U.S., Santa Fe Railway: The Grand Canyon Was Not A Great Train, But A Nice Train Right To The Last Day Before Amtrak

Editor’s Note: Guest commentator David Peironnet has provided an outstanding view of how a secondary train can still be appealing and a winner for passengers and the operating company. Mr. Peironnet’s meticulous telling of this story includes valuable insights on how a railroad ensures its system stays fluid and every customer – freight or passenger – enjoys a timely passage. – CorridorRail.com Editor

By David Peironnet, Guest Commentator; October 15, 2021

Consider for a moment, what would it be like if you were a train. 

Think about living in the shadow of Santa Fe Railway’s Super Chief.

The Super Chief got extra spotlights for … well … just being the Super Chief.  It was just that famous.

What attention the Super Chief didn’t get, the Chief and the El Capitan seized for themselves. Those trains got spotlights, too. Almost as many but not quite. 

Even superlative trains as the Texas Chief and the San Francisco Chief had to fight for a chance to live in the bright lights.

Now, think about the Grand Canyon

Among the long gone and possibly least lamented trains of the pre-Amtrak era were secondary main line trains. For however good they were and how many and how well passengers were served, they lived in a place well below the visibility of their far more famous brethren.

That’s too bad. The Grand Canyon was a nice train. All the way up to Amtrak. 

But, did anybody ever write a song about the Grand Canyon? Somebody did for the Wabash Cannon Ball. And, the Orange Blossom Special. The City of New Orleans. Great songs. We’ve all heard them.

But, a song about the Grand Canyon? No. None.  

Ferde Grofé wrote a wonderful orchestral work called the “Grand Canyon Suite.” But it was about the Grand Canyon, not a train.

Think about the Grand Canyon and compare it to other trains which lasted until Amtrak. For example, the New York Central/Penn Central’s James Whitcomb Riley. Or the intentionally wretched Southern Pacific Sunset Limited

Those trains weren’t in the same universe as Santa Fe’s third tier flyer, the Grand Canyon. Not in the same dimension.

When the final run of the Grand Canyon arrived in Chicago the evening of May 2, 1971, very few people were on hand to recognize its end. It was the last train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway on the last day running its final mile. All the other Santa Fe trains had already detrained their last passengers and had been pulled to the yards.

It wasn’t planned that way; it was merely a quirk of Santa Fe timetables. The Grand Canyon was scheduled in such a way that it was the absolute last Santa Fe service running. But, the Canyon didn’t even get to end its days at Dearborn Station, as that terminal had already closed. It went to Chicago Union Station.

As the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield put it, “I don’t get no respect.”

So, perhaps a half century after the last passenger disembarked the Grand Canyon deserves a few words of recognition.

I thus thought it appropriate to take a look at the last years of the Canyon’s operation, say from the time the Post Office terminated mail contracts on passenger trains in October 1967 to Amtrak in May 1971.

In the autumn of 1967, the Grand Canyon was still a surprisingly long train. It had Pullmans that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles plus a Pullman which came out of Dallas and joined up en route. And, a dining and lounge car. Plus, all the coaches and baggage cars and Railway Post Office Cars. Quite a few of them.

In that same autumn, the U. S. Post Office Department made its decision to terminate railway mail service and instead have letters jet their way across the nation on commercial flying machines (it was still the “Post Office Department” at the time as the “United States Postal Service” did not come into being until two months after Amtrak). 

The Post Office Department saw enormous benefit in shoving all the sacks of mail onto jet aerobirds and emphasized that point in its press releases.

Of course, the post office did not go into any detail as to how mail moving from, say, Ponca City, Oklahoma to Temple, Texas might be efficiently transported by air. It just was and we should believe it because the press release said so.  

We didn’t know it at the time, but the Assistant Postmaster General who made this decision very shortly thereafter quit the post office and went to work for Braniff International Airways to … get this … chase after mail hauling contracts. Got a big raise for signing on with Braniff.  As the French say, quelle surprise!

The issue before the railroads is they were dependent upon Railway Mail Service contracts to pay for a lot of the underlying fixed costs associated with passenger train service. Braniff Airways didn’t pay somebody to collect a mailbag dropped off in Bovina, Texas so that the town post office would have it waiting when they opened the next morning. The Santa Fe did, and that agent could sell what few tickets that could be sold in Bovina. That also applied to Wagon Mound, New Mexico and Elmer, Missouri.

Running an extra two or three cars on a train that was already running was also important from a revenue standpoint. That was guaranteed income. Railroads gave the Post Office Department a special reduced rate in exchange for the every train/every day contract, but the guaranteed income was essential.

With all of that revenue diverted to the flying machine companies, American railroads quickly acted to “rationalize” their passenger service levels. This meant that many railroads moved to get out of the passenger business entirely. 

Some even sabotaged their own services until few passengers were still aboard. The Interstate Commerce Commission, the government’s ruling body charged with the responsibility for protecting the public interest might well have said, “well, nobody is on the train so they might as well discontinue it.” 

The ICC’s published standard for deciding whether trains should be killed or continue running for at least a few months longer was known as “public convenience and necessity.”As to what that meant, anybody’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. That entire standard was one expertly defined multiples of times during that period by ICC lawyers, but I could still never make heads nor tails of it. 

I always believed that the Interstate Commerce Commission was following the dictum of Humpty Dumpty whose clearly delineated philosophy was quite simply this: “’When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.(LEWIS CARROLL [Charles L. Dodgson], Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6.  First published in 1872.) 

It has always seemed to me that Humpty Dumpty’s perspective has permeated Washington thinking for years.So, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Interstate Commerce Commission adopted it as their own.

Santa Fe and a few other railroads chose a different strategy, which was to sustain attention on their principal services but eliminate everything else. Meanwhile, service should be maintained to established standards. 

Proposed for discontinuance were notably the “local” services serving mostly short-haul passengers. Those trains were generally costly to operate but couldn’t bring in much revenue despite the large numbers of people getting on and off. Someone buying a ticket in Shallowater, Texas wasn’t going to pay nearly so much to buy a ticket to Muleshoe, Texas as someone going from say, Amarillo, Texas to Stockton, California. There were a lot more people going from Amarillo to almost anywhere on Santa Fe system lines than there were going to Muleshoe. And, going farther distances and paying more for the privilege. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping all of those stations open was burdensome.

This led to an inevitable reduction in costs.

A statement released by the Santa Fe on October 4, 1967 under the signature of John S. Reed, President, stated:

“Santa Fe, throughout its nearly one hundred year history has been a leader in serving it’s territory with passenger train service. That policy will remain unchanged, but present-day circumstances warrant a reappraisal of the size of our passenger operations.

“In the next few days the Santa Fe will file with the appropriate regulatory agencies proposals which will restructure our passenger operation. It is our intent to maintain the following trains: The Super Chief, the El Capitan, the San Francisco Chief, the Texas Chief, and certain connecting service to San Diego. We propose to discontinue all other service.”

Among the trains deemed expendable was the Grand Canyon. Medium distance trains which received a “Notice of Proposed Discontinuance of Service” were the Oil Flyer and the Tulsan (Kansas City to Tulsa), the El Pasoan (Albuquerque to El Paso), the Chicagoan (Dallas to Chicago, eastbound only), the Kansas Citian (Kansas City to Dallas, westbound only), the Kansas City Chief (Chicago to Kansas City, westbound only), also a connecting service called the California Special from Houston and Dallas and Fort Worth to the west coast via connections with the Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Chief at Clovis, New Mexico. 

The biggest shocker in the story was that Santa Fe’s fabled Chief was also scheduled for termination. That’s a different story to be told in a future column.

It was not long before Santa Fe began cutting expenses. Pullmans disappeared from the Grand Canyon’s consist. Dining car service also disappeared after the Christmas rush, as did the lounge car. Meal stops were reinstated. For a brief time, the Grand Canyon amounted to a baggage car and typically four coaches (oh yes, and locomotives).

In the absence of dining car service, westbound passengers from Chicago could request a lunch box to be delivered aboard the train in Chillicothe, Illinois. For dinner, Fred Harvey’s Harvey House was open in Kansas City Union Station for complete meals (having dined in the Harvey House in Kansas City Union Station many times before it closed, I can personally attest to the truly fine quality of food and service; no one suffered for having to have dinner in Kansas City). Breakfast was available at La Junta, Colorado, a lunch box could be delivered to the train at Raton, New Mexico, and a dinner box at Albuquerque. A full breakfast was available at Fred Harvey’s Casa del Desierto (house of the desert) in Barstow, California. Eastbound passengers got their meals at the same stations with the exception that the “second day out” lunch box was put aboard at Las Vegas, New Mexico rather than Raton. 

However good the food in station dining rooms, the total absence of food service aboard the Canyon was anathema to the Santa Fe. After just a few weeks of this unholy arrangement, Santa Fe management relented and reinstated a lunch-counter diner on the train which had by this point lost its name in the timetable, though was still identified as the Grand Canyon on station announcement boards.

It was this arrangement which persisted until the Grand Canyon remnant died at the feet of Amtrak.

The Canyon thus had between two and four “F-units” as locomotives then one or two baggage cars, depending upon whether/how much express revenue Santa Fe could secure. The passenger section consisted of a minimum of two stainless steel chair cars configured for long distance seating, though as many as six during peak seasons. Also, the previously mentioned lunch-counter diner. 

Seasonally, a dormitory-lounge car was added to the consist. Rarely was the lounge section open as bar service and snacks were offered on the lunch-counter diner. However, the lounge meant additional non-revenue space being available to passengers wanting to move around the train. It was a great place to play card games or just read a book (people used to read books).

Frequently, a couple of old pre-WWII streamlined war horses were trotted out for use on the Canyon as dorm-lounges. These relics, the Concho and the Picuris were later used on the Texas Chief after Amtrak let the full-length dome lounges get away to Auto-Train. They were actually well suited to spend their declining years on the Canyon as they were exceedingly attractive. Although the suspension and mechanical systems were well past their prime, the cars were nice, and as noted above, added non-revenue space for passengers to enjoy.

Unlike on Amtrak which spent a lot of money painting lounge car interiors in very dark colors, then lit only with “modern” light fixtures which weren’t designed for moving trains (they rattled incessantly), these old lounge cars were welcome additions on the Grand Canyon.  And, the light fixtures didn’t rattle.

As to food quality and service, the lunch-counter diners were quite good. Santa Fe good. That’s saying something.

There was a minimum of a dining car waiter-in-charge and a chef on the car, though staffing could be supplemented with additional waiters and a “first cook” during peak periods. 

To explain the function of the dining car waiter-in-charge, this was a senior dining car department employee who was trusted to run the car, handle all money, and perform record-keeping (money, employee hours, beginning and ending of trip inventories, and any other paperwork including equipment malfunction reports so the mechanical department could be notified and make repairs before the next trip. Any major failure such as malfunctioning air conditioning was reported by the train conductor so that mechanical department staff could meet the train at the next division point). As the dining car waiter-in-charge might have been the only dining car employee to work directly with customers, that employee had to be properly trained and sufficiently experienced to deal with whatever problem arose on a trip, be it food, equipment, or a recalcitrant passenger. Not just anybody could become a dining car waiter-in-charge. Special training and certification were mandated.

Lunch-counter diners themselves had originally been built for the El Capitan before it received its Hi-Level equipment. They were comfortable and spacious Budd-built cars with a small pantry/galley at one end for preparation of meals. Along one wall were coffee makers, toasters, and refrigeration equipment to supplement what was in the pantry/galley. 

Running much the length of the car’s center was the lunch counter along with lunch-counter type revolving seats. At the far end of the car were four regular tables which could be used by passengers not wishing to sit at lunch-counter seats, or used as lounge car tables during periods of the trip when passengers did not use them for regular meals.

Meals on this Grand Canyon remnant were in no way sumptuous though menus were sufficiently broad that passengers could get sandwiches to full meals. The chef serving the car prepared nearly everything to order in the galley though the dining car waiter-in-charge would usually prepare a few items such as salads or toast.

Heavy Santa Fe dining car china was used along with heavy stainless steel knives, forks, and spoons. They were washed in a small pantry section of the combined galley/pantry area. Santa Fe’s “Adobe” pattern china was usually utilized. The “Adobe” pattern had been designed for the El Capitan though over the years, plates broke so the inventory was gradually diminished. Remaining inventory was sufficient for the Canyon‘s lunch counter diners. The El Capitan switched to Santa Fe’s classic but colorful “California Poppy” pattern.

An Amtrak passenger riding just a couple of stops but wanting to grab lunch onboard the train today might find reports of the Grand Canyon’s cooked-to-order fresh meals nothing more than an idle fantasy. Cooked-to-order meals, indeed. Serving coach passengers riding short distances just because they want to be served a full lunch! Absurd. Amtrak passengers being told of lunch on the Grand Canyon would probably dismiss such stories as inventions of a dementia-afflicted, addled amateur writer of fantasy fiction ‒ of which I am not, or at least don’t think I am.

A full luncheon might take up much of the duration of a short trip aboard the Grand Canyon. I know. I did it. Great food. Great service. Not Super Chief dining or even San Francisco Chief dining. But great food. Great service. Far superior to what I’ve generally had on Amtrak in recent years. And, aboard a third-tier train.   

Chair cars assigned to the Canyon in its latter days were streamlined, stainless steel cars configured for long-distance seating. Santa Fe had two series of chair cars built in the post-WW II era, 48 seat cars by Pullman-Standard and 44 seat cars by Budd. Both were quite comfortable. This is to say seats were wide, and aisles were spread apart from one another sufficiently so that getting into or out of a window seat did not require use of actual mechanical extraction equipment such as that which will soon be needed on most aerobirds if the flying machine companies shove seats together any closer than they are already. 

Pullmans ran on the Canyon from mid-1968 to the end between Los Angeles and Barstow, California. The San Francisco Chief carried a Chicago to Los Angeles car, mostly for the convenience of passengers living along Santa Fe’s southern transcontinental route, now known as the “Transcon.” As the San Francisco Chief did not go to Los Angeles but the Canyon did, the westbound San Francisco Chief dropped a Pullman at Barstow, California after which the Canyon picked it up for the remaining miles to the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. Eastbound, that plan was reversed so that the Canyon initiated service in Los Angeles and carried the Pullman to Barstow where it was picked up by the eastbound San Francisco Chief.

Schedules on the Canyon suggested a leisurely journey. That was far from actual fact. The 50 hour schedule between Chicago and Los Angeles reflected frequent stops made by that train; stops which could then be avoided by the Super Chief. Just in Iowa, where the train only sliced the southeast corner for a dozen miles, there were three stops. In Colorado, stations as Trinidad, Thatcher, and La Junta were on the timetable, as were Las Animas, Lamar, and Holly. Arizona tied with another six stops. In Kansas, there were 16 scheduled and flag stops, and 17 in New Mexico. Ten more stops were in California plus 21 in Missouri. Illinois had the greatest number of scheduled and flag stops with 35 cities and towns.

The late author Lucius Beebe said that in between stations, the Grand Canyon had to run “like a bat out of Hell” just to hold schedule. There was considerable truth to this observation.

The Canyon had to stay out of the way of the freights. Freights, no matter how fast, just couldn’t go around the Canyon because the Canyon had to speed up to 90-95 MPH between stations. The Canyon would leave, say, Elmdale, Kansas and blast onward to Strong City before a freight could catch up.

Had the Canyon been run like Amtrak and sat too long at stations, it would have disrupted the Santa Fe main line. Had a locomotive broken down, that would screw up the entire Santa Fe main line for hundreds of miles. This was not perceived as a practical option by Santa Fe management.

Camera-bearing rail fans often noted Santa Fe passenger trains as having an awful lot of locomotives given the train consist. Santa Fe passenger trains were typically grossly overpowered just in case something broke down en route. There was always enough reserve horsepower to keep trains on schedule, no matter what.   

The San Francisco Chief, for example, had not one but two of Santa Fe’s mega-humongous FP-45 locomotives for a train which in the off season had as few as eight cars (baggage car, baggage/dorm, two Hi-Level chair cars, a full-length dome lounge, a full dining car, and two Pullmans). The horsepower to weight ratio was nothing short of astonishing. Locomotive failures or even inadequate power to hold schedule was not to be tolerated. This applied to the Grand Canyon just as it did on the Super Chief.

The Grand Canyon was pulled by at least two of the older F-7 locomotives, and as many as four. Nothing … absolutely nothing was to delay that train.

Thus, there were two sides of the Grand Canyon story in the final two years before Amtrak. On one side, the Grand Canyon suffered downgrading more severe than any other Santa Fe train. 

The Canyon suffered. Its Pullman cars, its dining cars, and its lounge cars disappeared – completely for a while though a lunch-counter diner with full bar-lounge service reappeared after only a brief absence.

On the other side, the abbreviated Canyon was run according to Santa Fe’s highest standards. The Canyon got lots of locomotive power, so it generally ran on time – absent a legitimate delay such as a Kansas blizzard which made it impossible for a locomotive engineer to safely run at high speeds. Other than those few weeks without dining service, the Canyon offered a short but pleasant menu of meals cooked-to-order by a real chef. In peak seasons, a lounge car was added. 

Cars were always clean, well-maintained, had spacious seats, and were quiet and comfortable. Santa Fe even washed all the windows in Albuquerque so that dust from the desert would not impede a clear view of the passing scenery. Baggage service was available to most stations.

The last days of the Canyon were, while not its greatest days, respectable. Compared with trains of a lot of railroads, the Grand Canyon was quite good. By any standards, it was a class act.

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