Who Killed the Super Chief? April 13th, 1999
by Garl Latham
If I may, please allow me to delve into this subject of ‘trains and names.’
This may not be taken by all as the definitive word on the issue, but it’s coming from someone who: 1) rode the “Super” before and after Amtrak’s birth; 2) has traveled on its lineal descendants; 3) makes a concerted effort to study in detail ALL available subject matter relating to that train and its operations; 4) describes the journey with his Father on # 17 as the “ultimate train trip,” against which all others are compared (and who still commemorates that event’s anniversary every year); and, 5) has spoken personally to many a Santa Fe alum over the years, including Mr. John Reed (on more than one occasion) about the service – covering (among other things) this very topic.Before you might ask: yes, I have considered writing a book! It is a daunting task, but I’ve done a great deal of work toward that goal. It is just SUCH a personal thing to me! This might sound a bit “weird” (although I’m sure many of you can understand), but its emotionally draining to call these things to mind! What I HAVE been able to do over the years is to provide others with historical information necessary to complete projects related to the “Super“. One of the nicest was the BRIO Wooden Railway System “Santa Fe Train” (catalogue number 33423) which was officially introduced throughout the U.S. market in 1994. It was the first North American prototype that the Swedish company had ever attempted. I wrote an informational insert that was included in every package sold for the first couple of years.
But, enough of this. I only want to point out a few reasons why I have a personal and professional interest in ‘my’ train.
In a way, both Warren and Carleton were right in their approach to the question. But further explanation is necessary, and I certainly must go on record as defending my original statement about Amtrak being the entity solely responsible for killing the “Super“.
It is fairly common knowledge that the Santa Fe suffered a great deal in their struggle with the very concept of joining Amtrak. From the fact that their image was inexorably tied to passenger service, to a certain trepidation related to a private agency operating their trains over Santa Fe rails, “Uncle John” really didn’t want to sell out. The primary reason they did, interestingly enough, wasn’t because passenger trains had no future, or their equipment would need to be replaced, or any of the other excuses you hear. Those were valid concerns, to be sure. But the main reason given by Mr. Reed was the fear that, with the U.S. ever more becoming a litigious society, one bad derailment could literally put the Santa Fe’s future in jeopardy. The line could eventually go out of business due to passenger claims!
So, join they did. In the negotiations with N.R.P.C., the Santa Fe indeed gave permission to Amtrak for the use of historical names, only to reserve the ultimate right to remove that consent when and if Amtrak’s level of service ever failed to “reflect credit on the Santa Fe”. Basic to the idea in Santa Fe’s mind was the assumption that Amtrak would maintain all of “The CHIEF Way” amenities their passengers had come to expect.
Upon the arrival of the last # 18 in Chicago on Sunday, May 2nd, 1971, the use of the name “Super Chief” ended, as far as the Santa Fe was concerned. Both in their listings in “The Official Guide” and on the timetables printed for their customers (excuse me, “Amtrak’s” customers), trains were shown by numbers only. For example, the on-board service travel brochure provided transcontinental passengers in the Summer of 1972 welcomed you aboard “Trains 3 and 4 between Chicago and Los Angeles”. Santa Fe marketed this operation as a “Chair Car and Sleeping Car Streamliner.” In small print at the bottom of the brochure’s cover, customers were informed that the service shown was “operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, under contract with the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.”
Now, even though all of that is true, it is also accurate that Santa Fe had indeed given Amtrak permission to use the names as a promotional device. [A side note: One of the first press releases from Railpax was that they intended to refer to ALL trains by numbers only - no names at all. It was the (presumed) public outcry against that decision that made the issue of name usage important.] Once the Railway gave that authorization, they became liable for its use – or misuse. Early on, the potential problems were mitigated by the fact that Amtrak didn’t know how to operate trains, much less have the personnel in place to do the work. Therefore, they relied upon the individual railroads to operate their ‘varnish’ for them. Santa Fe simply continued to do what they had always done, effectively contributing goods and services to the new-fangled company, making sure that the trains were run right! That is why, for instance, the Santa Fe took it upon themselves to print public timecards at all. Amtrak had no intention of publishing a “Welcome Aboard” brochure, and Santa Fe couldn’t imagine NOT providing such a service, so they printed one of their own.
As Amtrak became more active in their operations, taking station and on-board service personnel under their control and producing important changes in the traditional structure of things, the Santa Fe started finding themselves left out of critical decision-making processes and generally being looked upon as unimportant to the operation of “their own trains.” Of course, they weren’t their own trains anymore, which was one of the fears Santa Fe people had all along.
This was coming to bear concurrently with another important development. The “Energy Crisis,” with all of the havoc it created for our citizenry, became the salvation for Amtrak’s business, bringing with it millions of new found passengers. This dramatic, almost overnight increase in traffic gave rise to a desire in Amtrak to become “every man’s transportation.” They began to actively shy away from the idea of “First Class” offerings. The early days of Amtrak saw magazine advertisements bragging about the “gourmet delights” soon coming to their dining car operations. But, by the mid-70′s, the idea of “treating everyone the same” (which, needless to say, translates to the lowest common denominator) was in full swing. Amtrak on-board services were divided between “coach” and “sleeping car,” not “coach” and “first class”. [By the latter part of the 1970's, new on-board recruits were strictly PROHIBITED from using the terminology "First Class" for ANY reason. Trainers would say, "why, ALL of our passengers are first class!" totally ignoring logic and reality in the process. Call it an early attempt at "Political Correctness," even though that term had not yet been coined. I know about the prohibition first hand, because I hired out at the Chicago crew base in March 1979.] First class service was making the quasi-governmental agency very uncomfortable with the idea that they were – for any reason – in the business of segregating passengers.
Enter the “Super Chief/El Capitan.” Before Amtrak came along, these were marketed as two separate services. Operationally, they may have been one train during most of the year, but the “Super” was still a “Sleeping Car Streamliner” as far as public timetables were concerned. Any time business warranted, the trains would be separated into their individual entities, with the all-Chair Car Hi Level “El Capitan” receiving passengers on one Dearborn Station track and the all-Pullman “Super Chief” on another.
Even by the summer of 1972, Amtrak was breaking down the barrier separating the two trains. The Santa Fe had always shown the “Super” and “El Cap” in separate timetable columns, but Amtrak never had. Now it was allowing coach passengers into the first class section of the train, ostensibly “just to look around,” but not prohibiting them from ‘camping out,’ therefore giving tacit approval to their consuming services they had not paid for and were not entitled to. If anything was said about this, of course, it was simply because the complainant was “elitist.” [Another aside: This reminds me of the Paul Reistrup era, and the rumors that ran rampant for a while concerning his tendency to take a train trip dressed as a "hippie," and act accordingly, then write-up any employees who treated him differently from someone who dressed and acted like a Pullman passenger. Oh, well.] As the distinctions between the two trains were consciously being erased, it became apparent that – from a marketing standpoint – the use of two names was confusing to the average passenger (similar to the “George Washington” and “James Whitcomb Riley” combo, or the “Montrealer” and “Washingtonian“… made even harder to understand because both names referred to the same train at the same time). So, as was pointed out, effective with the new May (Summer) timetable release in 1973, the name “El Capitan” was quietly dropped, and the operation became just the “Super Chief,” coaches and all. If you look at an equipment listing from that era, the upper level of the Hi Level Lounge Car was still referred to as “the Top of the Cap,” which was a bit incongruous. This was the first time that coaches were permanently assigned to the “Super’s” consist. More importantly, it allowed Amtrak the operational flexibility to eliminate one (or more) of the non-revenue cars when traffic warranted. If your passengers were divided, then each group would need its own dining and lounge car set. If they were all ‘one big happy family,’ then it would be easy to blank the Pleasure Dome for a trip due to light sleeping car loads, or run everyone up to the Hi Level Diner for lunch. What one train, after all, needed two dining cars AND two full lounge cars?!
There comes the rub. We have already established the Santa Fe’s routine for handling holiday business: they would separate the train into its component parts. But if the trains had already been permanently combined by through the ‘discontinuance’ of El Capitan, extra crowds would not be most efficiently accommodated by creating one chair car train and another with sleeping cars only. That would simply reenforce the “first class/coach” differences Amtrak hated, anyway. So, in an effort to handle the summer crush business of 1974 that never really materialized, they proposed to run two sections of the “Super Chief” during the Summer season, with both trains operating with coaches AND sleeping cars…and with only one dining car/lounge car pair for each. As Carleton said, with the anticipated loads in place, an unacceptable situation would have been created. Passengers used to Santa Fe service standards wouldn’t have even recognized what the train had become.
So John Santa Fe played his ultimate trump card. There was no getting out of Amtrak by then, even if that had ever been an option. The only choice was to remove their rating of approval from the trains. Yes, Santa Fe required Amtrak to withdraw the name “Super Chief” from their timetable, discontinuing that traditional moniker from an earlier day. But the Santa Fe did not kill the “Super Chief“. The blood is not on their hands. That train was killed by the company that never understood what the Grand Manner of service was all about in the first place. It was destroyed by the entity which was created to “save” the trains and to make them “worth traveling again,” as it were. It was sacrificed in a misguided attempt to save money by reducing service amenities. It died a victim of what is today an all too familiar refrain: the adoption of politically correct behavioral standards. It was eliminated due to the actions of one group, and ONLY one. Amtrak killed the “Super Chief,” because THEY were the ones responsible for operating it in such a fashion as to require the Santa Fe to take the steps necessary to save the name from sacrilegious use.
As I’ve said on this list so often before, it may not have been possible to indefinitely maintain such a train. Today’s world – or as the Reader’s Digest would say, “Life in these United States” – may not have allowed it. But it’s still an eternal shame that an operation like the “Super Chief/El Capitan” was just handed to Amtrak, “here you go…here’s the best train IN THE WORLDâ€¦,” and they couldn’t keep it going. It was GIVEN TO THEM, and the bunglers RUINED it!
AMTRAK KILLED THE SUPER CHIEF! Nothing in railroad history supports any other possible conclusion.
Please thoughtfully consider what I’ve written.