UP to San Antonio, with a branch to Waco, and continuing over SP to Eagle Pass (replacing the haulage rights they had just obtained); south over UP to Brownsville; east over SP to New Orleans (including the purchase of this line east of Lake Charles); and northeast over SP to Memphis with a branch on UP to Little Rock.

Ownership of a short connection between Waxahachie and Dallas also went from UP to BNSF.

UP, in return, got a few short sections of trackage rights over BNSF, mainly connecting the SP at Chemult to the UP at Bend, Oregon, and connecting the SP at Mojave, California with existing UP rights on ATSF at Barstow, California.

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