U.S., Santa Fe Railway, Part 1: The Santa Fe Chief And The Grand Canyon; What Really Happened

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; November 5, 2021

Into the spring of 1968, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway operated multiple streamlined passenger trains daily between Chicago and Los Angeles – in addition to all of the other trains Santa Fe ran from here to there to everywhere else. The Chief, the Super Chief, and the El Capitan were excellent by anybody’s standards. The Grand Canyon, while not superlative was certainly a good train.  

A few months before, the U.S. Post Office Department decided to eliminate its Railway Post Office service. RPOs had enabled the post office to sort mail while it was en route between cities for over a century. Thereafter, the post office shoved bags of mail onto commercial flying machines and did all of the sorting on the ground. The post office said this improved service. (A more thorough review of the decision to terminate RPOs appears in the article The Grand Canyon Was Not A Great Train, But A Nice Train Right To The Last Day Before Amtrak appearing October 15, 2021 on this platform).

For America’s railroads, the decision was disastrous. Fast passenger trains which had previously remained at least somewhat viable began to float in red ink. Those trains had been dependent upon RPO revenue to justify the cost of running higher speed passenger train service. 

Even with the benefit of RPO contracts, some railroads had allowed their service to slip. Notably, rail travel in the eastern U.S. had begun its decline earlier and to a greater extent than in the west. To Hell in a Day Coach: An Exasperated Look at American Railroads (Peter Lyon, author; Lippincott; 1st edition January 1, 1968) examined passenger train service in the mid-1960s. If you can find a copy, it is still well worth reading. 

The consequence was that U.S. rail passenger service presented enormous variances in service quality from one part of the country to another.

Service in the west had generally held up better for several reasons. A few of the western railroads had even maintained service standards to a level barely distinguishable from what had been offered in the halcyon days of rail travel, the Santa Fe being a notable example.

Inconsistencies in rail service nationally presented the Santa Fe with some unusually difficult challenges. Two days before RPOs made their final runs, Santa Fe announced a plan wherein they would retain only a few of their best known trains with all others being discontinued.

One proposed discontinuance was the sumptuous Chicago to Los Angeles train, the Chief. Santa Fe appears to have been reluctant to terminate the Chief. However, the even more sumptuous Super Chief & El Capitan was to be retained as Santa Fe concluded they should focus their efforts on keeping one superlative train on the Chicago to Los Angeles route running. The two trains ran together most of the year then ran as two trains in peak seasons. Completely separate dining and lounge cars were operated. The all-Pullman Super Chief had its own dining car plus the Pleasure Dome lounge with its private Turquoise Room available to groups of passengers. The El Capitan had its own Hi-Level dining car along with a Hi-Level lounge car containing the Kachina Room coffee shop on the lower level.

Another train to be eliminated was a more mundane workhorse but still nice train, the Grand Canyon.

This article will thus review some of the factors which the Santa Fe considered when proposing to discontinue much of its passenger train service, and some of the factors present when the Interstate Commerce Commission picked and chose trains to remain, and which would be dispensed with.

Connections: Santa Fe’s concerns

Successful rail travel has always been dependent upon offering passengers convenient connections with other trains, preferably of at least equal quality. When a significant part of a passenger’s trip was aboard a train with inferior service, inadequate maintenance, and poor reliability, the passenger might reconsider using rail service regardless of how good service was on another segment of the journey. The passenger might just decide to drive or fly.

By the mid-1960s, less than satisfactory service on connecting trains became an issue for many Santa Fe passengers. People would disembark the excellent train, the Chief, then connect in Chicago or Kansas City with another railroad’s rumbling, dirty train with malfunctioning rest rooms. Passengers wouldn’t be back, regardless of how pleasant the journey was on the Chief.

It may be worthy to note this problem continues over a half century later in the Amtrak era. (Andrew Selden’s article appearing October 30, 2021 on this platform illustrates this point: Mr. And Mrs. Selden Take A Train Trip; The Harsh Reality Of Differences Between the Lake Shore Limited and the Empire Builder.)

One high ranking Santa Fe official told me back in the early 1970s that for decades, nearly a quarter of all Santa Fe’s passenger train revenue came through connecting trains in Chicago. That had changed in the late 1960s, and not for the better. As connections deteriorated in the 1960s, so did Santa Fe’s passenger traffic. 

In a few minor ways, these circumstances actually benefited the Santa Fe, which had remained competitive even when some other railroads were not. I had been told about, and personally observed, a good load of passengers getting on the Texas Chief in the late 1960s at Temple, Texas who drove over from Austin where Missouri Pacific’s Texas Eagle offered service right into downtown Austin, but not with nearly as good a train.

There just weren’t enough passengers whose patronage could be cannibalized from other railroads to offset the fundamental problem. It does, however, reveal how Santa Fe used quality service to bolster its passenger counts, even though those gains were not particularly significant.

Santa Fe was ultimately facing a losing battle. Part was from lost connections. Part was from people who could drive longer distances on taxpayer paid interstate highways which were still being built at that time. Part was from loss of revenue to jet-powered flying contraptions which also depended substantially upon the largesse of taxpayers. Combined, Santa Fe took the brunt of the losses.

Illogical Logic, Part I: Ignoring Revenue Passenger Miles 

As noted previously, Santa Fe chose to restructure its passenger train network with what they then believed was a viable strategy. Santa Fe petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to discontinue most, though not all, of its passenger service. Among the trains for which they posted a “Notice of Proposed Discontinuance of Service” were the Chief and the Grand Canyon.

The Interstate Commerce Commission rendered a decision in early 1968 which appeared odd at the time and, in fact, would now appear to have been even more short-sighted and counter-productive than it looked at the time. The ICC ordered Santa Fe to continue the Grand Canyon at the same time as it granted permission to terminate the Chief.

At first glance, the Chief appeared to be an expensive train to operate. For that reason, logic would appear to suggest that Santa Fe would be glad to be rid of it. The Chief offered first-class Pullman service unbeaten by the 20th Century Limited or even the Super Chief. The Chief offered a full-length dome lounge to its passengers. Chair cars were spacious, comfortable, and quiet. The dining car, while theoretically a notch below the Super Chief, offered absolutely superlative food and service. Some passengers even preferred the Chief dining car service because they viewed the Super Chief as, well, a trifle presumptuous. 

By comparison, the Grand Canyon offered only a few of the amenities found aboard the Chief. Following the loss of Railway Post Office car revenue, the Canyon was downgraded to offer only chair car service and checked baggage service. For a brief period, it offered no food service aboard the train at all though it must be emphasized, only for a brief period of time.

One would thus expect the Santa Fe would have preferred dispensing with the Chief and keep the train with few costly amenities. There were two critical differences between the trains, however.

Of enormous importance to the Chief was “revenue passenger miles.”

The definition of “revenue passenger miles” is simple: one passenger riding one mile. If one passenger bought a ticket to ride the Chief from Chicago to Kansas City, that would amount to 449 revenue passenger miles. A Pullman passenger riding the Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago would generate 2,222 revenue passenger miles.

Passengers on the Canyon tended to be relatively short haul riders. A passenger boarding in Syracuse, Kansas (served only by the Canyon) and getting off at La Junta, Colorado would generate just over a hundred revenue passenger miles. There would need to be eighteen of them to merely equal the revenue passenger miles of a single passenger riding the Chief from Los Angeles to Kansas City, and over twenty-two to equal a single passenger on the Chief riding all the way to Chicago.

The Chief also carried more passengers in addition to those passengers riding longer distances.

The Grand Canyon carried fewer passengers than the Chief, and for much shorter distances. Even with the costly services found aboard the Chief, far more people wanted to ride that train because it offered a much more enjoyable journey (Amtrak, please take note). The Chief still had a positive cash flow in the late 1960s simply because there were so many more passengers riding much greater distances.

The Canyon fell short because it didn’t bring in as much revenue. Quality service = more revenue passenger miles (again, Amtrak, please take note).

Illogical Logic, Part II: Ignoring Costs of Operation

An even more compelling factor was the high level of overhead costs which could be charged exclusively to the Canyon.

The Canyon served numerous small communities. At least in that era, there had to be a station agent on duty when each train arrived. If a passenger boarded in a smaller community, say Stafford, Kansas or St. John, Kansas the station would be open and a ticket agent on duty. The waiting room would be open, well lit, rest rooms cleaned, and heat on during cold weather. 

All of the costs associated with keeping the station open would be charged to a single train, that being the Grand Canyon, because it was the only train serving that town. Costs would double if the eastbound train ran in the morning and a westbound train ran at night so no single ticket agent could work both trains, at least not under labor agreements of the time. Given the Grand Canyon train ran seven days a week and 365 days a year (no holidays off), costs would be even higher to employ an relief agent to fill the rest days for the regular agent.

In fairness, it must be noted that not all of those positions could be eliminated if the Grand Canyon did not run. Station agents also processed freight waybills during regular business hours. Were a train to arrive during regular business hours or something reasonably close, an additional station agent was not likely needed. Also, medium sized cities such as Newton, Kansas or Emporia, Kansas or Fort Madison, Iowa were open 24/7 regardless of what time passenger trains ran because the medium sized cities were oftentimes “division points.” Agents were on duty to serve all of the freight trains running through regardless of whether the Grand Canyon came through or not.

However, many of the station expenses associated with serving small towns were “avoidable costs.” Those were expenses which could be avoided in part or whole if the train didn’t run. There were literally dozens of stations served only by the Grand Canyon. The above mentioned stations, Stafford and St. John, Kansas, were only a few miles apart and neither was that far from Newton or Hutchinson, Kansas, larger cities where other trains stopped. 

You can thus see the impact of high fixed costs on that specific train.

A question thus arises as to why the Interstate Commerce Commission would insist that the Santa Fe would maintain service on a train which carried fewer people shorter distances, and lost a lot of money?

Illogical Logic, Part III: Political Reality

The ICC appears to have reacted to all the city councilmen, county commissioners and town aldermen who drove to public hearings so they could talk about trains. I know this to be fact in that I attended one such public hearing in which some local town officials drove in from some distance.  

Officials proclaimed their determined opposition to eliminate the “last remaining train” to their town, not that much anybody from their town actually got on and off the Grand Canyon, least of all the public officials speaking at the time. Elected officeholders just didn’t want to get the blame when “their” train was cut off. Town officials just wanted to make a show on behalf of their constituents/voters and/or to create some news which the town newspaper would print.

It must also be acknowledged the small-town officials had a point. Passengers indeed got on and off in smaller towns. Over a year’s time, a fair number of people collectively got on and off at communities as Coal City, Illinois; Argyle, Iowa; Wyaconda, Missouri; Syracuse, Kansas; Holly, Colorado; Mountainair, New Mexico; Yampai, Arizona; Mojave, California and the like. 

The challenge was that in the era of publicly subsidized highway construction, should the Santa Fe Railway really be responsible for the self-image of a village where only a handful of people were train riders?

It is doubtlessly true that residents of rural areas have as much right as anybody else for access to public transportation. The question is whether costs for all that responsibility fell on railroads? Railroads gladly provided these services until Uncle Sam started handing out money to build the highways and aerodromes that undercut the importance of passenger trains. 

Had it not been for enormous subsidies to the competitors of passenger trains, the problem likely would not have existed at all.

An associated question is whether the Santa Fe needed absorb the cost of running a train to stop in Halstead, Kansas when multiple trains served Newton, Kansas, located just a few miles down the track?

Having worked Santa Fe passenger trains as a college student/seasonal help chair car attendant in that era, I saw how many passengers got on and off in Newton. That town never had a population of even twenty thousand people, but you wouldn’t know it from passenger volume in and out of that station. Dozens of people got on and off daily. Newton drew at least a few passengers every trip from towns as far away as a hundred miles or more. I know.  I talked to them. Newton drew passengers from a remarkably wide geographic area.

The ICC was a soft touch for stories about small town citizens such as a fictional character I will create here, elderly Miss Bess, a lifelong resident of Florence, Kansas. Miss Bess’ niece and her family lived in Kansas City. She visited them every few months. Well, Miss Bess couldn’t drive to Newton any more to catch a train, or really much anywhere, after dark. Why, taking off that train to Florence would make it impossible for Miss Bess to see her family anymore, and that would be just awful. How could some big time lawyers for the mighty Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway justify taking away a train so Miss Bess could no longer visit her niece?

The ICC was very sensitive to those stories.

Of course, our fictional Miss Bess lived only a block down from another member of her church who told her that a ride was always available to the train station, even if that was in Newton. A round trip from Florence or Peabody or Burrton to Newton was shorter than what a lot of people drive going one way to the O’Hare aerodrome in Chicago. That part of the story was somehow omitted when town officials made a presentation at an ICC public hearing. That information also failed to appear in the Sandstone County Weekly Bugle & Shopper, a fictional newspaper I have also created to make this point.

The ICC responded to the “public convenience and necessity” argument – a perceived need illustrated by our fictional Miss Bess. That image was skillfully articulated by a lot of local public officials. That image also played well to the Washington crowd which didn’t want to go into the next election appearing to be asleep at the switch. The Washington crowd wanted it known they were taking care of the folks back home.

And so, it was. The ICC ordered the Santa Fe to continue the Grand Canyon while permitting termination of the Chief.

The Santa Fe was stuck with a train which was carrying fewer and fewer passengers and losing more and more money once the overhead costs of all those station agents was figured in. Meanwhile, a train with lots of riders passed into the history books.

Illogical Logic, Part IV: Pointless rumination

Was the Canyon even more expensive to run than the Super Chief & El Capitan? 

I have no way of knowing because the Santa Fe no longer exists, much less half century old accounting records. Anyone who would recall internal financial documents from that era is dead. But I cannot help wondering exactly how expensive it was to run a train that served so few people when another train which was well patronized was cut off? 

Lamentably, this is a topic today for rumination, not exploration. Documents which could prove anything one way or another just aren’t around anymore.

At the same time, we must wonder what lessons were there in those old accounting records – documents which were decades ago hauled to the landfill. What could we discover in these antediluvian work papers which would provide guidance to Amtrak in today’s marketplace?

The answer to that last question is fortunately easy: nothing. Amtrak’s own internal documents don’t even comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Their independent auditors even insert that item in their annual statements – and have for years, though only in the smallest of small print in the footnotes.

As Amtrak’s own internal accounting is not GAAP compliant, what should be revealed in those accounting documents that we are unable to see? For that matter, what could be revealed within Amtrak’s slovenly accounting system that Amtrak managers themselves cannot see, or are just unwilling to seek? 

We are forced to wonder what is the real truth.

And that is the lesson from today’s article. We don’t know what lessons we should be able to learn from Amtrak because their accounting is defective, or deficient at best. We can learn something from the history of Santa Fe’s legendary train, the Chief. Good service attracts lots of passengers.

Whether that lesson has any measurable impact on decision-makers in today’s transportation environment is uncertain at best.

Maybe yes.  Maybe no.

Coming, Part II of this series:

The Santa Fe Chief and the Grand Canyon, Alternative Reality? 

What if it had been the Chief which survived?

From the Department of Blatant Self-Aggrandisement

A few years ago … actually, a couple of decades ago … I published a book entitled Santa Fe’s Last Dining Car Service Instructions. If you are interested in Santa Fe dining car service and desire further information, please send me an e-mail message. I will respond with particulars. 

My e-mail address is [email protected]

Please note that “Peironnet” must be spelled correctly or your message will go to a cyber world unknown to any person now extant.

Oh, and thank you for reading this message.

Please share with others