U.S., MoPac And Amtrak Missouri River Eagle History: It Went North/South And East/West All At The Same Time, Part II

By David Peironnet, Guest Commentator; September 24, 2021

Missouri Pacific Railroad’s Missouri River Eagle went north/south and east/west all at the same time. Any reasonable person would recognize that idea wouldn’t make sense.

The Missouri River Eagle was a train that combined two separate corridors that really didn’t fit all that well. At least didn’t look like they would fit. But, the idea worked, anyway.

In 1940, not long before America entered WW II, Missouri Pacific Railroad gathered together several good ideas, assembled them in a decidedly new and different manner and created a new train called The Eagle, later to be known as the Missouri River Eagle when MoPac  enlarged their aerie. 

It made daily trips in both directions between St. Louis and Omaha by way of Kansas City. For those of you whose knowledge of geography is a bit shaky, the route looked like a big “L.” Omaha to Kansas City is a north/south corridor; Kansas City to St. Louis is an east/west corridor.

The Eagle’s migratory pattern thus appeared unusual, though not so if you look on a map. Both the trains and their feathered brethren stayed close to the Missouri River. The soaring variety did so because they could keep their eagle eyes out for food. Trains kept an eagle eye out for revenue passengers in towns which had grown up by the great river.

Both did well, staying close to the river like that.

The Eagle was not a revolutionary development for railroading of the time. Early Burlington Zephyrs and the Union Pacific M-10000 (known as the City of Salina) were completely revolutionary. (For those so interested, a more thorough review of the Pioneer Zephyr and the City of Salina appeared on February 9, 2021 in this column.)  Rock Island’s early Rockets, which served Kansas City Union Station like the Pioneer Zephyr and the City of Salina were also quite revolutionary. 

Missouri Pacific streamliners were remarkable mostly for not being remarkable. They represented evolutionary developments, not revolutionary ones. 

Yes, everything was streamlined and dieselized and smooth and brightly painted. On the inside, the latest in features benefiting the comfort and convenience of passengers was included. The Eagles had a streamlined diesel locomotive on the point, with new streamlined lightweight coaches, a dining and parlor car, and a baggage car on the locomotives’ drawbar. 

However, the Eagle just wasn’t revolutionary – really revolutionary – like the early Zephyrs or Rockets or the City of Salina.

As the Missouri Pacific entered bankruptcy court protection in 1933, they didn’t have the resources in to invest in anything unproven. Lessons to be learned from the earliest revolutionary trains were yet to be known. MoPac prudently waited until those lessons were clear before making their own investment.

For example, both the early Zephyrs and the City of Salina experimented with “articulated” construction wherein the entire train, locomotive included, were semi-permanently linked together. Articulated trains reduced train weight because there is a single set of trucks between the ends of two cars. Both car ends sit on a single set of trucks. A four car train had only five trucks rather than eight on conventionally designed cars. Less weight meant early diesel-electric locomotives needed less get-up-and-go power to achieve high speeds quickly. Early diesel-electric locomotives were experiments, themselves, and not extraordinarily powerful critters. 

Railroads quickly learned the limitations of the concept of articulation.

If the shop needs to work on any single car, the entire train, locomotive and all, were put out of service. Disconnecting cars could only be performed in a well-equipped back shop. If you are a railroad and a lot of people have already bought tickets, there could be a lot of less than satisfied revenue passengers.

In the 1930s, dissatisfied passengers were a big deal for the railroads, and something which senior management sought to avoid.

By the end of the decade of the 1930s, the big, rich railroads retained and refined a number of experimental ideas but set a few other ideas – such as articulated cars – out on a siding. They reverted to the concept of individual cars – the same concept which had been utilized for a century. Sometimes revolutionary ideas prove their worth. Sometimes, “we ain’t never done it that way before” makes sense. Articulated cars fit into the latter category.

Single cars: One can be cut in and out of a train consist with a switch engine; only takes a few minutes. The same applied to locomotives. Any yard could cut locomotives and cars in and out. It was no big deal; no backshop with massive overhead cranes needed.

The Eagle:  Individual cars, no articulation; cars got bigger and were more comfortable than the earliest streamliners. 

As such, the Eagle was in good company. Other Kansas City trains, Santa Fe’s ballast scorching Super Chief was made up of individual cars. The same could be said for the El Capitan and a still steam-powered but completely streamlined edition of The Chief which had for decades been an all-heavyweight train. 

Those trains utilized technological advances of streamlined cars while leaving articulation and a few other less workable concepts in the dust. That also applied to New York Central’s inimitable Twentieth Century Limited and the Pennsylvania’s extraordinary Broadway Limited, not to mention New York to Florida competitors, Seaboard’s Silver Meteor and the Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion. And some others; later versions of Union Pacific’s City fleet, for example.

The unique quality of The Eagle was its route.

Interestingly, only a few passengers benefited from this odd routing. Passengers from Missouri’s capital city of Jefferson City could go to, say, Atchison, Kansas without having to change trains. The same could be said for travelers going from Leavenworth, Kansas to Warrensburg, Missouri – or Kirkwood. A few people took advantage of this service, but not all that many. There just have never been a lot of people going from Sedalia, Missouri to Hiawatha, Kansas or Plattsmouth, Nebraska.

Yet, somebody in MoPac management was enthusiastic.

The accounting department noted a respectable gain in equipment utilization on the combined route. New and none too cheap diesel locomotives and streamlined, aluminum cars needed to move – and keep moving ‒ in order to make money. As noted previously, MoPac was still operating under bankruptcy court protection so a cheering endorsement from the money guys was taken seriously by the railroad’s receivers and bankruptcy judge.

MoPac’s operating department also appreciated the fact that westbound trains coming from St. Louis could just keep going on the MoPac’s rails without turning the train in Kansas City. Similarly, trains from Omaha could just make a convenient stop in Kansas City Union Station enroute to St. Louis. Operating managers on two different divisions got the chance to play with the railroad’s shiny new toys, a morale booster on a railroad which had suffered through bankruptcy and the Great Depression.

MoPac also maintained a dining car commissary at Kansas City Union Station. Any shortage of fresh meat on a dining car could be corrected so swiftly and easily that no one but the chef and the dining car steward needed to know any shortage was impending. The train conductor could throw off a message at any station and, voila, items in short supply would be waiting on the platform when the train came in.

Amtrak, please take note.

It was the executive level which was most ecstatic about the shimmering new trains.

The Missouri Pacific’s first completed and best known corridor was between St. Louis and Kansas City where, of all places, a couple of Chicago based railroads joined forces to challenge MoPac’s primacy. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy combined forces with the much smaller and financially weaker Alton Railroad to introduce a flashy, silver streamliner, the Ozark State Zephyr to insult the very raison d’etre of the MoPac.

Introduction of The Eagle made it clear that it was the alpha male of the St. Louis to Kansas City corridor, and they had no intention of allowing some upstart challenger to gain traction. A shiny, new MoPac streamliner with big comfortable cars could show some glorified motor train who was in charge here.

Moreover, the MoPac got its own special digs in on the Burlington Route. The “Q”’s very first stainless steel train was the Pioneer Zephyr which ran from Kansas City Union Station to Omaha and back. When the MoPac introduced its own streamlined, dieselized train to the Kansas City to Omaha corridor, it was a way of showing you-know-which Chicago railroad that MoPac wasn’t going to abide any further disrespect. Plus, it gave passengers a choice of two different railroads with different streamlined trains a choice; great for market research.

The old tiger Missouri Pacific generated more fresh energy when it introduced the Colorado Eagle from St. Louis/Kansas City to Denver in 1942, one of the very few trains which initiated service after the U.S. entered WW II. This enabled MoPac to operate not just one but two round trips daily between St. Louis and Kansas City with dieselized, streamlined passenger trains. There was the already extant Eagle, at that point renamed the Missouri River Eagle to differentiate itself from the sparkling fresh Colorado Eagle. Adding a long distance streamlined train to serve the Centennial State also served notice on other railroads that a reinvigorated Missouri Pacific was a force which competitors needed to watch.

Visitors to Denver thus had a quite respectable collection of travel choices when the Colorado Eagle came to town. Burlington Route’s Denver Zephyr and the Union Pacific/Chicago & North Western’s City of Denver were established residents. Rock Island’s Rocky Mountain Rocket entered service in 1939. With the addition of the Colorado Eagle, travelers had a shimmering selection of new trains from which to choose. Travelers going from Denver to, say, New York or Washington could now make connections trains in both Chicago and St. Louis. 

The immediate post-WW II era brought relatively few changes to the Missouri River Eagle. Business was brisk but not so much that it distracted the MoPac from bigger plans which had been gathering dust all during the war. Missouri Pacific management was ready to spend money ‒ and spend a lot of it ‒ on improved trains. Missouri Pacific introduced the Delta Eagle, the Valley Eagle, and the Texas Eagle complete with uninterrupted Pullman service to Mexico City on the Aztec Eagle (through Pullmans to Mexico City had been offered for decades, though the very first streamlined cars ran on the Texas Eagle/Aztec Eagle). Equipment needed for the Texas Eagle was substantial in that through cars ran all over Texas. In addition to the obvious destinations of Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, through cars went to El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Alexandria (Louisiana) and of course Laredo where the through Pullman to Mexico City crossed the Mexican border.

Car builders were enthusiastically filling their order books. St. Louis based American Car & Foundry was anxious to show how it, like veterans in the streamlined trade, Budd and Pullman, could roll out delicious new passenger car innovations. The Missouri Pacific was a big customer of ACF in the streamlined era, as it had been before in heavyweight times.

It was a new day, and a bright one. Like the state song of Kansas, Home on the Range, “the skies are not cloudy all day.” If that had only been true. 

Not only were the nation’s railroads ready to spend heavily using their own funds, also politicians had the same idea, except using other peoples’ money. With that came taxpayer funded highways and airways and waterways, in about any Congressional district where politicians needed to show the folks they were “bringin’ home the bacon.” 

As we all know today, the highway lobby and the flying machine lobby noshed on generous helpings of tax dollars. The public trough became resplendently festooned with lobbyists bearing fistfuls of campaign donations.

Missouri became the very first state in the nation to award a contract to construct a highway funded by the Federal Aid – Highway Act of 1956 – only four days after it was signed into law. The new asphalt competitor for the Missouri River Eagle was I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.

This, the very first of America’s interstate highways became an infinitely greater threat to Missouri Pacific passenger trains in Missouri than the CB&Q/Alton alliance could ever have conceived. As envisioned, the 37,700 mile system of “interstate and defense highways” was projected to cost $27.2 billion when calculated in 1954. That number had increased to $128.9 billion by the time the interstate system was “completed.” That difference is almost insignificant when calculated in percentage terms: just under 475%. 

How could any private business expect to compete with that? And more to the point, how could the Missouri River Eagle compete with all of this going on?

The answer is simply that it couldn’t.

I have never found myself sympathetic to the 1960s era of the Missouri Pacific under Downing Jenks, its then president. Jenks had lost interest in passengers and wanted to be rid of both the passengers and the trains which carried them.

At the same time, I am forced to ask myself what I might have done differently given the challenges MoPac faced with taxpayer supported competitors. I don’t have a good answer.

The Colorado Eagle suffered one of the first of MoPac’s major service reductions, though service on some secondary main lines such as the Rainbow Special, a Kansas City to Branson to Little Rock route had lost passenger service earlier. 

One bright day in March 1964, the Colorado Eagle was a delightful train with Pullmans, dining and lounge service, and dome cars. MoPac even offered an attractive “Thrift-T-Sleeper” economy service advertised as “Sleep-N-Save” using extensively modernized heavyweight Pullmans.

The next day, there was a Kansas City to Denver train with a couple of coaches – and no name. The St. Louis to Kansas City segment still had a dining/parlor car but at Kansas City, the diner was cut off. 

The Missouri River Eagle briefly enjoyed upgrades as a consequence of the Colorado Eagle’s downgrade. The Colorado train’s dome coaches were reassigned for a while to the Missouri River Eagle though disappeared in 1966 when MoPac sold them to the Illinois Central.

The Missouri River Eagle soldiered onward though service was gradually downgraded. First to go was the dining/parlor car on the Kansas City to Omaha segment (though the dome cars remained for a while). Then, the entire Kansas City to Omaha segment was dropped so the Missouri River Eagle became strictly a St. Louis to Kansas City train. 

By 1970, parlor car seats had been removed from the dining/parlor car and replaced with some old coach seats which were rarely, if ever needed. Those seats were upholstered with an especially uncomfortable material which was similar to that used on outdoor patio furniture ‒ thin strips of interwoven cream and black plastic. Whether the seats were uncommonly ugly or just plain dirty – or both – is something I never knew and didn’t want to invest time in finding out. What I remember is that sitting in them was no pleasure. 

Dining service on the Missouri River Eagle was surprisingly nice. MoPac’s dining car department maintained good service up to the very last. There was no dining car steward as there was on the Texas Eagle, though there was really no need for one. Waiters handled the job well. 

Menu items were not elaborate though fresh and flavorful. Everything was cooked to order by an experienced chef and was well presented. The dining car staff was made up of complete professionals who still understood the importance of quality service.

There was still silver “holloware” service (items as sugar bowls, creamers, coffee pots and the like) on the table, all stamped with “the Eagle” logo. “Flatware” (knives, forks, spoons) was no longer silver; a heavy stainless steel of good quality was used. If memory serves, dining car linens had been replaced with paper place mats. I don’t recall about napkins though vaguely recall they were still white cloth.

By standards of most U. S. passenger trains in the immediate pre-Amtrak time period, Missouri River Eagle dining service was of consistent high quality, and a highly appealing service aboard a train which was otherwise unremarkable. 

In this day and time, Missouri River Eagle dining service would represent luxury of unparalleled quality even on Amtrak’s long-distance runs. Fresh food? Cooked to order?

The train generally ran on time, though on a schedule which was fairly easy to keep.

The Missouri Pacific was making no effort to manage its passenger train deficits by this point.  

Even after elimination of the Kansas City to Omaha segment, the Missouri River Eagle‘s remaining schedule was unchanged. It required two complete sets of equipment and two dining car crews to support the Missouri River Eagle. Each set made a single 279 mile run in a day though a round trip would have been easy to accommodate. 

The companion train to the Missouri River Eagle was the remnant of the Colorado Eagle, a train which was by this point sometimes referred to as the Easterner and the Westerner on train announcements in stations, though no name whatsoever in timetables. It had a “grille coach” which employed a single waiter/cook who heated prepared food for passengers sitting at a lunch counter.

Had Missouri Pacific re-worked the schedule, it could have used both Missouri River Eagle train sets to each make a full round trip daily. Concurrent elimination of the rather dismal remnant of the Colorado Eagle would have left two round trips. That might have also made better connections on both the Kansas City and St. Louis ends of the train. It would likely have cost them less money while improving revenues, neither of which were of any priority to MoPac management which preferred to complain about passenger train deficits rather than to do something – especially something which would actually improve revenues and consequently diminish losses.

In St. Louis, if the Penn Central delivered the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Penn-Texas on time, which it usually didn’t, connections were still good with the remnant of the Colorado Eagle. However, at Kansas City, the train arrived too late to connect with Union Pacific’s City of Kansas City, a train which had been connection-less since the Norfolk & Western killed the former Wabash train which ran through from St. Louis. Its arrival time was too late for the UP train but too early for connections with either the Santa Fe Texas Chief or the Super Chief & El Capitan. Had the Colorado Eagle remnant been scheduled out of St. Louis a little later, it would have more likely made connections with the Penn Central train as well as cut waiting times for the westbound Santa Fe trains.

Eastbound, the Missouri River Eagle left Kansas City at 11:30 AM which left a long connection from both Santa Fe’s Super Chief & El Capitan, and the Union Pacific’s City of Kansas City, but too early for Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief the Grand Canyon, and the Tulsan arriving from the west. The eastbound Missouri River Eagle arrived in St. Louis too late for connections with remaining Penn Central’s service to the east. Of course, Missouri Pacific’s afternoon train to St. Louis didn’t connect with much anything. 

Westbound, the Missouri River Eagle did a better job of connecting with Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief, Grand Canyon, and the Tulsan. The problem was that making it easy for passengers to connect with a train going west, but not coming from a train coming east doesn’t represent much of an option, though passengers willing to wait long enough could take the Colorado Eagle remnant with its miserable grille-coach.

In short, the MoPac didn’t care.

In one sense, ironic though it may be, Missouri Pacific management’s disdain for passenger service left the dining car department entirely on its own to deliver the best service it could, given the circumstances. Disdain was still better than active antagonism which was found in Southern Pacific headquarters, where actively aggravating passengers was considered a high calling.

As of Amtrak-day, 1971, the Missouri River Eagle sort of staggered across the finish line, just enough of an accomplishment to make certain that the St. Louis to Kansas City corridor was included in the national route system. Amtrak planners stuck it onto the remaining Penn Central Penn-Texas which was renamed the National Limited, after a Baltimore & Ohio train which ran to a lot different places than the Amtrak train.

Amtrak scheduled that train to depart at 5:30 AM, certainly a convenient time for everyone, especially passengers arriving on the Super Chief & El Capitan which was scheduled to arrive in Kansas City five minutes later. Oftentimes, the Super arrived a few minutes ahead of the advertised and Missouri Pacific conductors would hold the National Limited a few minutes for connecting passengers. However, on paper, the connection time was 23 hours and 55 minutes.

To bring all of this together, the question is what is there about the Missouri River Eagle which could serve as a lesson to future rail passenger planners ‒ assuming that there ever will be any?

The answer is to link multiple corridors, even though at first glance they may not logically fit. That would be a good strategy for improving service quality along with equipment and labor utilization. Linking the St. Louis and Kansas City corridor with the Kansas City and Omaha corridor was a winning strategy for many years. Both segments had full dining and lounge car service, and a first class section for parlor car passengers. Running equipment through offered operating efficiencies even if there were not a lot of passengers who could take advantage of that particular combination of routes.

Efficiencies associated with running longer distance trains rather than a pair of short stubs meant that more and better services could be provided and increased overall revenue to slash the average fixed costs (those being the fixed costs apportioned to each passenger, or “revenue passenger mile”). 

Improved efficiencies represent an opportunity to sell more tickets and thereby reduce average fixed costs because there are more revenue passenger miles which can share costs. Fixed costs remain the same whether you have one passenger or a million passengers. Dispersing costs among a million passengers is obviously a worthwhile objective.

Regarding the idea of combining corridors, it should be noted that for a time, Amtrak tried linking one of the Missouri state-supported trains from Kansas City to St. Louis with an Illinois state-supported train from St. Louis to Chicago. That service disappeared when track repair work along the Union Pacific’s former Missouri Pacific main line resulted in frequent and unacceptable delays. Whether that might ever be restored is a valid question. Somebody should think about it.

There is a question which remains unanswered – and will likely remain unanswered for some time.

Will taxpayers agree to fund the outright reconstruction of the nation’s interstate and defense highway system, given how much that will cost? Taxes will inevitably go up and when that happens, people may begin wondering whether a giant chasm with no bottom could ever be patched with tax revenues.

At some point, somebody is going to ask how much the highway system and the air transport system really costs. My sense is that won’t happen.

Meanwhile, we may ruminate on some fine trains of the past, the Missouri River Eagle having been one of them. That’s about all we can do.

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