U.S., The Goodness of Secondary Passenger Trains Before and During Amtrak: Southern Pacific’s Imperial History

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 24, 2021

In a land long ago – in the pre-Amtrak world – where the start of a new long distance/inter-regional passenger train or continued operation of a passenger train was not a political football, railroads understood for their passenger train fleet to break even or make a profit, there had to be more than a single frequency on long distance routes. There were primary and premier trains plus secondary trains which offered travel choices.

The same rule has always been true: A second train on any route more than doubles the combined ridership of the single frequency train, and when a third (or more) frequency is added, the load factor math explodes. Travelers like choice. That’s why travel by automobile is so prevalent; departures, intermediate stops and arrivals at will, not at dictated times.

Only a shadow of secondary long distance trains survives today for Amtrak in non-pandemic times in the grouping of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Palmetto trains on the East coast where many of the major intermediate station stops have two or three daily choices.

The Silver Meteor and Silver Star are full service, overnight trains. The Palmetto, by definition, is a secondary train. Making more station stops than the Meteor and Star, it is a coach/business class only train without a dining car, and finishes its 15+ hour run in the same calendar day.

Every station stop south of New York Pennsylvania station to Rocky Mount, North Carolina sees three frequencies a day in each direction, plus North Carolina’s and Virginia’s state sponsored frequencies. Between Selma, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia the Silver Star veers off the CSX “I-95 Line” (former Atlantic Coast Line main line) onto the “S” line, the former Seaboard Air Line main line from Raleigh to Savannah via Columbia, South Carolina. The Meteor and Palmetto continue on the CSX I-95 line through Florence and Charleston to Savannah.

Savannah, a modest city with a metropolitan area population estimated at 400,000 souls is the southern terminus of the Palmetto. The Palmetto launches northward at 8:20 in the morning, the Silver Meteor calls at 7:31 p.m. and the Silver Star makes a nocturnal stop at 1:22 a.m. Southbound, the Star calls at a sleepy 4:13 a.m., the Meteor stops at 6:34 a.m. and the Palmetto rolls in at 9:04 p.m. The Savannah Amtrak station handled 56,220 passengers entraining and detraining in Fiscal Year 2019. That is an extraordinarily high number for the surrounding population. The bottom line: That’s what happens when passengers are offered a choice of travel times instead of a “take-it-or-leave-it” single frequency mandate.

Back in pre-Amtrak times, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the one-time monster railroad of California and the West operated a secondary, companion train to the Chicago – Los Angeles Golden State streamliner in conjunction with the Rock Island Railroad. The Imperial was not a streamliner, it was a heavy-weight train that also carried mail and express head-end business. Towards the inglorious end of its career in the 1960s, the Imperial even became a mixed-freight train.

In its heyday, the Imperial was a full service train with a lounge car and diner, but, despite its name, there was nothing regal about it. The Imperial was simply a secondary train that was more of a workhorse than a thoroughbred. It’s name was derived from California’s Imperial Valley, which it served.

Perhaps most fascinating about the Imperial was for part of its operating life, it used trackage that dipped from the United States down into Mexico. Heading west from Yuma, Arizona it went into Mexico for the two stops then returned to Calexico for a domestic run to its terminal.

The first origins of the Imperial began operations in 1931. Southern Pacific and Rock Island paused the train during World War II from 1942 to 1946. It began to have its route trimmed by 1958, and the end came in 1967.

From the July 1956 edition of The Official Guide of the Railways:

Imperial, Trains 39 and 40, Daily, Via Southern Pacific and Rock Island
Regularly assigned cars are air-conditioned

Lounge Car

Chicago – Tucumcari

El Paso – Los Angeles

Standard Sleepers

Chicago – Los Angeles (8 Sections, 5 Bedrooms)

Chicago – Los Angeles (6 Sections, 6 Bedrooms)

Diner

Chicago – Tucumcari

McAlester – Tucumcari

Hamburger Grill Lounge Car

El Paso – Los Angeles

Chair Cars

Chicago – Los Angeles

Memphis – Los Angeles

Pillow service available at nominal charge.

News Agent Service.

Tickets Honored – All classes.

The gap between El Paso, Texas and Tucumcari, New Mexico is about 330 miles. In both directions, the Imperial traveled between these two points overnight. No meal periods were without dining car service, and lounge car service would be typically closed during the transit time.

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