Endpoints: Chicago-Carbondale, Illinois
Numbers: 391, 392
Intermediate Stations: Homewood, Kankakee, Rantoul, Champaign, Mattoon, Effingham, Centralia. The Shawnee served Du Quoin between May 1 and November 14, 1971.
Host Railroad: Illinois Central Gulf (Illinois Central)
Amtrak Operated: May 1, 1971-January 12, 1986
Named for: An Indian tribe that inhabited southern Illinois.
Pre-Amtrak History: The Shawnee was the only Illinois Central Chicago-Carbondale “Mini Corridor” train that Amtrak wanted when it began operations in 1971. The Shawnee was the remnant of the Chicago-Jacksonville Seminole. Inaugurated November 15, 1909, as the Seminole Limited, it was the IC’s premier Chicago-Florida trains for several years. But in its later years the Seminole played second fiddle to the City of Miami and carried a lot of head-end traffic. The Seminole ceased operating south of Carbondale on June 3, 1969.
Amtrak History: The Shawnee was the first Amtrak train in the Midwest to depart on Amtrak’s inauguration day, May 1, 1971. For its first six months, the Shawnee ran on its previous IC schedule northward, departing Carbondale at 6 a.m. The southbound Shawnee was rescheduled to occupy the time slot of the discontinued Panama Limited, which had departed Chicago at 5 p.m.
Equipment in the early days was coaches, a food bar coach and a parlor car. Illinois Central coaches and food service cars remained in service through August 1871, but by summer’s end IC coaches were becoming scarce. Amtrak did not purchase any IC cars when it acquired more than 1,000 cars from the contract railroads in October 1971.
With the November 14, 1971, schedule change, the Shawnee began departing Chicago at midmorning and Carbondale in late afternoon. This schedule pattern remained largely intact until January 1986.
The Shawnee typically had a 6-car consist that swelled to 13 or more cars on weekends when college students returning home or visiting another campus surged aboard. Like most Amtrak trains, the Shawnee carried a colorful and varied array of equipment. In fall 1973, the Shawnee began operating with former Chicago & North Western bi-level coaches, still wearing the livery of their original owner. The train typically had three of the bi-levels, with two cars added on weekends. Also part of the consist was a single-level coack-snack diner or snack-baggage car.
Over the next few years, the equipment assignments of the Shawnee varied. Sometimes it had conventional equipment, sometimes it had the ex-C&NW bi-level coaches. On January 6, 1976, the Shawnee became the second Midwest corridor train to receive Amfleet equipment. It also helped break-in new Superliner coaches beginning in June 1979 and was the first train to host a revenue run of a Superliner dining car, albeit as a café car not a full-service diner.
During Amtrak’s early years the condition of the IC roadbed has begun to deteriorate precipitously and the Shawnee’s on-time performance plunged with it. By January 1973, the Shawnee was on time 6.5 percent of the time, the worst of any short-haul train in the Amtrak system. At the time, Amtrak considered a train on time if its arrival time was within five minutes of the published schedule. For 1973, the Shawnee on-time performance was 31.3 percent.
For its part, the Illinois Central Gulf – IC and the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio had merged on August 10, 1972 – contended that the lateness was largely caused by chronic breakdowns of Amtrak’s aging equipment, particularly the locomotives. Amtrak took ICG to arbitration and eventually won a ruling ordering ICG to rehabilitate its track.
There was some truth to the ICG claim about Amtrak equipment failures. One night shortly before Christmas in 1973, the northbound Shawnee arrived in Chicago 13.5 hours late due to locomotive failures and weather-related problems. Passengers complained about freezing coaches and grumpy conductors.
The northbound Shawnee struck an ICG freight head-on in Harvey near Markham Yard on October 12, 1979, killing an ICG engineer and head brakeman on the freight. Forty-four of the 250 aboard the Shawnee were injured. The accident occurred when a 21-year-old switchman prematurely threw a switch that diverted the Shawnee into the path of the southbound ICG intermodal train.
The switchman had been ordered to throw the switch after the passage of a passenger train. He saw a suburban train on a nearby track and erroneously concluded that it was the passenger train in question. The Amtrak P30 (No. 715) and the first of the five Superliner coaches turned over on their sides. The other cars remained upright.
The Shawnee escaped the discontinue battles of the 1970s that culminated in several routes and trains ending in October 1979. In 1984, a Tennessee legislator asked Amtrak for cost data about extending the Shawnee to Memphis, but nothing came of it.
However, the Shawnee did not survive an 11 percent cut to Amtrak’s budget imposed in January 1986 that prompted the discontinuance of the Shawnee. The Illinois Department of Transportation agreed to fund a replacement train. Effective January 12, the Illini began operating between Chicago and Carbondale, following the schedule of the previous southbound Illini and the previous northbound Shawnee. Both had operated in late afternoon, so this operation required two equipment sets. The Illini also took on the Shawnee’s operating numbers.
IDOT Secretary Kirk Brown characterized the changes as saving the strongest legs of the Illini and Shawnee while eliminating the weakest. Patronage of the northbound Illini has been harmed when the train was rescheduled to operate behind the City of New Orleans, which many Champaign-Urbana residents chose to ride to Chicago rather than the Illini. Ridership on the northbound Shawnee had been strong.