Route: Chicago-Denver-Salt Lake City-Las Vegas-Los Angeles
Host Railroads: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern
Amtrak Operated: October 28, 1979 to May 10, 1997
Named for: The desert country that the route passed through in Utah and California
Pre-Amtrak History: Union Pacific operated the City of Los Angeles/Challenger between Chicago and Los Angeles. It left Chicago on The Milwaukee Road as the “City of Everywhere” with through cars for Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; and Denver. The City of Los Angeles had a movie industry motif although the Little Nugget Lounge featured a wild west theme. A dining room in the dome section of the train seated 18 in booths while serving such delicacies as Nebraska corn-fed beef, Columbia River salmon and Utah mountain trout. The City of Los Angeles sought the high-end traveler in its sleepers whereas the Challenger catered to coach passengers. The two trains would operate as one during the off season, but by the time that Amtrak arrived separate seasonal operation had ended.
Amtrak History: Amtrak did not pick up the City of Los Angeles, electing instead to keep Santa Fe’s Super Chief/El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles.
In Amtrak’s early years, it offered service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on four occasions. None of these trains operated daily and one of them was funded in part by Vegas casinos. Equipment shortages ended some of these services. The last of these, which received funding from the state of Nevada, ended in early August 1976.
Nevada Senator Howard W. Cannon was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a proponent of an Amtrak route restructuring plan proposed in early 1979 by the U.S. Department of Transportation that would have ended the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Limited, which used the Santa Fe between its endpoints. Cannon favored a replacement train that would operate between Ogden, Utah, and Los Angeles, connecting in Ogden with the San Francisco Zephyr. The DOT recommendation mirrored the Amtrak operation that would later emerge as the Desert Wind.
The DOT restructuring was only adopted in part and the Southwest Limited escaped unscathed. But given Cannon’s position of overseeing Amtrak, the proposed Ogden-Las Vegas-LA train survived and began operations on Oct. 28, 1979, with Amfleet equipment and the Desert Wind name.
The Desert Wind did a good business between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A secondary market was travelers bound for Salt Lake City area ski resorts. As envisioned, the Desert Wind was scheduled to connect with the San Francisco Zephyr in Ogden but did not offer through cars. During the Las Vegas service stop, some passengers made a quick trip to a nearby casino.
The assignment of Superliner equipment to the Desert Wind on June 30, 1980, made it the second train to permanently receive that equipment and paved the way for Chicago-Los Angeles through cars to be interchanged with the San Francisco Zephyr.
A Chicago-Los Angeles through coach began on Oct. 26, 1980, followed by a Chicago-Los Angeles sleeper on April 25, 1982.
When Amtrak rerouted Nos. 5 and 6 via the Denver & Rio Grande Western in July 1983 the Desert Wind began interchanging its Chicago-Los Angeles through cars at Salt Lake City and no longer ran to Ogden.
Operation of the Desert Wind was reduced to tri-weekly on February 1, 1995, during an Amtrak budget squeeze. After operation of the California Zephyr was cut to quad-weekly operation on June 11, 1995, the Desert Wind became the Amtrak train operating between Chicago and Salt Lake City on days the California Zephyr did not operate.
The Desert Wind departed Chicago on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Amtrak wanted sought to discontinue the Desert Wind in November 1996, citing high operating costs, little mail and express revenue, and poor prospects for long-term growth and profit potential.
Congress approved enough money to keep the Desert Wind going for six months while Amtrak negotiated with the states served for funding. What Amtrak suggested was a Los Angeles-Las Vegas train using Talgo equipment and funded in part by the state of Nevada. Talks were also held with private and public partners for funding.
But no agreements were reached and the Desert Wind departed Los Angeles for the last time on May 8, 1997, and from Chicago two days later.