Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on March 24, 2021. Timetable times quoted are from March 2021 and have not been changed to contemporary times. The article has been updated with new information and photographs added. – Corridorrail.com Editor
By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; July 29, 2022
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.
This demonstrates the power of multi-frequencies of daily overnight and secondary trains on primarily the same route: The Silver Meteor had 349,425 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 558 miles, generating 19.7 cents a passenger mile. The Silver Star, with a diverted route in North Carolina and South Carolina to serve the capitals and other cities of those states had 385,008 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 438 miles, generating 19 cents a passenger mile. The Palmetto had 341,529 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 244 miles, generating 31.2 cents a passenger mile.
Only two other Amtrak trains in the national system have routes of a similar length to those of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star: the Crescent operating between New York Pennsylvania Station and New Orleans via Atlanta and Birmingham and the Coast Starlight, operating between Los Angeles and Seattle via Sacramento, Oakland and Portland, Oregon. The Meteor, Star, Crescent and Starlight routes are all approximately 1,300 miles in length and include one overnight on the train for terminal to terminal travel.
In 2019 the Crescent had 291,820 passengers and the Coast Starlight had 421,191 passengers. South of Lynchburg, Virginia there are no companion or secondary trains on the Crescent’s route; only the single daily departure with inconvenient departure and arrival times in major cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is also served by the Carolinian, Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-New York Pennsylvania Station service sponsored by the State of North Carolina. Additionally, North Carolina provides Piedmont Service between Charlotte and Raleigh, but, as with the Carolinian, only provides single-station connecting service to the Crescent and no parallel route service. The Carolinian, similar to the Palmetto, is a secondary train running 13 hours with no diner or sleeping car service. As a result, because of lack of travel choices other than at Charlotte, the Crescent carries only 76% of the passenger load the Silver Star carries.
The Coast Starlight, a highly popular route for the scenery and the “train as a destination” versus providing basic transportation does better because between Los Angeles Union Passenger Station and San Luis Obispo the route is part of the multiple Pacific Surfliners route and in the San Francisco Bay area/San Jose intersects with the Caltrain route, as well as from San Jose to Sacramento follows the route of the Capitol Corridor trains with multiple connections and has multiple connections with the San Joaquin service trains. From Sacramento to Emeryville, the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr share stations. On the north end, the Starlight follows the route of the Pacific Northwest Cascades service from Eugene-Springfied, Oregon into Seattle.
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
Chicago – Tucumcari
El Paso – Los Angeles
Chicago – Los Angeles (8 Sections, 5 Bedrooms)
Chicago – Los Angeles (6 Sections, 6 Bedrooms)
Chicago – Tucumcari
McAlester – Tucumcari
Hamburger Grill Lounge Car
El Paso – Los Angeles
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.