U.S., From Santa Fe To Amtrak History: Texas Chief, Part Two; A Few Personal Observations From Having Worked That Train In The Santa Fe/Amtrak Transition Period

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; May 13, 2021

Following the advent of Amtrak, the Texas Chief remained a fine train – for the first few months, anyway. From headlights to marker lights, the Texas Chief was Santa Fe … all the way!

Some of the stations had Amtrak signs taped to the walls but otherwise there were few references to Amtrak even existing. Santa Fe’s trip brochures were changed only slightly.  These were the brochures provided to each Pullman passenger and were available to chair car passengers containing a timetable along with information about the dining car and the dome car. The Santa Fe heading at the top of the first page was replaced with a more generic, “Welcome Aboard Amtrak trains 15 & 16.”

In the dining car, there was no reference at all to Amtrak. Traditional Santa Fe menu stock continued to be used. On the front cover of dining car menus was a full color reproduction of one of the numerous paintings Santa Fe had acquired over the decades. Paintings were of southwest scenes that made no direct reference to the Santa Fe or of trains. Rather, these were scenes reflecting the history and culture of the route through which trains passed. 

The rear cover was blank except for a brief description of the painting on the front cover.

Santa Fe dining car menus were understated, reserved, and artful. Had there not been meals described in the center spread, the menus could have been used as brochures handed out by art galleries to visitors. 

Table service was strictly on Belgian damask linen tablecloths accompanied by linen napkins. 

On the tables were pieces of china of the California Poppy pattern.

By 1969, Santa Fe had reduced its china inventory to two patterns: Mimbreño, used exclusively on the Super Chief; and California Poppy on other Chief trains as the Texas Chief, the San Francisco Chief, and the El Capitan.

California Poppy china was also a masterpiece in tasteful restraint. Designed in 1893 for the introduction of Santa Fe’s then newest premier train, the California Limited, California Poppy china was colorful but not flashy. 

California Poppy was a surprisingly timeless pattern. Photos showing California Poppy china in the pre-twentieth century era had a bit more filigree work and the china, itself had some molding around the edges. Those examples of post-Victorian excess gradually disappeared in the ensuing decades.

Even pencils with which passengers wrote out dinner orders were of higher quality than most. They were painted blue with gold lettering reading “Santa Fe Dining Car Service” though there were still a handful of pencils around reading “Fred Harvey Dining Car Service” referencing the nearly century long relationship with the Fred Harvey company. That relationship had been severed when Harvey descendants sold out their interest to a Hawaiian sugar plantation which had grand ideas for growth – growth which had no connection to anything old-fashioned like dining car service. 

Experienced waiters worked the Texas Chief. Meals coming from the galley were prepared by a chef and cooks each having decades of experience in dining cars. 

A dining car steward oversaw all operations though primarily dealt with accommodating passengers. Working with the steward was a “pantryman,” a senior waiter with responsibilities of getting meals out of the pantry in addition to working the first two tables nearest the pantry and galley. A chef supervised the cooks in addition to preparing meals. It was common for a steward, a pantryman, and a chef to bid jobs together. They frequently worked with one another for decades. 

The Texas Chief had some of the most senior employees in the dining car department. The reason was short turn-around times at the end of the southbound run. This translated into longer layovers in the home terminal, a railroad term for days off. Only the most senior guys could successfully bid for these runs. Whereas schedules dictated an entire day of turn-around time for the western transcontinental runs, the Texas Chief had a surprisingly brief overnight stay for crews. A crew could complete dinner service on the southbound train and perform a portion of their own preparation work for the first breakfast on the northbound trip – even before the southbound trip ended.    

Occasionally you would see a young guy working on the Texas Chief dining car however you could be certain he was an extra-board guy covering a vacation.

The same could be said for lounge car service aboard one of Santa Fe’s monster-sized dome lounge cars. Barmen were part of the dining car department so bid runs were the same as waiters in the dining car.

(Non-railfans may find the next few paragraphs unnecessarily detailed whereas rail fans will likely be engrossed in the minutia of these cars. Non-railfans are therefore granted permission to just jump over the next five paragraphs) 

Santa Fe’s full length dome cars were inherited from The Chief after that train made its last runs in April, 1968. They were, in addition to being huge, were astonishingly heavy. The glass top running nearly the entire length of the car made it necessary to add plenty of structural reinforcement. Unlike many cars, they had their own diesel generators for power and air conditioning. Just the air conditioning for glass-topped cars running through the blasting heat of Arizona and New Mexico pulled something like eleventy-three quadzillion kilovolts. All of those generators providing power and cooling the car added weight. 

This weight required six-wheel trucks of the outside swing-hanger design – still, in my judgment representing the best combination of superior ride quality and low maintenance costs. Amtrak’s bi-level cars have trucks with fine ride quality though they cost Amtrak nearly double the hours of shop time as the outside swing-hanger trucks – and shop time isn’t getting any cheaper as the years go by.

The full length domes were built just before Santa Fe designed its first Hi-Level cars and had several features found on the Hi-Levels. As previously noted, diesel generators supplied electricity rather than relying upon axle-driven generators found on nearly every car built in the preceding half century. As the wheels turned, gears would spin and in so doing generate power for the car and to keep gigantic batteries charged for when the train was not moving.

If memory serves, the cars had 60kw generators providing 240 volt three phase power for big motors running the a/c. Santa Fe’s Hi-Level lounges also had these generators. Hi-Level chair cars had 40kv 240 3-phase generators, and dining cars had two of the 40kv machines.

Full-length domes on the Texas Chief had a smaller downstairs lounge than on other cars in order to provide more dormitory space for dining car crews.

(Okay, non-railfans will find it safe to resume reading here) 

The early Amtrak era Texas Chief used Hi-Level chair cars year around. On the Santa Fe, they were needed much of the year on the El Capitan and the San Francisco Chief. Following the demise of the San Francisco Chief on Amtrak-day, equipment was freed for use on the Texas Chief.

Hi-Levels were, of course, the epitome of chair car comfort owing to their generous square footage available on two levels. Very large restrooms were located downstairs plus a large baggage storage area on each car. There was also a small room on the lower level available for use by dining car staff. 

(Non-railfan alert! It’s time to jump over another paragraph.)

At the end of the train were three Pullman sleeping cars:

• Chicago to Houston, typically one of the Pine-series Budd built 10 roomette, 6 double bedroom cars.

• Chicago to Fort Worth, typically one of the Palm-series Pullman built 10 roomette, 6 double bedroom cars.

• Chicago to Topeka, typically one of the older Blue-series Pullman built cars with 10 roomettes, 3 double bedrooms, and 2 compartments.

The Topeka “set-out” Pullman was used extensively by Santa Fe’s management when they shuttled between corporate headquarters in Chicago, and regional offices in Topeka. Middle management was essentially expected to ride the train. This worked well for the AT&SF for several reasons, the first being airplane fares, the second being hotel rooms, but the third was the biggest. Managers could enjoy a good dinner in the dining car then ride the dome car before retiring. On the eastbound trip, managers could sleep in until they wanted to get up and have breakfast in the dining car before arriving in Chicago.

While in the dome car, a good many ideas were cross-pollinated between the operating department, the mechanical department, and the engineering department. There were always a few revenue passengers on the Topeka set-out Pullman though these cars were principally populated by railroad officials traveling back and forth on company business.

As to patronage of the train, the Texas Chief‘s somewhat circuitous route between Chicago and Houston, tended to result in more medium-haul passengers than long haul passengers.

Almost nobody rode from Chicago to Houston.  Rather, the Texas Chief‘s passengers traveled from places such Chicago to Kansas City, or Galesburg to Wichita, or Topeka to Oklahoma City or Kansas City to Fort Worth or Lawrence, Kansas to Temple, Texas or hundreds of combinations like that. 

This totally confounded Amtrak’s airline management which saw a Chicago to Houston train and – in their own minds, at least – logically concluded that many, many people rode from Chicago to Houston. In fact, that was not the case.

One of Amtrak’s incomparable blunders occurred during the summer of 1971 when their consultants counted an average of five people traveling between Chicago and Houston on each trip. Therefore, the train must have been sparsely populated. Five people on a train from Chicago to Houston? A waste of good resources.

Of course, nobody could explain why a train carrying five passengers spun so much revenue not only from ticket sales but dining car meals and lounge sales. Those five people could eat as much food as consumed in a smaller city in poorer parts of the world.

Having worked as a summer season chair car attendant while in college, what I personally saw was quite different than what Amtrak management perceived.

All three Pullmans were typically filled. The three Hi-Level chair cars, each with an average capacity of seventy each were stuffed with revenue passengers. 

Airline aficionados should note that a single run of the Texas Chief could carry as many passengers as two-and-a-half Boeing 727s, at least before airline seats became slightly smaller than a folding chair. Two-and-a-half Boeing 727s could also carry five passengers from Chicago to Houston though not by way of the state capitol cities of Kansas and Oklahoma, plus the principal universities of those two states, plus all of the other smaller and medium-sized cities which contribute to our nation’s gross domestic product.

I recall more than a few trips coming out of Kansas City where there were so many passengers that we could not seat them all. We had to send them to the dome car. Of course, sitting in a dome lounge was a pretty good alternative so nobody complained – except maybe the seasonal chair car attendants as myself who usually got the car carrying “shorts” (passengers riding shorter distances) and had to handle luggage for all the extra people in the dome. It was a lot of work, but the Santa Fe figured they couldn’t kill college guys with extra work.

Chair car seats on the Texas Chief were not reserved so we tried to load passengers approximately by destination. “Shorts” were in the first car. Recall, the definition of “shorts” were passengers riding a relatively short distance relative to the route of the train. For example, coming out of Chicago, the “shorts” were passengers riding to stations short of Kansas City.

The second car handled passengers going to the next big city, in this case Kansas City, though we oftentimes accommodated Topeka passengers in the second car, also.

The third car handled passengers going beyond Topeka; longer distances.

Once reaching Kansas City, the plan remained intact although the cities changed. Shorts were still seated in the first car – short of Oklahoma City. Oklahoma City plus Norman (University of Oklahoma) were seated in the second car. Passengers traveling beyond Norman were seated in the third car.

Once past Norman, the big city was Fort Worth. After Fort Worth, everybody was either a “short” or going to Houston.

Coming north from Houston, that pattern reversed.

This system enabled passengers in the third car to escape less of a constant coming and going of passengers. 

Please recall that on the Santa Fe, chair car attendants handled most baggage except what was in the baggage car, or small items taken to passengers’ seats. Before the end of each passengers’ journey, chair car attendants advised the passengers of the station coming up, then asked for the baggage receipt for luggage downstairs. Those bags were pulled and stacked in the vestibule. 

Upon arrival, the chair car attendant would hop off the train and immediately pull luggage so passengers could disembark quickly. They could identify and pick up their bags once they had stepped onto the platform. This is contrasted with Amtrak where passengers sometimes create a logjam in the downstairs vestibule as they search for, and remove their bags.

The train could load boarding passengers and be moving while some of the passengers – usually older passengers – were still on the platform. They could take their time, which most older passengers appreciated.

Boarding, a similar strategy was employed. At smaller stations, passengers could get on the train with their bags and the chair car attendant would put these in the downstairs luggage racks – giving passengers a receipt, of course. The chair car attendant could perform this work after the train was already leaving the station – a frequent occurrence.

Special needs of individual passengers could be accommodated without delaying the entire train plus a couple hundred other people.

Contrast this to the airline format – adopted by Amtrak – where passengers pull bags down from the overhead racks themselves. This takes time. Multiply twenty station stops by an extra four or five minutes per stop and you quickly understand how Santa Fe could keep schedule on a fast train.

Getting back to bags for a moment, I recall one conductor griping at me one time when I had six passengers disembark at Streator, Illinois. There were rarely six passengers getting off the entire train at Streator but on this trip, there were six and I had all of them. They were all elderly and verrrrrrrry carefulllllllly got off the train. The conductor wanted to get the train moving as trains almost never stopped for over a minute at Streator. However, short of heaving the elderly passengers off the car there was little I could do to expedite the process.

But it does give a sense of how Santa Fe viewed station stops. Get ’em off; get ’em on; go.

Amtrak runs their onboard staff from the train’s point of origin all the way to the train’s destination. Santa Fe ran chair car attendants for a distance less than the entire run – about eight or ten hours. For even someone as myself, a college kid, all of the baggage handling left me exhausted by the end of my run. I was glad to get off and hand the work over to the next guy.

Santa Fe chair car attendants did much more than handle baggage. Restrooms had to be checked periodically, and cleaned frequently. The chair car attendant also assisted the conductor while the conductor was on the car. 

(Note to non-railfans: a flurry of day-to-day operating minutia is ahead in the next four paragraphs.  Jump now while you have the chance!)

When the conductor pulled tickets, the chair car attendant would follow with color coded “hat checks.” The conductor would inspect the ticket(s) and call out the destination. The chair car attendant would then mark the hat checks and “hang” them. A white hat check indicated a “short.” A pink hat check would be for the chair car attendant’s destination. A green hat check was for long-distance passengers where the conductor inserted the ticket in a ticket pouch. The chair car attendant noted the last three numbers of the ticket pouch on the green hat check. 

At this point, you may inquire, “why were these small cardboard tabs called ‘hat checks?’” The answer is that I don’t know. I suppose because the hat check was placed above the passenger’s seat on the rack which could accommodate hats. That’s my best guess.

When passengers got off the train, the system was different. It was simple for white hat checks because the station’s code number was written on the hat check. Just scan the car for hat checks with the next station’s code. Tell the passenger that his/her station was next, about how long it would be before the train arrived, and collect baggage tags for items in the downstairs racks. The same applied to passengers with pink hat checks.  

For green hat checks, the conductor would remove the ticket from the pouch and put it in a special folder to drop off at the conductor’s terminal. The conductor would give the now empty pouch to the chair car attendant. Passenger destinations were written on the front so it was a matter of matching the last three numbers of the pouch with the appropriate hat check(s). Most chair car attendants would go through the car and add the station code to what was already written on the hat check. 

(Note to non-railfans. It’s safe to return.)

Just before arrival at each station, the name of the city served would be announced twice in a loud voice. As disembarking passengers already knew of the impending arrival, they could begin moving towards the stairs to the lower level.

Chair car attendants had their own stations where they got on, got off, and laid over.

Layovers in intermediate terminals sometimes left something to be desired. Purcell, Oklahoma was one of those stations. One chair car attendant would run from Chicago to Kansas City. The chair car attendant getting on at Kansas City would go to Purcell then hand over the car to a man who had come north from Houston on the previous run. 

Why Purcell? Purcell was important in the history of the Santa Fe. Unfortunately, not for much else.

In Part One of the Texas Chief story, it was explained that the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe built north from Galveston to a point just beyond the Texas state line, that being Purcell. Purcell was thus a division point, and place where crew changes took place.

Purcell was a hot, dusty town in the summer, and a cold, dusty town in the winter. There was  only one hotel in town. As you walked the corridors, you could stir up dust. Rooms had either heat or hot water but never, in my experience, both. It was really miserable.

Dodge City was a crew change point for some of the western trains. There was a nice hotel in Dodge. It was an old style of hotel with bathrooms and showers at the end of the hall. On the positive side, place was very clean and the air conditioning worked quietly and efficiently.

Chair car attendants occasionally catching a run to Newton, Kansas got the worst of all possible worlds. Not many hours getting there and back, but a long layover. At one time there had been quite a few employees based in Newton. There were still a few so the union representing chair car attendants insisted that Santa Fe maintain jobs for them until all who remained retired. This meant one car about every other day. Kansas City men covered the gap.

There was a good restaurant in the Newton depot which had been a Harvey House but was by then locally owned and managed. Not much good could be said for the hotel in Newton which was old and not too well maintained. Layovers were less than fun – I mean, what do you do in Newton, Kansas all day? 

Chicago had one of the better hotels and an abundance of great restaurants. Crews stayed at the Fort Dearborn Hotel, located adjacent to LaSalle Street Station. It was a building of solid architecture, designed by the excellent firm of Holabird & Roche and opened in 1914 as a nice but unpretentious hotel for businessmen staying only a night or two.

By the 1970s, the Fort Dearborn hadn’t changed much. It was still an unpretentious hotel designed mostly for businessmen who came into LaSalle Street Station and needed to stay only a night or so. The Fort Dearborn offered few amenities but what they did, they did well. Each room had its own bathroom – not yet universal among hotels built before WWI. 

In the 1970s, the place catered mostly to employees working in the transportation business. They were Greyhound drivers, over-the-road truckers, and of course, railroad men (remember, no women at that time). 

Management of the Fort Dearborn maintained it exceptionally well. It was said at the time that the Fort Dearborn was cleaner than a lot of luxury hotels in the “loop.” 

That was entirely possible. Transportation guys laying over between runs wanted a clean hotel where they could get some rest. The Fort Dearborn fit the bill.

Given the 24-hour nature of the transportation business, the hotel had maids working at all hours of the day and night. Housekeeping staff could keep the hallways immaculate as they moved from one room to another. The only negative aspect was the proximity of the La Salle & Van Buren station on the “el.” Getting a room on an upper floor was preferable, preferable defined as being quieter. 

When there was at least four hours between runs, the railroad paid for a room. Four hours was almost exactly the layover between Texas Chief runs, as well as the El Capitan. It was possible to walk from Union Station to the Fort Dearborn, get a room, take a shower, and get an hour or two of sleep before going back on duty. On the walk back, I picked up the latest edition of the Chicago Daily News for reading material after lights were extinguished on the run to Kansas City. 

Employees laying over in Kansas City didn’t have it as good. Few chair car attendants laid over because most were based in Kansas City. But conductors and engineers did.They weren’t too impressed. Their rooms were at the Hotel Midwest, a hotel which at one time catered to businessmen wanting to stay near Union Station. The Hotel Midwest survived long past its “best if used by” date.

Today, buildings on Main Street just north of Union Station are at the edge of Kansas City’s Crossroads District, an area loaded with small art galleries, boutique stores, architecture firms, law offices, dentists, loft apartments, and expensive restaurants

My wife and I had dinner at a restaurant which had opened in the lobby of the former Hotel Midwest. It was trendy, expensive, but very good. For several years, The Kansas City Star offered cards which enabled holders to visit locally owned/managed restaurants with a full price for the first meal and half-price or free for the second, if used on non-peak days. It was a great deal. 

Plus, I’d never seen the inside of the Hotel Midwest and wondered what it was like. The answer is not much. The restaurant managers had made creative use of the few architectural features still in the former hotel lobby.

On the Texas Chief, most chair car attendants worked out of either Kansas City or Houston. Out of Chicago, chair car attendants worked to Kansas City. Another Kansas City man would take over to Purcell, Oklahoma. At Purcell, the Houston man would take over.

I usually worked Kansas City to Chicago to Kansas City though occasionally pulled other runs. I liked the Chicago runs because I could get 17 or so hours of pay within a single 24 hour period. I could make good money then get off the train and go home.

I acquired a deep sense of appreciation of the old Black guys who had worked these trains for decades. They earned their money. Railroading is a tough physical job for about anybody working on or around trains.

I recall in particular one old gentleman by the name of Moses Covington. His health had declined to the point that he could no longer put a step box on the platform. He held it out, aimed carefully, and dropped it into place. 

I recalled this in particular when I had hip replacement surgery a few years ago. I recall the pain I experienced and only then truly realized how difficult the job of chair car attendant was for him as I suspect he should have had the surgery which I underwent. But, this was nearly a half-century earlier. 

I should probably note that summer season chair car attendants were mostly White college guys. We were members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which was more than a bit unusual for a suburbanite from the whitest part of Kansas City. It was interesting being a minority.

Most of the “old heads” had worked with seasonal help for several years. If you did your job, you got along well. I rarely sensed any resentment toward the young White guys. The old heads were actually delighted we were there. We typically got the hardest jobs and also made it possible for the old heads to take vacation in the summer.

In retrospect, I wish that I had learned more about the old Black men I worked with. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had been founded by A. Philip Randolph in 1925. It was the only minority controlled union, and was a major force in the civil rights movement for decades. 

There must certainly have been incredible stories I missed learning of. Race relations were a difficult topic in the 1960s and 1970s so on the railroad, the topic was politely avoided. 

I might also mention that I had occasion to talk with the last president of the Pullman Company which was, at the time I spoke with him, a liquidating corporation. He was the last of maybe a couple of people on the payroll and whose jobs it was to sell the remaining assets. At the end of that process, he would retire. He told me that the Pullman Company had always opposed the union. After all, labor/management relations were expected to be at least somewhat adversarial. He, however, had served as personnel director for Pullman for many years, and had respected Philip Randolph enormously for what he did for his union members.

It probably would have been nice if the personal respect the president of the Pullman Company had been more a part of Pullman’s business model decades before. But, I suppose, it’s better late than never.

How well did the Texas Chief fair once Amtrak began making more decisions? 

Not well.

But, that is a story to be told in Part Three.

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