U.S., Wabash, Union Pacific and Amtrak History: A Tale of Two Cities, Part Three

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; February 12, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities
Wabash/Union Pacific City of Saint Louis and UP City of Kansas City
Part 3: the Post Office: higher rates and slower service plus the end of Pullman

By the mid-1960s, even western long distance trains were suffering from the attack of their subsidized competitors. In late 1967, Railway Post Office cars were pulled from the trains, thanks in no small part from political campaign contributions awarded to aerobird friendly politicians. Additionally, rail service in the northeast was declining rapidly so RPOs were having trouble making connections. Mail was delayed.

Rather than to explore which corridors were operating efficiently, and which weren’t, the post office selected a one-size-fits-all strategy and killed the RPOs altogether. An assistant postmaster general who actually made the final decision then quit the post office and went to work for Braniff airlines along with a very hefty increase in compensation.

For a period of time, the Union Pacific and Wabash successor Norfolk & Western held things together, though not for long. 

The N&W leased the Wabash on October 16, 1964. Wabash’s managers kept things rolling as they should for a while. Unfortunately, N&W wasn’t that interested in passenger trains on the west end of its line. Dome cars on the City of Saint Louis were the first thing to leave.

In 1968, N&W pulled out of the through service agreement so passengers had to get off one train then get on another in Kansas City. That didn’t help business. First class passengers could ride in a coach between Kansas City and Saint Louis, then change to the Pullman in Kansas City Union Station.

Service on the N&W segment spiraled downward until early summer, 1969 when N&W killed the train altogether. Missouri Pacific offered service but for westbound passengers, connections at Kansas City were terrible. That didn’t help business, either.

So the UP created a new Streamliner City of Kansas City. Gone were the domes, but the City of Kansas City was actually a pretty good train. Westbound schedules were revised, offering more attractive departure times from Kansas City, and arrival times in Denver.

A lunch-counter diner was operated between Kansas City and Cheyenne where the City of Kansas City met the City of Everywhere, as the former City of LA, City of San Fran, and City of Portland became known, even if that name never appeared in print, at least not on Union Pacific stationery. There were through Pullmans and through coaches from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Nice cars, too.

The lunch-counter diner was surprisingly pleasant. There were four tables at the end of the car with full silver service, china in the “Streamliner” pattern, and linen tablecloths. A dining car steward oversaw service. You could sit at the lunch counter if you preferred, and a few people did who were there for drinks though you couldn’t drink much on westbound trains as you entered Kansas almost immediately after departing Kansas City Union Station. An announcement was often made that Kansas was a “dry” state and that if you wanted a beer or a spirited refreshment, you needed to get it before the train actually left the station. The Kansas line was only about a half minute west of Union Station so the rule was that when the train started moving, bar service was shut down.

Loss of good connections hurt, though. Eastbound, the City of Kansas City had a reasonably good connection with the Missouri Pacific’s Missouri River Eagle. Westbound, passengers would have to take an unnamed morning Missouri Pacific train to Kansas City then sit for several hours before the westbound City departed. Not surprisingly, revenue passenger miles declined precipitously.

Not long before Amtrak, the Union Pacific planned to leave Kansas City Union Station and terminate the City of Kansas City in freight yards. The Burlington Northern had succeeded in terminating its former American Royal Zephyr and an Omaha Zephyr in North Kansas City’s Murray Yard about a year before. Connections weren’t worth much to UP by that point and the cost of running into KC Union Station was high. Also, if you really wanted to exit the Kansas City passenger market, making a depot stop as hard to find as possible made perfect sense.

In late 1970, the Interstate Commerce Commission denied UP permission to stop the City of Kansas City in the freight yards on the basis that Railpax was coming in a few months. Things needed to be left intact until Washington bureaucrats could choose routes for survival and routes to terminate. Thus, the City of Kansas City continued service into Kansas City Union Station until the last.

Those last City of Kansas City trains were desirable by anyone’s standards. Full dining car service, even if on a lunch-counter diner. There was a dormitory lounge car for the dining car crew with a large lounge section. No attendant was assigned to the lounge, but then again, you could get what you wanted in the adjacent diner. Through Pullman service and through coach service was offered to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, even after the Pullman Company ceased operations. A full baggage car actually picked up some express freight business which contributed a little to operating revenues. The train was fast, rode smoothly and generally on-time unless harsh weather out west threw a wrench into things. Cars were immaculately maintained.

The Kansas City to Denver corridor wasn’t exactly swamped, but carried a decent clientele. After Railpax became Amtrak and restoration of discontinued services was discussed, the St. Louis/Kansas City/Topeka/Denver corridor was identified as a top priority, though after nearly a half century, one has to ask “what’s up with that?”

Depots between Kansas City and Denver were beautifully built so most have been turned into something else. The “Great Overland Station” in Topeka’s capitol city is particularly elegant. The depot is unusually large for a city the size of Topeka, though it should be noted that the Rock Island also used it for their westbound and southbound trains so traffic levels were high for many years. The surprising thing is that UP’s depot was easily twice as large as the one near downtown owned by the Santa Fe.

The same applies to the University of Kansas’ hometown of Lawrence where the sizeable UP depot was restored by the Lawrence Parks & Recreation Department. A French Flower Garden across from the depot is professionally manicured by the Parks Department. The depot and garden are used for civic events and are often rented for private weddings and parties.

The depot in Abilene, Kansas, boyhood home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and now host to his presidential museum and library is owned by the city and well maintained. 

The  spacious depot in Salina is still used by the UP so receives at least routine maintenance. 

Manhattan, Kansas is home to Kansas State University and the US Army’s Fort Riley. The depot has been well restored and is in use as the Flint Hills Discovery Center.

All is not lost and it sure would be nice if a passenger train ran on that line again. Tracks are in reasonably good condition. Most of the depots are still there. Kansas, are you ready to go?

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