U.S., The goodness of secondary passenger trains before and during Stephen Gardner’s Amtrak: Rock Island and Southern Pacific’s Imperial history and more

Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and Southern Pacific Railroad jointly operated the Imperial Los Angeles-El Paso-Memphis-Chicago from 1931 to 1967, with a pause for World War II. The Imperial was the secondary companion train to the more famous jointly operated Golden State. Internet photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on March 24, 2021. Timetable times quoted are from March 2021 and have not been changed to contemporary times. The article has been updated with new information and photographs added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; July 29, 2022

In a land long ago – in the pre-Amtrak world – where the start of a new long distance/inter-regional passenger train or continued operation of a passenger train was not a political football, railroads understood for their passenger train fleet to break even or make a profit, there had to be more than a single frequency on long distance routes. There were primary and premier trains plus secondary trains which offered travel choices.

The same rule has always been true: A second train on any route more than doubles the combined ridership of the single frequency train, and when a third (or more) frequency is added, the load factor math explodes. Travelers like choice. That’s why travel by automobile is so prevalent; departures, intermediate stops and arrivals at will, not at dictated times.

The northbound Florida Silver Service Amtrak train the Silver Meteor at the Amtrak/Tri-Rail Commuter Service West Palm Beach station in 2014. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Florida Silver Service Amtrak train the Silver Star, northbound at the Winter Park, Florida Amtrak/SunRail commuter rail station in 2006 before the beginning of SunRail service. The Silver Star is the companion train to the Silver Meteor, with a different route than the Meteor from Selma, North Carolina to Savannah, Georgia and in Florida where the Star provides train service to Lakeland and Tampa Union Station while the Meteor provides Thruway Bus service to Lakeland and Tampa from the Orlando/SunRail station. The original Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Winter Park station was demolished and replaced by a new, more functional SunRail station. The Winter Park station tracks are adjacent to the inviting, large city park which gives Winter Park part of its name. Winter Park’s main downtown thoroughfare separates the park from a bevy of tempting restaurants, book stores, bars, ice cream shops and other retail businesses. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The northbound Palmetto at Fayetteville, North Carolina in 2015. The Palmetto and the Silver Meteor share an identical route from the Palmetto’s southern terminus in Savannah, Georgia to New York City’s Pennsylvania Station. By definition, the Palmetto is a secondary train; it is coach and business class seating only plus a cafe car and baggage car. It begins and ends its daily run in almost exactly 15 hours. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Only a shadow of secondary long distance trains survives today for Amtrak in non-pandemic times in the grouping of the Silver Meteor, Silver Star and Palmetto trains on the East coast where many of the major intermediate station stops have two or three daily choices.

A contemporary photo of the massive Rocky Mount, North Carolina Amtrak station. The station was built by the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad in 1893 was expanded in 1911-12 after the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad bought the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Rocky Mount was an important small city to the ACL as the railroad maintained huge locomotive and car maintenance shops there as well as division offices before the 1967 merger forming Seaboard Coast Line Railroad. The last major set of renovations to the station concluded in 2000. The City of Rocky Mount now owns the station facility, and the third floor of the station building hosts the ACL & SAL Railroads Historical Society, Inc. extensive archives. Through the years as the now-CSX/former ACL/Seaboard Coast Line headquarters building in Jacksonville, Florida has been renovated and reconfigured, many of the historic corporate railroad documents and other items have been transferred to the society in Rocky Mount. Rocky Mount is an intermediate stop for the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Palmetto and Carolinian. In 2019 50,861 passengers used the Rocky Mount station. Great American Stations photo.

The Silver Meteor and Silver Star are full service, overnight trains. The Palmetto, by definition, is a secondary train. Making more station stops than the Meteor and Star, it is a coach/business class only train without a dining car, and finishes its 15 hour run in the same calendar day.

Every station stop south of New York Pennsylvania Station to Rocky Mount, North Carolina sees three frequencies a day in each direction, plus North Carolina’s and Virginia’s state sponsored frequencies. Between Selma, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia the Silver Star veers off the CSX “I-95 Line” (former Atlantic Coast Line main line) onto the “S” line, the former Seaboard Air Line main line from Raleigh to Savannah via Columbia, South Carolina. The Meteor and Palmetto continue on the CSX I-95 line through Florence and Charleston to Savannah.

Raleigh Union Station in North Carolina’s capital city was completed in July 2018 from the shell of an original 1940s-era warehouse. Raleigh Union Station has FRA-mandated level-boarding platforms which preclude the use of any passenger equipment other than single-level cars. Superliner and other bi-level equipment cannot be used on level-boarding platforms because the vestibule doors open below the level of the platform. Raleigh saw 172,106 passengers in 2019 while serving the daily Silver Star, Carolinian, and Piedmont Service frequencies. Raleigh Union Station is the third Amtrak station in the city; first was the original Seaboard Air Line Railroad station just north of the present station, then the former Southern Railway station just to the southwest of the present station, and now Raleigh Union Station which was also designed to host the future Southeast high speed rail trains. Wikipedia photo.
The new level-boarding platform at Raleigh Union Station, overlooking part of downtown Raleigh. A State of North Carolina Piedmont Service train is staged at the platform. North Carolina owns both the locomotives and passenger cars for the Piedmont Service between Raleigh and Charlotte with multiple intermediate stops. North Carolina contracts with Amtrak for train and engine crews and the reservations system, but has an independent, private company provide maintenance for the trainsets. North Carolina Department of Transportation photo.

Savannah, a modest city with a metropolitan area population estimated at 400,000 souls is the southern terminus of the Palmetto. The Palmetto launches northward at 8:20 in the morning, the Silver Meteor calls at 7:31 p.m. and the Silver Star makes a nocturnal stop at 1:22 a.m. Southbound, the Star calls at a sleepy 4:13 a.m., the Meteor stops at 6:34 a.m. and the Palmetto rolls in at 9:04 p.m. The Savannah Amtrak station handled 56,220 passengers entraining and detraining in Fiscal Year 2019. That is an extraordinarily high number for the surrounding population. The bottom line: That’s what happens when passengers are offered a choice of travel times instead of a “take-it-or-leave-it” single frequency mandate.

The Columbia, South Carolina Amtrak Station. Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, has only nocturnal Amtrak service via the Silver Star, with southbound trains calling before 2 a.m. and northbound trains calling just after 4 a.m. Despite the unmarketable hours, Columbia’s station still saw 30,878 passengers in 2019. The Star is the only train serving Columbia. Internet photo.

This demonstrates the power of multi-frequencies of daily overnight and secondary trains on primarily the same route: The Silver Meteor had 349,425 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 558 miles, generating 19.7 cents a passenger mile. The Silver Star, with a diverted route in North Carolina and South Carolina to serve the capitals and other cities of those states had 385,008 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 438 miles, generating 19 cents a passenger mile. The Palmetto had 341,529 passengers in 2019 with an average trip length of 244 miles, generating 31.2 cents a passenger mile.

The Savannah, Georgia Amtrak station, originally opened in 1962 by the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to replace a stub-end, downtown station with a main line station. The original Savannah Union Station was built in 1902 and served the ACL and SAL as well as the Southern Railway. It was demolished a year after the new station was opened to make way for an interstate highway. The 1962 mid-century modern architecture has held up well 60 years after the station opened. Savannah is the southern terminus of the Palmetto, and an intermediate station stop for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star. Great American Stations photo.

Only two other Amtrak trains in the national system have routes of a similar length to those of the Silver Meteor and Silver Star: the Crescent operating between New York Pennsylvania Station and New Orleans via Atlanta and Birmingham and the Coast Starlight, operating between Los Angeles and Seattle via Sacramento, Oakland and Portland, Oregon. The Meteor, Star, Crescent and Starlight routes are all approximately 1,300 miles in length and include one overnight on the train for terminal to terminal travel.

With the exception of new seating and paint. the interior of Amtrak’s Savannah station is much as it was when opened in 1962. The building inside and out has been well-maintained through the decades and in pre-pandemic 2019 hosted 56,220 passengers. Wikipedia photo.

In 2019 the Crescent had 291,820 passengers and the Coast Starlight had 421,191 passengers. South of Lynchburg, Virginia there are no companion or secondary trains on the Crescent’s route; only the single daily departure with inconvenient departure and arrival times in major cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is also served by the Carolinian, Charlotte-Raleigh-Richmond-New York Pennsylvania Station service sponsored by the State of North Carolina. Additionally, North Carolina provides Piedmont Service between Charlotte and Raleigh, but, as with the Carolinian, only provides single-station connecting service to the Crescent and no parallel route service. The Carolinian, similar to the Palmetto, is a secondary train running 13 hours with no diner or sleeping car service. As a result, because of lack of travel choices other than at Charlotte, the Crescent carries only 76% of the passenger load the Silver Star carries.

The northbound Crescent in 2012 at Amtrak’s Atlanta, Georgia Peachtree station. The station was originally built in 1918 as a suburban/commuter rail station by the Southern Railway, but is the only intercity passenger rail station extant in Atlanta. All of the former intercity railroad stations in downtown Atlanta were demolished for various reasons by the early 1970s. Before the introduction of Viewliner consists in the late 1990s, it was common for the Crescent to be a 20 car train with three F-40 locomotives. Some sleeping cars were cut off the southbound Crescent in the morning and added to the northbound Crescent in the evening and serviced during the day in Atlanta to meet passenger demand north of Atlanta. In 2019 the Crescent had 68,112 passengers use the station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Coast Starlight, a highly popular route for the scenery and the “train as a destination” versus providing basic transportation does better because between Los Angeles Union Passenger Station and San Luis Obispo the route is part of the multiple Pacific Surfliners route and in the San Francisco Bay area/San Jose intersects with the Caltrain route, as well as from San Jose to Sacramento follows the route of the Capitol Corridor trains with multiple connections and has multiple connections with the San Joaquin service trains. From Sacramento to Emeryville, the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr share stations. On the north end, the Starlight follows the route of the Pacific Northwest Cascades service from Eugene-Springfied, Oregon into Seattle.

A 2011 photograph of the southbound Coast Startlight at Horseshoe Curve just north of San Luis Obispo, California. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Back in pre-Amtrak times, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the one-time monster railroad of California and the West operated a secondary, companion train to the Chicago – Los Angeles Golden State streamliner in conjunction with the Rock Island Railroad. The Imperial was not a streamliner, it was a heavy-weight train that also carried mail and express head-end business. Towards the inglorious end of its career in the 1960s, the Imperial even became a mixed-freight train.

Vintage photo of the Rock Island/Southern Pacific Golden State, the premier train of Los Angeles-El Paso-Memphis-Chicago route. The Golden State followed the Southern Pacific’s fabled Sunset Route between Los Angeles and El Paso. Internet photo.

In its heyday, the Imperial was a full service train with a lounge car and diner, but, despite its name, there was nothing regal about it. The Imperial was simply a secondary train that was more of a workhorse than a thoroughbred. It’s name was derived from California’s Imperial Valley, which it served.

Like many secondary trains, the Imperial carried heavy front-end business in the form of mail, baggage and express cars as shown in this vintage photo. At one point as it was downgraded towards the end, it operated as a combined freight/passenger train. Internet photo.

Perhaps most fascinating about the Imperial was for part of its operating life, it used trackage that dipped from the United States down into Mexico. Heading west from Yuma, Arizona it went into Mexico for the two stops then returned to Calexico for a domestic run to its terminal.

The impressive El Paso Union Depot originally opened in 1906 and was beautifully renovated in 1982. Today the El Paso station serves Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and through-cars of the Texas Eagle. Originally the station was used by the Santa Fe Railway, the Southern Pacific Railroad, and both the Texas Pacific and Missouri Pacific Railroads and the National Railways of Mexico. El Paso was a major stop for both the Imperial and Golden State. The United States/Mexico international border is just a few city blocks away from the station. Wikipedia photo.
El Paso Union Station’s classic interior; it’s cool and inviting as opposed to the desert heat outside. Wikipedia photo.

The first origins of the Imperial began operations in 1931. Southern Pacific and Rock Island paused the train during World War II from 1942 to 1946. It began to have its route trimmed by 1958, and the end came in 1967.

From the July 1956 edition of The Official Guide of the Railways:

Imperial, Trains 39 and 40, Daily, Via Southern Pacific and Rock Island
Regularly assigned cars are air-conditioned

Lounge Car

Chicago – Tucumcari

El Paso – Los Angeles

Standard Sleepers

Chicago – Los Angeles (8 Sections, 5 Bedrooms)

Chicago – Los Angeles (6 Sections, 6 Bedrooms)


Chicago – Tucumcari

McAlester – Tucumcari

Hamburger Grill Lounge Car

El Paso – Los Angeles

Chair Cars

Chicago – Los Angeles

Memphis – Los Angeles

Pillow service available at nominal charge.

News Agent Service.

Tickets Honored – All classes.

The gap between El Paso, Texas and Tucumcari, New Mexico is about 330 miles. In both directions, the Imperial traveled between these two points overnight. No meal periods were without dining car service, and lounge car service would be typically closed during the transit time.

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