Skip to main content

History of Named Passenger Trains in the US


With the vastness of this country passenger train travel was the best way to go. Roads were crude trails at best, Canals were only in the eastern part of the nation, and with the purchase of the Louisiana territory there were thousands of square miles that needed to be inhabited, worked, and to be productive for the country. Just 45 years after purchase, the rail head and reached the Mississippi River. It was from here more or less that the railroad started building over the new territory the wild wild West.

This blog is about the passenger trains that operate over many of the routes in this country East and West railroads such as the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, Pennsylvania, New York Central, and many more. My other blog History of Railroads in America space goes more in depth about the railroads themselves, and history they were part of. These are ongoing blogs, so please note there will the gaps and they will be filled in at a later date.

The Beginning

There were many trains operating in the eastern part of the United States, on may different railroads. Every railroad in the late 1800s to the 1900s, had passenger trains operating over their lines. Every town had a station, in the dark ages and I literally mean dark ages because there are no signals, trains used to have batons that a station master or agent would hand to one train and that trainer carry it to the next station. Then train two, operating in the other direction, would take that the time back to the first station. This is the way it was done before telegraphs were invented. If a second train was following in the same direction they had to wait for the baton and so it went for years. It's similar to runners in a relay race, second runner cannot take off before he gets baton from the first runner.Because of this there were many passenger trains operating at the time. As railroads consolidated and technology advanced people realized the railroads were not all that bad.

Major Passenger Trains by Region - East

In the East there were a few major trains that everybody knows:

New York Central – 20th Century LimitedNew YorkChicago

Pennsylvania RailroadBroadway Limited – New York – Chicago

These two trains, where the flagships of their two owners. They would race each other out of Chicago on a daily basis leaving within 5 min. of each other and pacing each other between Chicago and Englewood Illinois. Both of these railroads started in mid-1800s and so their Premier trains started operating in the 1890s. If you were somebody, at the time, and you needed to go from New York to Chicago,or reverse you would be on one of these two trains. They provided all services you can imagine, even a barber. The morning newspaper could be left by your door, and you would have a few different choices, the Chicago Daily News, New York Times and maybe a newspaper along the way.

The Broadway Limited was favored by the Hollywood crowd as they would travel between LA and New York. (with the Chief or Super Chief on the Santa Fe being the western favorite). One other item of note, is that contrary to popular belief the Pennsylvania's Broadway Limited was never named after Broadway in New York City, but was named for the mainline around Horseshoe curve in Altoona Pennsylvania.

The 20th Century Limited was New York Centrals answer to the Broadway. It had mostly the same amenities, and it had a water level route along Lake Erie through Cleveland Ohio, and Buffalo New York. It was created in 1902 in competition with at the time the Pennsylvania Railroad's Pennsylvania Special.

Other notable mentions between Chicago and East Coast on the Baltimore and Ohio was the Capitol Limited. There is a forth railroad that served Chicago from the east.

The Erie Railroad provided the Erie Limited in competition to New New York, however it didn't compare to the Pennsy or the Central, and always lagged behind. The Erie, was a late-comer to the mid-west's already hoppin' party. It had to be on the top of its game and provide the best service it could. The route wasn't the best as it had a route that seemed to avoid the major cities east of Chicago. The main line missed main population centers such as Pittsburgh and Buffalo, but went through Lima Ohio, home of Lima Locomotive Works.

Southern Cresent

Southern Cresent 140 miles from New Orleans

Southern Cresent 140 miles from New Orleans

Major Passenger Trains by Region-South

In the south, things were a bit different, there weren't many truly southern trains, as most of them came from the north, either New York a Washington DC or Chicago. The Southern'sCrescent between Washington DC and New Orleans, through Atlanta. The Silver Star andSilver Meteor operated over the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line. These trains were well patroned by the wealthy elderly from New York and Washington DC. The Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line merged and became the Seaboard Coast Line. With the merger, there are a few changes to the Silver Meteor and Silver Star as they were both part of the same railroad. There were many trains operated by the railroads that were not named, and were only a few cars long. However, they were the lifeline in the regions they served.

Amtrak still uses the the same names and still operates these trains as separate entities like the former railroads used to do all those years ago, providing two trains five times a week and one train on the weekends.

The most famous train from the north to the south must be the Illinois Central's City of New Orleans . It started operation in 1947 when it took over the Illinois Central's Creole in number and time slot. The Creole was a heavyweight steam powered train that took over 24 hours to go 921 miles. The City of New Orleans , did the same route and just under 16 hours, with brand-new lightweight cars and diesel locomotives. This train took over the Creoles train numbers of 1 and 2 and was Illinois Central's pride and joy. The southbound number one left Chicago at the same time of the old Creole schedule, and the northbound number 2's schedule was shifted to a morning Departure from New Orleans. This scheduling allowed for daily service with only two train-sets. Of all the trains that are well known, there is only a few that have songs written about them. But there is only one that everyone knows, weather or not you are a country fan, City of New Orleans, written by Steve Goodman in 1971 about the loss of the Illinois Central's Pride and Joy, and was recorded by big country names such as Willie Nelson, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and The Highwaymen,

Illinois Central just about had the best line from the North in Chicago to the South in New Orleans. There were a couple of other trains that ran the same route however they had to go over a few other lines, the Louisville & Nashville operated the Georgian and Hummingbird and their connection and Chicago was a Chicago & Eastern Illinois. The reason I'm adding this train into the section is to show that Illinois central do not have monopoly however they operated the most well-known trains between the Midwest and the South.

Scroll to Continue

Milwaukee Road Hiawatha

Milwaukee Afternoon Hiawatha leaving Chicago

Milwaukee Afternoon Hiawatha leaving Chicago

Major Passenger Trains by Region-Midwest

The Midwest hosted many named trains as each railroad operated more than one. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy had its fleet of Zephyrs, that radiated out from Chicago to Minneapolis, Oakland/San Francisco, Denver, and Kansas City. The California Zephyr is the most well known and operated from 1949 to 1969. The final runs departed their origin stations, exactly 20 years to the day of the inaugural runs in 1949.The Twin City Zephyrs ran along the Mississippi River for 300 miles to Minneapolis and Saint Paul. This train was originally the second and third zephyr train-sets # 9901 and 9902. The premier passenger train was the Denver Zephyr. It operated on a daily schedule leaving Chicago in the mid afternoon and arriving in Denver just after breakfast the next morning.

The route between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, was a hotly contested route between the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q), Chicago & Northwestern, and Milwaukee Road. The CB&Q as mentioned before, the Twin Cities Zephyrs them a two round trips daily, known as a morning and afternoon Twin Cities Zephyrs. The slogan for these trains because of the line they operated over, along Mississippi River "where the scenery smiles 300 miles". This is also the first train that was streamlined in the late 30s. The competition was still steam powered and heavyweights.In 1947, the Burlington reequipped the Twin Zephyrs, with new concepts including no less than five dome cars, four being coaches and one being the observation, at the end of the train.

The Chicago & North Western, operated a fleet of trains called the 400s. This name came about because the original 400's route with slightly over 400 miles between Chicago and Minneapolis by way of Milwaukee Wisconsin. As more 400s were put in the service in each gain names such as the Twin City 400 and Flambeau 400, some of the other 400s, Green Bay 400, Shoreline 400 and the City of Milwaukee 400. Chicago & Northwestern was third Twin Cities competition with the middle railroad being the Milwaukee Road.

The Milwaukee Road ran the Hiawatha service between Chicago, Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Like the Burlington, they operated two trains each way daily. The signature on all their long-distance passenger trains was Beavertail observation car. It provided best to you of any seat on the train.The Milwaukee upgraded their streamliners just before World War II. They didn't have scheduled or the scenery Burlington did, so amenities aboard the train had to be the draw. The even streamlined two Hudson type (4–6–4) steam locomotives to match the new streamlined cars that have been received.

A Midwest train that never set foot in Chicago, and was major since it was the only passenger train on its route was the Zephyr Rocket. Operated jointly between the Rock Island and Burlington Route between Minneapolis Minnesota and St. Louis Missouri. Rock Island handled the Zephyr Rocket Minneapolis in Burlington Iowa, and Burlington Route from there into St. Louis. The train had combined equipment from both railroads, trading off motive power and cars, often mixed in the same consist.

Western Pacific California Zephyr

Burlington, Denver Rio Grande and Western and Western Pacific operated the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland/San Francisco.

Burlington, Denver Rio Grande and Western and Western Pacific operated the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland/San Francisco.

Major Passenger Trains-West

This section will cover the long distance trains leaving Chicago going West. As well as the Southern Pacific Daylights , Cascade , and Lark . not all railroads reached Chicago, however the used lines of other railroads called friendly connections. The Union Pacific for example operated over the Milwaukee road until 1955, then the Chicago & Northwestern after 1955. The Great Northern and Northern Pacific operated over subsidiary Chicago Burlington and Quincy. I will highlight a number of the trains give a little bit of detail, however there are so much information that I cannot give everything here.

Chicago Burlington & Quincy ran the Twin Cities Zephyrs , Great Northern's Empire Builder , Great Northern's secondary Western Star , Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited , as well as Northern Pacific's Mainstreeter . The Western Star , and Mainstreeter were secondary and handled all the mail and stopped at most stations unlike the premiers which were almost on a limited schedule. All operating between Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Spokane Washington, Seattle and Portland, with connection in Spokane with the Spokane Portland and Seattle to Portland Oregon.The Empire Builder and the North Coast Limited both served the same origin and end points as well as two of the middle. however they served vastly different areas in between, the Empire Builder served the far northern regions of the country at any given point from Grand Forks North Dakota to Sandpoint Idaho the line is no further and 50 miles from the Canadian border. The line operates through mainly agricultural farmland with a smattering of towns every so often. In contrast, Northern Pacific operates through a little more populated area in southern Montana and through South Dakota. Although not known at the time, this would become part of the Powder River coal basin very wealthy area of the United States. The Northern Pacific used coal from a portion of this region for so locomotives called Rosebud coal. Now getting back to the passenger trains, the Empire Builder . boasted in the summertime three or four dome cars and one full-length dome car. The full-length dome was only operated by the Great Northern, Milwaukee, and Santa Fe railroads. The Builder also had a very nice café car called the "ranch car". This car was decorated in Western motif signify the area that the train ran through.

The Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited was also very spectacular train indeed. Although it did not have the full-length dome that its rival did, it had a tavern car similar to the ranch car on the Great Northern.The Northern Pacific was owned by James J Hill, it operated separately the supper Board of Directors, operating plan, and staff. The railroads combined forces to create Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway to build the line from Spokane Washington to Portland Oregon.

The Union Pacific operated the "Cities" trains. These trains included; City of Los Angeles , City of Portland ,City of Denver , City of San Francisco . These trains ran over the Chicago & Northwestern from Chicago to Omaha Nebraska, where they went to the Union Pacific for the trip to Salt Lake City, where the City of San Francisco went over the Southern Pacific San Francisco. The other three trains stayed on Union Pacific to their respective destinations. In 1955, Union Pacific changed agreements, so that the Chicago & Northwestern would no longer be forwarding their trains between Omaha and Chicago. The Milwaukee Road, took over this agreement of 1955 to 1971 the Union Pacific City Trains will operate over the Milwaukee Road. What is interesting to note, the normally agreement such as these could very well lead into mergers or takeovers of that railroad, but instead Milwaukee Road went into receivership in 1980 and was bought by the Canadian Pacific's US subsidiary SOO Line. And in 1995 the Union Pacific took over the Chicago & Northwestern to gain direct access to Chicago over asecond line.

The Southern Pacific had a fleet of trains operating between Los Angeles and Portland Oregon, and Los Angeles and New Orleans Louisiana. The Sunset Limited operating between Los Angeles and New Orleans is the oldest name train in North America. It started operations in 1894 and it has outlasted passenger service by private railroads, and even its owner the Southern Pacific. This train still operates today under the auspices of Amtrak 118 years later. The Southern Pacific also operated in cooperation with the Rock Island the Golden State starting in Chicago operating over the Rock Island to Tucamcari New Mexico and connected to the Southern Pacific to Los Angeles. This train was reincarnation of the Golden Rocket , the train that never was. Looking Northward, the Southern Pacific ran the famous Daylight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, starting in 1937 the stainless steel red and orange steam powered train, became one of the most famous trains in history. The train, known for its coastal run and its daylight schedule made it a very popular train indeed. Operating regularly with 15-18 cars long. Following the success of the Daylight, SP added a Shasta Daylight between Los Angeles and Portland over the Siskiyous and past Mount Shasta. This train would transfer passengers to a cost pool train that operated between Portland and Seattle, One noteworthy feature of the Daylights was they had a three piece dining car. The end cars were for diners, and the middle was kitchen car, it was also articulated, which made it the only such diners in operation in the US. The Cascade was a secondary train between San Francisco and Portland operating a longer scheduled stopping at more stations along the way. Southern Pacific's Lark was the overnight train between San Francisco and Portland and make connections with the pool service in Portland for Seattle.

The Milwaukee Road did not reach Pacific Coast and, Washington until 1909. By this time the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads had a strong hold on the freight business as well as passenger traffic between Minneapolis Minnesota and Seattle Washington. The Milwaukee Road operated the Olympian Hiawatha between Chicago and Seattle. The quality of the train was right up there with the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited. the Olympian Hiawatha have full dome like the Empire Builder also had Beavertail observation car that was unique to the Milwaukee Road. This train was also the only direct, over one line between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The Burlington Route forwarded the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited between Chicago and the Twin Cities. After 1956, when the Great Northern turned off electricity over Stevens Pass in the cascade Mountains Milwaukee road was the only railroad with electrically hauled passenger trains in the Pacific Northwest.

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad operated a fleet of stainless classics between Chicago and Los Angeles. The train everybody knows is the Chief, which moved out of Chicago for the first time in 1926, that was hardly the first train on Santa Fe between these two points. The California Limited started in 1892 providing service between Chicago and Southern California. Being steam powered and heavyweight this train took a number of days to cross the 2500 miles and over no less than four mountain ranges on its trip West. Santa Fe became known as the premier service between these two cities, rivaling the Southern Pacific and Rock Island's Golden State and Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, Chicago & Northwestern's City of Los Angeles. The Santa Fe was known for its high-speed running regularly reaching 90 mph, and occasionally 100mph.

"Dinner in the diner and nothing could be finer." wasn't always true. Before Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe, passengers on long distance trains would be allowed to have a meal at preset stations. The train would pull in and people with pour off off the train and into the canteen, next to the station. The station stops would be roughly about 20 min. for ordering serving and eating in the cafeteria type setting. Most of the time,there will be so many people on the train, there wasn't enough time for everybody to eat before the train was supposed to leave. And two trains were at the same canteen at one time, there was basically no hope for the people that were last in line.

Fred Harvey was a restaurateur was appalled by what he saw along the rail lines. He knew he could do better and he approached the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, offering to build restaurants that would serve elegant food but within the time frame that was allotted by the railroad. The bill many locations throughout the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe system and quite quickly became a great success. One of the secrets, waitresses. who became known as the Harvey girls. A Harvey girl had to meet certain requirements to get the job and by today's standards would be discrimination but here they are:1. Had the be young (18 to roughly 26) 2. Must be single, not even dating 3. Must a single their entire careers at Harvey House. If they wanted to date, or marry they would be let go. Harvey paid well and allowed women to be more independent, so is very common for young women to go work at Harvey Houses. There were many times when a Harvey girl would meet her future husband as he passed through on one of the Santa Fe's trains. Fred Harvey had no problem if a girl wanted to leave, but these were the rules well that she was to stay there.


Not particularly a railroad, but Pullman and passenger service go hand in hand. Just like Fred Harvey with dining cars, George Pullman was appalled by the way overnight travelers slept on wooden benches with merely a curtain for privacy. 1865 the first Pullman car operated on Abraham Lincoln's funeral train carrying Mrs. Lincoln from Washington to Springfield Illinois while she accompanied her husband's body. The first car named pioneer and was an immediate success, it was the after the national exposure of the funeral train the orders started pouring in for Pullman to build "Palace Cars" and advertised them as "luxury for the middle class". Pullman never sold any of his cars but instead leased them to the railroads. Pullman built different variations of the sleeping cars, but every one of them was a luxury hotel on wheels. The heavyweight cars were painted dark green with "Pullman" spelled-out on the train name board above the Windows. Pullman porters were black men dressed in crisp white uniforms and would take care of your every need, from that time you stepped on the train until you stepped off at the destination you were well taken care of. Each railroad had to pay for the lease of the cars as well as the porters.

George Pullman bought 14 acres in Calumet Illinois 14 miles South of Chicago. There he built the Pullman plant in next to it the town for its workers which included stores, schools, churches, a theater, and parks. This was to keep the workers happy and the unrest at a minimum. Unfortunately the last only so long because Pullman paid in script, script is a form of paper money that is only accepted at the company store, which meant the workers were pretty much slaves to the Pullman Company. There is no way to transfer script into currency to be used anywhere outside of the town. This led to the Pullman strike which weakened the company so much that it allowed the lawsuit which broke Pullman up completely. Fourteen different railroads bought Pullman and split the assets, mainly the sleeper cars that were in service at the time, and the employees became railroad employees.

In the mid-50s railroads were seeing how profitable Pullman was because he was a monopoly. So there's a class-action lawsuit against Pullman to force them to sell out and allow the railroads take over sleeping car duties. In the end, Pullman was divided between 15 different railroads in the Pullman Era ended. Sleeping car service was now in the hands of the railroads as they tried to keep up the Pullman class of service.

For more information visit

Eastbound Empire Builder Essex Montana is a typical Amtrak train in the west.

Eastbound Empire Builder Essex Montana is a typical Amtrak train in the west.

Passenger Trains Today

Since 1971 when Amtrak was formed by the US government to alleviate the freight railroads of their passenger service, and to keep passenger service from dying completely, there been many changes. As we sit here today and Amtrak is 41, they have made great strides to gain back the riding public. Amtrak was put together with locomotives and cars that were given to themby the railroads wanted to get out of the passenger business. These were run down cars and locomotives that had seen their better days. Also they had $200,000 in working capital. May 1, 1971 was the day across the nation that the first Amtrak trains rolled. In most cases they look different than the trains the left the day before under the freight railroads. For example, the Burlington Northern who is just one-year-old at the time operated the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited, much like its predecessors did before 1970. Amtrak thought it was better to run the Empire Builder over the Milwaukee Road to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Then go on to the former Great Northern to Spokane Washington and Was northern Pacific over the former Northern Pacific into Seattle.So no longer did the Empire Builder hug the Mississippi River for 300 miles. The rerouting however did add Milwaukee Wisconsin to schedule and allowed more populous city to be on its route. The Empire Builder also operated on the former Afternoon Hiawatha schedule. The first train out of Chicago had four Burlington Northern F units and the rainbow mix of CB & Q, GN, and NP cars.

Alas the rainbow years are long gone, however some changes have been made that allow for more truthful Empire Builder. First, the routing West of Minneapolis-St. Paul is 100% Great Northern, the linens are back along with some specialties in the dining car that James J Hill would've been proud of.

Two railroads did not choose to join Amtrak.the Denver and Rio Grande Western in the Southern Railway. By not choosing to join Amtrak in 1971, these railroads were required by law to operate passenger service or five years at which time they could be looked at again and have the option to choose to join Amtrak at that time. This changed the routing of the California Zephyr the Amtrak had brought back, and because of the change the Zephyr name was dropped and was known as the California Service. California Service went from Chicago to Denver over the Burlington Northern the North to Cheyenne and Salt Lake City over the Union Pacific. Where return to Western Pacific rails ports final leg into Oakland. The Rio Grande was required to operate a daily train between Denver and Salt Lake City to compensate. The strands called the Rio Grande Zephyr. In 1976 the Rio Grande chose to join Amtrak and so the California Service was rerouted over at original route and also renamed California Zephyr

Amtrak today has expanded to an extent, but it is interesting to note that when ever they seem to do an expansion, it is just bring back a train that used to operate before. The Heartland Flyer, is a recent startup through the state of Texas and Oklahoma however its roots go back to the Eagles Missouri Pacific. Every trend Amtrak operates as history they may all be silver by levels of red white and blue striping but if you dig deeper you'll see that the old trains are still running just in a new disguise. Amtrak is brought linens back and then car, meals specific to the train into the area which they roll through, and car attendance who were once black man hired by the Pullman Company staff the sleepers. Some extent taken Amtrak train just remember that we didn't have these trains history would just fade away.

Amtrak Service Map

Map of Amtrak Service

Map of Amtrak Service


Classic American Railroads – Mike Schafer – Motorbooks International – 1996

Classic American Streamliners – Mike Schafer and Joe Welch – MBI publishing – 1997

Books about Passenger Trains

© 2012 Clayton Hartford


Clayton Hartford (author) from Alger WA on May 25, 2012:

glockr-I just started the Southern Pacific section and just thought I'd let you know.

Clayton Hartford (author) from Alger WA on May 19, 2012:

Thanks for the comments, this is a work in progress. I am working east to west. With the East, South, Midwest and West being the regions. I am adding things daily. Please check back.

glockr on May 19, 2012:

I agree with Midnight Oil... more please:) Like SP's Daylight trains...

Midnight Oil from Isle of Man UK on May 19, 2012:

Interesting but a wee bit short...

Related Articles