Super Chief/El Capitan

Endpoints: Chicago-Los Angeles

Numbers: 3 and 4

Host Railroad: Santa Fe

Amtrak Operated: May 1, 1971 to May 18, 1974

Named for: Santa Fe trains of the same names

Pre-Amtrak History: The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe had the only single-railroad route between Chicago and Los Angeles. For decades, the Santa Fe’s premier train between the two cities had been the Super Chief, an extra fare all-Pullman train known for excellent service. The El Capitan was an all-coach train that Santa Fe launched in the 1950s using bi-level cars that would serve as the model for Amtrak’s Superliner equipment.

The Super Chief and El Capitan were consolidated in 1958 with each having its own dining and lounge cars. During busy travel seasons through the middle 1960s, the trains ran independently. Santa Fe also operated two other Chicago-Los Angeles trains, the Chief and the Grand Canyon. The Chief was discontinued in May 1968 whereas the Grand Canyon continued to operate until the coming of Amtrak, although its name had by then been dropped.

Santa Fe trains were pulled by locomotives wearing a striking red, yellow, black and silver “warbonnet” livery designed to simulate an Indian chief’s headdress. The interiors of Santa Fe passenger trains sported a Native American theme that reflected the region of New Mexico and Arizona served by the trains.

Amtrak History: Amtrak kept the Super Chief/El Capitan for its Chicago-Los Angeles route because of its high patronage and service history. However, the Chicago terminus shifted from Dearborn Station to Union Station. The route operated via Albuquerque. Some Santa Fe trains had run via Amarillo, Texas.

In its early days under Amtrak, the Super Chief/El Capitan continued to use former Santa Fe passenger equipment almost exclusively. Amtrak retained such Santa Fe traditions as the Kachina Coffee Shop, Top of the Cap Lounge, Turquoise Room and the Hi-Level Penthouse diner.

Heavy patronage led Amtrak to operate for the summer of 1972 a second Chicago-Los Angeles train, The Chief. That decision did not sit well with Santa Fe management, which had suggested that Amtrak operate separate sections of the Super Chief and El Capitan.

As Amtrak slowly began dismantling many Santa Fe traditions, the railroad’s management became increasingly upset. Santa Fe President John S. Reed sometimes inspected Amtrak trains in Chicago that used his railroad and often didn’t like what he saw.

He disliked Amtrak’s purple and blue interiors, which he described as looking like a “French whorehouse.”

Amtrak ended such Santa Fe practices as a single class fare plus an accommodation charge, seat reservation charges and the checked baggage charge. Also discontinued were long-standing offerings as on-board nurses, stationery, post cards, meal coupons and rental car arrangements. Amtrak removed from service the Pleasure Dome, which housed the Turquoise Room, leaving the train with just one lounge car.

In the eyes of Reed and others at the Santa Fe, the Super Chief was becoming just another train. For its part, Amtrak management resented the meddling of Santa Fe managers.

After the El Capitan name was dropped from Amtrak timetables on April 29, 1973, relations between the railroad and Amtrak became testy. The Santa Fe slapped an 18-car limit behind the locomotives on the Super Chief. This stymied Amtrak’s plans to add another baggage car to increase mail revenue and to add another coach.

Amtrak President Roger Lewis considered dropping the Super Chief name but decided against it because of its marketing value.

In early 1974, Reed reviewed Amtrak’s plans to operate the Super Chief in two sections that summer. Reed was dismayed to find that neither section would have a first class diner or Pleasure Dome. He feared this would lead to long lines to get into the dining car and would service quality standards below the standards that Santa Fe has long provided.

Reed ordered Amtrak to cease using “Chief” names and on May 19, 1974, the Super Chief became the Southwest Limited and the Chicago-Houston Texas Chief became the Lone Star.

Before the renaming occurred, the Super Chief became the first Amtrak train to begin operating with SDP40F locomotives. The first Chief to be pulled by the new locomotives left Chicago Union Station on June 22, 1973.

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