U.S., Illinois Central to Amtrak History: Riding on The City of New Orleans and The Panama Limited

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 10, 2021

The famed-in-song-and elsewhere The City of New Orleans is one of Amtrak’s trains which fairly adheres to its original Illinois Central route between Chicago and New Orleans. While The City today is a single-frequency train on an overnight route, in the pre-Amtrak days it pounded the rails between Chicago Central Station and New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal with plenty of passenger train company. Amtrak’s version departs from Chicago Union Station to a reinvigorated NOUPT. Under Illinois Central as a day train, The City of New Orleans was the longest day train route in the country.

In non-pandemic times Amtrak’s City of New Orleans has a consist of a baggage car, three Superliner coaches, a diner-lounge, one sleeping car, and a transition/crew dormitory car. It makes the trip in 19 hours and 42 minutes.

The song, City of New Orleans was penned in 1971 by Steve Goodman, and made famous the next year by folk singer Arlo Guthrie. In 1984 it was recorded by Willie Nelson and through the years by several other domestic and international artists. The version of the City of New Orleans celebrated in song was about the Illinois Central day train which was the companion to the more prestigious overnight train, The Panama Limited. At least one southern doyen tells the story of her birth in Memphis while her father was traveling for business on The Panama Limited and with his fellow passengers was enjoying the genial hospitality of the lounge car at that particular moment.

The Panama Limited was the flagship, all-Pullman sleeping car train of the Illinois Central, inaugurated in 1911, and lasted until Amtrak Day in 1971. The train was named in honor of the under-construction Panama Canal, which would open three years later. Amtrak revived The Panama Limited name later in 1971 and kept it until 1981, when the City of New Orleans name was substituted. The fastest published schedule for The Panama Limited was 16 hours.

As published by Wikipedia: “The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its dining car service, with a first-rate culinary staff and creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. In 1952, the Illinois Central acquired several 2-unit 175-foot (53 m) dining cars from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad which it used on the Panama. With the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited it was one of the last two ‘all-Pullman’ trains in the United States.”

Illinois Central, in direct competition with the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad – the two railroads would merge in 1972 to form the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad – styled itself as the “Main Line of Mid-America.” Ultimately, the Illinois Central would disappear into Canadian National in 1998.

Illinois Central offered something for everyone through its passenger train service between Chicago and New Orleans as listed in the July 1956 issue of The Official Guide of the Railways:

Pullman, Coach and Dining Car Service
Regularly Assigned Cars Are Air-Conditioned
All passenger trains shown herein carry coaches, except as indicated otherwise.

The Panama Limited. Daily. Trains 5 and 6.
Diesel-Powered Streamliner Train.
All Pullman-Train – Radio – No Coaches.
No. 5 – Chicago to New Orleans
No. 205-5 – St. Louis to New Orleans

Sleepers –

Chicago to New Orleans, 6 sections, 6 roomettes, 4 double bedrooms

Chicago to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Chicago to New Orleans, 11 double bedrooms

Club Lounge – Chicago to New Orleans

Diner – Twin Unit, Chicago to New Orleans

Sleepers –

Chicago to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Parlor Car –

Chicago to Carbondale (Pullman Company) – (Illinois Central Tickets)

Sleepers –

St. Louis to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Memphis to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 5 double bedrooms (Open for occupancy 9:30 p.m.)

Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, 10 roomettes,6 double bedrooms (May be occupied at Jackson, Mississippi until 8:00 a.m.)

Parlor Car –

Memphis to New Orleans (Pullman Company) – (Illinois Central Tickets)

Sleeper –

Chicago to New Orleans, 2 double bedrooms, 1 drawing room, 2 compartments – Observation

Buffet-Lounge Car, (RADIO.) Sandwiches – Refreshments (St. Louis to Carbondale) – (Illinois Central Parlor Car) I.C. tickets (Diner No. 5 Carbondale to New Orleans)

Coaches – St. Louis to Carbondale (on No. 205)

The City of New Orleans. Daily. Trains 1 and 2 and 201 and 202
Diesel-Powered Coach Streamliner.
De Luxe Reclining Seats – Stewardess – Radio.

Dining Car Service –

Chicago to New Orleans

Coaches –

Chicago to New Orleans (The Guide does not indicate the number of coaches, but other sources place the number at four or five.)

St. Louis to New Orleans

St. Louis to Carbondale

Tavern-Lounge-Observation Car, Chicago to New Orleans

The Louisiane. Daily. Trains 3 and 4 and 103 and 104
No. 3 – Chicago to New Orleans
Diesel Powered.
No. 103 – Irvin S. Cobb, Daily.
Louisville-Memphis- New Orleans

Sleepers –

Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee, 11 double bedrooms

Chicago to Memphis, 18 roomettes

Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee, 8 sections, 1 drawing room, 2 compartments (Daily except Saturday)

Louisville to Paducah, Kentucky, 10 sections, 1 drawing room, 1 compartment (May be occupied at Paducah until 7:00 a.m.)

Diner-Lounge, Chicago to Memphis

Coaches –

Chicago to New Orleans (The Guide does not indicate the number of coaches.)

Louisville to Fulton

Fulton to Memphis

There was a fourth Chicago to New Orleans daily service, southbound labeled Southern Express, Train No. 25 and northbound, paired with The Creole, Train No. 8. The Southern Express – most likely named for the type of cars it carried, not for its train speed – was an all-coach train with no food service cars. Northbound, The Creole, was a full service train with sleepers, coaches and a diner-lounge, but, it, too, had a somewhat leisurely schedule as compared to other trains on the route, taking nearly 24 hours to make the trip.

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