A National Route System

Posted by George Hamlin
on Sunday, June 17, 2018

A relevant question:  on Amtrak day one in 1971, how much rail travel was truly ‘national’?  Yes, the brand-new timetable had a route map that extended across the country as far east as Boston (a first in U.S. railroad circles, but nothing out of the ordinary for our Canadian neighbors, who had accomplished this almost ninety years earlier, and with an actual operating railroad, no less), but getting from one coast to the other typically required one or more changes, or an overnight layover.

At that point, there was through sleeping car service between Los Angeles and New York, via New Orleans three days a week; through cars via Chicago had disappeared in the 1950s, with the last other pre-Amtrak service through a major east-west gateway being a Slumbercoach passing through St. Louis on its way between San Antonio, Texas and Baltimore courtesy of the Missouri Pacific and the B&O. 

According to the TRRA Historical & Technical Society’s book Missouri Pacific Pullmans (Summer 2003), this service began on October 25, 1959 and expired on May 19, 1964.  On page 55, there is some interesting data regarding passengers on this routing, near the end in 1964:

On a trip operating between March 16-18 … only two patrons traveled through St. Louis – one was an Austin to Cincinnati trip, and another from Little Rock to Washington. Twenty-one passengers detrained in St. Louis but only seven boarded for the St. Louis-Baltimore segment.

On the April 1-3 trip … only a Palestine [Texas] to Washington patron travelled through St. Louis.  Only four passengers boarded at St. Louis with most of the boardings in Indiana or Ohio.

Case in point:  just because the service is long haul, and bridges regional gateways, doesn’t necessarily mean that large numbers of passengers will ride between the end points.

Late in the private passenger train era another through-car transcontinental route had been established by November 1970 between New York and Los Angeles, utilizing the combination of the Southern Crescent and Sunset Limited (and the Penn Central between New York and Washington).  This service persisted through both the inception of Amtrak and the Southern Railway’s turnover of what became simply the Crescent to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak’s formal name) in 1979; it was undone by the conversion of the Sunset to Superliner equipment, however.

During the mid-1970s, Amtrak itself ran a through New York-Los Angeles sleeper via Kansas City on the National Limited and the Southwest Limited. This included layovers ranging from about 5 hours eastbound to approximately 8 hours westbound, the latter also encompassing the time for an evening meal.  The National’s demise in October 1979 made this no longer possible.

Beginning in April 1993 there finally was truly transcontinental passenger train service (not just through cars) in the U.S., when the Sunset Limited was extended east of New Orleans to Florida; initially to Miami, and later cut back to Orlando.  Los Angeles-Jacksonville is certainly transcontinental, although I suspect that those present at the history-making event in Promontory, Utah in 1869 would have been amazed to learn that the first operation of regular-service passenger trains from the Pacific to the Atlantic in this country would involve a point in Florida.  The route east of New Orleans ceased to operate following extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005; it’s still on Amtrak’s map, although listed as “suspended”.

(And in a marvelous piece of irony, because of this service, Robert R. Young’s famous “A hog can cross the country without changing trains - but you can’t” statement essentially was reversed, because, by the mid-1990s, there weren’t any transcontinental livestock movements by rail.  It’s also useful to ponder how many hogs, even when such services were available, had need to make the full transit across the country.)

Amtrak’s Fall/Winter 1996/97 National Timetable offered this surprise on page 40, under the heading of “Coming Soon…New Through Service”:

Beginning in January 1997, through train service, with no change of trains at Chicago, will be provided between Washington and Los Angeles via the routes of the Capitol Limited and Southwest Chief on the schedule shown at left.  The through train service will be train number 15 Washington to Los Angeles and 16 Los Angeles to Washington.

This service, to be known as the National Chief, was never formally implemented, and by 1998, was no longer mentioned in the timetable.  While the name and numbers proposed were never used, passengers during this time period apparently could remain aboard their accommodations during the layover in Chicago (which was all day, westbound).

(Now, of course, the passengers did still need to be fed and watered during the trip’s hiatus in Chicago, but apparently virtually all of them were capable of doing this without direct supervision, and didn’t need  special facilities used only for this purpose…)

So, while Amtrak’s “nationwide” map has been in place since 1971, for most of the time since then linking east and west has consisted largely of coordinating the schedules of long-haul trains in Chicago so that they provide reasonable connections in the Windy City.  Since today’s Amtrak trains to the west generally depart earlier in the afternoon than was the case historically, this has lessened dwell time on the westbound trips, at least.

While it’s not likely that there are high numbers of truly “coast-to-coast” travelers using these services on a daily basis, this does continue to provide useful connections to a number of places short of the coasts in both directions, as well as the possibility of truly “long distance” journeys. 

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