Host Railroads: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern
Amtrak Operated: June 7, 1977 to May 11, 1997
Named for: Much of the route followed the Oregon Trail through Oregon and Idaho that was used by pioneers making their way west.
Pre-Amtrak History: Union Pacific operated the City of Portland between Chicago and Portland, Oregon. The City of Portland left Chicago as part of the “City of Everywhere” with cars for Portland, San Francisco, Denver and Los Angeles. The City of Portland diverged at Green River, Wyoming. There was no intercity rail passenger service between Portland and Salt Lake City on the eve of Amtrak, although UP Nos. 35 and 26 between Salt Lake City and Butte, Montana, used part of the route that Amtrak’s Pioneer would use.
Amtrak History: Amtrak did not pick up the City of Portland, much to the dismay of public officials in Idaho. Instead, Amtrak kept Burlington Northern’s Empire Builder, although under Amtrak it initially operated only between Chicago and Seattle.
After a route to Portland was not among the first experimental Amtrak routes launched in the middle 1970s, Idaho Senator Frank Church began applying political pressure. He contended that Amtrak was ignoring a 1975 mandate from Congress to begin an experimental route between Portland and Salt Lake City via Boise, Idaho.
Amtrak heard that and the Pioneer began service on June 7, 1977, as a three-car Amfleet train operating between Seattle and Salt Lake City. Although it ran overnight, it did not have sleeping car service. Amtrak President Paul Reistrup said sleepers would be assigned once Amtrak had enough sleeping cars that had been rewired for head-end power compatibility.
The route of the Pioneer passed through the Blue Mountains and ran for 150 miles along the south shore of the Columbia River. Most of the route used UP tracks with BN handling the train between Portland and Seattle.
The Pioneer was scheduled to connect at Ogden, Utah, with the Chicago-Oakland San Francisco Zephyr.
The assignment of Superliner equipment to the SFZ in summer 1980 paved the way for Chicago-Seattle through cars to be interchanged between the two trains.
A Chicago-Seattle through coach began on April 26, 1981, followed by a Chicago-Seattle sleeper on Oct. 31, 1982.
The San Francisco Zephyr was renamed the California Zephyr on April 24, 1983, and with the departures of July 15, 1983, from Chicago and Oakland began using the former Denver & Rio Grande Western route between Salt Lake City and Denver.
The Pioneer survived the massive route restructuring of 1979 because Oregon Congressman Robert Duncan, chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee, pushed an Amendment to the Amtrak Improvement Act of 1979 calling for regional balance in Amtrak’s route network. Duncan had been prepared to go along with a U.S. Department of Transportation recommendation that the Pioneer be discontinued because of low patronage and financial losses.
But after Duncan learned that Amtrak had capitulated in agreeing to save other “political trains,” he acted to save the Pioneer.
The Pioneer continued to lag behind the a Congressionally-mandated standard of 150 or more passenger miles to train miles, making it vulnerable to discontinuance. Its operation was reduced to tri-weekly on Jan. 12, 1986, but daily operation resumed on March 20.
The train resumed tri-weekly operation again on Oct. 26, 1986, but ran daily during the holiday period. Daily operation resumed on April 4, 1987.
Following a Congressional directive, Amtrak in 1990 studied separating the Pioneer and Desert Wind from the California Zephyr. All three trains were scheduled to arrive from their West Coast origins in Salt Lake City within a 40-minute window and if one was late they all would be late east of there.
Although a split of the three trains recommended in the Amtrak study was never implemented, the Pioneer began operating between Ogden and Denver on June 17, 1991, over the UP’s Overland Route once used by Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr.
Falling revenue resulted in the Pioneer becoming a tri-weekly train west of Denver on Nov. 4, 1993.
A 1996 budget squeeze prompted Amtrak to announce plans to end the Pioneer. But Congress gave the train a six-month reprieve during which Amtrak was to negotiate agreements with the states served to help fund the service.
No such agreements were reached and the Pioneer completed its last trips on May 11, 1997.