First off a warning; subjecting one’s mind to the “what if” world of railroading can be maddening. In fact I am quite certain that ruminating on such speculations for too long has led to the early demise of many a railroad researcher and may explain why we are subject to a lifespan lower than average. With that said, let us court danger and have some fun:
When Southern and Missouri Pacific announced their joint study for merging it was only 15 days after ConRail-fools-day. The Norfolk & Western and Chessie System both had stakes in Northeastern railroading and were directly involved in negotiations until the eleventh hour when it was decided to throw everything together and hope for the best. N&W and Chessie, who had once been potential merger partners until the wreck of the Penn Central, would sit back and wait until things settled down.
In late 1977 the Southern Pacific sought to acquire the Seaboard Coast Line. At one point Chessie System was brought to the table as part of a potential three way merger. On May 18, 1978 SCL called it off but this dialogue had laid the groundwork for the CSX merger of 1979, approved in 1980. This in turn led to the shotgun wedding of Norfolk Southern, approved in 1982.
Now what if Southern and MoPac had tied the knot? If Chessie had made overtures to SCL in the late 70’s would N&W have made a counter offer or sell out to MoPac Southern? (In 1978 Southern looked into acquiring the Illinois Central Gulf but backed away in 1979 ostensibly due to ICG’s “poor physical condition.” More than likely N&W would have come to the same conclusion.) Imagine Roanoke and Richmond getting into it much the same way CSX and NS did over ConRail in the late 90’s. Imagine N&W and Chessie coming to a similar conclusion and jointly separating SCL. Imagine NS standing for “Norfolk Seaboard” or “Chessie Coast Line.” Now imagine how much more interesting the ConRail split would have been if it became necessary to divide it three ways. Of course this is all idle speculation. For better or worse things happened the way they happened and we still have railroads to fascinate us.