By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; January 28, 2021
A Tale of Two Cities –
Wabash/Union Pacific City of St. Louis and UP City of Kansas City
Part 1: Saint Louis and Westward Ho! Saint Louis to Kansas City aboard the Wabash, and then Norfolk & Western
Riding a Pullman from Saint Louis to the Pacific coast was no big deal. Through cars had been there for decades.
Pullmans originated in St. Louis Union Station then changed trains in Kansas City Union Station. Changes were effortless for Pullman passengers. Maybe not for coach passengers but certainly for people riding the cushions.
The Missouri Pacific, the Wabash, and – get this – even the Rock Island originated Pullman cars in St. Louis, then traded them to other trains and other railroads in Kansas City.
After WWII, the Union Pacific saw a market opportunity. Running a solid train of Pullmans and chair cars and full dining cars plus full lounges and uninterrupted baggage service? Maybe such service would appeal to passengers mesmerized by the speed demon trains of the late 1930s.
However convenient through Pullmans may have been, a solid train slashed connecting time for travelers increasingly expecting faster service. The UP accounting department certainly wasn’t upset about slashing switching costs, either.
Wabash and the UP had a long history of connecting services in Kansas City. Running an entire train from the Gateway City to the wide Pacific shores became very attractive to traffic managers on these two railroads. Additionally, the operating and maintenance of way departments weren’t opposed to having their employers throw some extra money at capital items needed to operate a fast, through train.
The Streamliner City of Saint Louis was born. It was UP’s first new train after WWII.
The initial consist included a mix of lightweight and extensively modernized heavyweight cars though lightweight equipment displaced the heavyweights throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, dome coaches and even dome lounge cars joined the consist. The Wabash even paid for its proportionate share of new Pullmans and dome coaches assigned exclusively to the newly named Domeliner City of Saint Louis, and painted to match the UP’s Armour yellow and gray scheme. It was a lovely sight.
Things went well into the early 1960s though construction of taxpayer-subsidized highways took its toll, especially on the St. Louis to Kansas City segment operated by the Wabash. Wabash gradually pruned its St. Louis to Kansas City service though the City of Saint Louis was mostly exempted from cutbacks. The sizable proportion of through passengers kept the cars occupied, and the schedule was convenient for many people.
By the time the U.S. Post Office Department pulled the mail contracts in 1967 – thanks in no small part by political contributions made by the aerobird operators – even the City was facing challenging times.
Norfolk & Western, which grasped control of the Wabash, was disinterested in what went on out west on passenger trains. N&W pulled the plug on through cars in 1968 so the Union Pacific renamed its train the City of Kansas City west of KC. The remaining N&W City of Saint Louis wasn’t a bad train but it didn’t remotely compare with the through train.
N&W assigned the yellow coaches to the St. Louis to Kansas City train. They were extraordinarily spacious and comfortable for a medium-distance train. Wabash’s domes were hijacked by N&W management for use on their eastern trains.
When I rode a few weeks before N&W killed the whole thing, there was a dining car steward wearing the traditional black suit but with a bright red vest. Waiters were highly professional and efficient. Chefs offered excellent meals prepared-to-order. It was obviously a Wabash operation, regardless of whether the N&W owned it or not.
Once aboard the train, there was far more evidence of Wabash than N&W. Trainmen wore their Wabash uniforms. Silver service in the dining car was entirely marked “Wabash.” Table linens were of high quality damask linen, with “Wabash” embroidered in the fabric. The train was immaculate.
N&W was represented only by their cheaply printed menus and, as a particular insult to Wabash employees, an ugly rubber stamp on the linens saying “N&W” using laundry ink which bled into adjacent threads.
Employees didn’t think much of the N&W. They were an eastern coal-hauler. They handled tonnage, and management’s perspective of things reflected this.
Wabash was a sprinter. They handled a lot of high-value freight which was time sensitive, notably auto parts. Kansas City hosted a Buick-Oldsmobile-Pontiac plant, a Chevrolet plant, and a Ford plant which was on the Wabash’s line. Additionally, both Chrysler and GM had plants in St. Louis. A lot of parts came out of Detroit and its environs. Not only the car companies but other freight customers liked “fast.” Wabash specialized in “fast.” Maybe not Santa Fe fast, but about as quick as you could reasonably run through the hills of north central Missouri.
Passenger trains were run the same way. Quick, on time, and magnificent customer service. That was the way of the Wabash.
To many, N&W was like entering a jackass in the Kentucky Derby. N&W later initiated its triple crown service, but not in the late 1960s. They appeared to be a bunch of hayseeds riding a log wagon with their legs dangling off the end.
So, the N&W City of St. Louis ended rather sadly, much to the regret of passengers and Wabash employees who tried to run a spit-polish operation right to the last.
End of the Domeliner City of Saint Louis was sort of a sad epitaph to a train – and a railroad which in its better days was anxious to compete with the big railroads. It was good while it lasted and lamented when it didn’t.