Endpoints: Chicago-Los Angeles
Numbers: 3 and 4
Host Railroad: Santa Fe
Amtrak Operated: May 19, 1974 to October 27, 1984
Named for: The southwestern region of the United States that the train served
Pre-Amtrak History: The train and route are descendants of Santa Fe trains between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Amtrak History: The Southwest Limited name was given to Chicago-Los Angeles Nos. 3 and 4 after the Santa Fe revoked Amtrak’s permission to use “Chief” names that had long been associated with AT&SF passenger trains.
The name indicated the region of the country served. The term “Limited” was commonly associated with American passenger trains.
The Southwest Limited still had a strong Santa Fe flavor with its ex-AT&SF Hi-Level coaches, diners and lounges along with single-level sleeping cars. A typical consist during the mid-1970s was 15 to 18 cars in the summer. By 1975, the consist had shrunk to 15 to 16 cars with as few as two Hi-Level coaches and two sleepers.
By 1980, the Southwest Limited had a usual consist of 10 cars, including three coaches, three sleepers and a Hi-Level diner-lounge. Two coaches and a sleeper were added during peak travel periods. Dome cars had vanished from the consists.
Trains were pulled by two and sometimes three SDP40F locomotives. Although the burly SDP40Fs had drawn scorn from other railroads, Santa Fe never had issues with them.
The Southwest Limited began to be assigned Superliner equipment in late October 1980. It was the last Chicago-based train to operate with steam-heated passenger cars. Even after the assignment of Superliner equipment was completed a month later, the Southwest Limited continued to have Hi-Level coaches that been modified to be compatible with Superliner equipment and head-end power.
The Southwest Limited was the subject of a few route restructuring proposals in the late 1970s. One would have extended the Southwest Limited from Los Angeles to San Francisco in response to ending the San Francisco Zephyr.
A 1978 U.S. Department of Transportation preliminary plan called for creating a Denver section of the Southwest Limited that would have diverged at La Junta, Colorado, and an Oakland section that would have diverged at Barstow, California. The San Francisco Zephyr would have been discontinued.
The 1979 final DOT recommendation called for ending the Southwest Limited, rerouting the San Francisco Zephyr onto Santa Fe between Chicago and Kansas City, and creating a Los Angeles section of the Zephyr that would have diverged at Ogden, Utah.
The Southwest Limited emerged from the restructuring intact, but in response to the discontinuance of the Chicago-Houston Lone Star, Nos. 3 and 4 were rerouted between Kansas City and Newton, Kansas, to operate via Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. The latter two cities had been served by the Lone Star whereas the Southwest Limited had operated via Olathe, Kansas.
The Southwest Limited was an attractive and well-kept train that offered above average meal service and comfortable accommodations. But the service quality that that Santa Fe had taken great pride in offering was a thing of the past.
As Santa Fe President John S. Reed had feared, Amtrak’s reduction of lounge and dining car capacity sometimes led to lines waiting to be seated in the diner.
Nos. 3 and 4 had taken on an Amtrak identify that was far more austere than what the Santa Fe once offered aboard the Super Chief or El Capitan.
The Superliner equipment that Amtrak assigned to the train in the early 1980s impressed Santa Fe management enough to persuade them to relent and allow Amtrak to use in part the venerable Santa Fe “Chief” name.
The Southwest Limited proved to be a bridge spanning the end of the Santa Fe era and the dawn of the Superliner era at Amtrak.
Unlike most railroads that joined Amtrak, the Santa Fe did so grudgingly. Whereas most railroads couldn’t hand over their passenger trains fast enough, the Santa Fe debated staying out of Amtrak. It might have done so had it been given a free hand in deciding which trains it could keep and which it would discontinue forthwith.
But the law creating Amtrak didn’t allow those terms so rather than face mounting losses through 1975, Santa Fe signed on.
Given the intense pride that Santa Fe continued to have in its passenger train tradition, it was inevitable that it would clash with an organization that saw passenger service through different eyes.
The Southwest Limited operated during the transition period in Santa Fe management from a generation that was emotionally vested in the railroad’s service history to another that viewed that tradition from further afield and less attachment.
Yet it was that new generation that ultimately agreed to allow Amtrak to honor the Santa Fe tradition in the name of its primary Chicago-Los Angeles train.
In that regard the Southwest Limited era served the interests of everyone involved quite well.