Coast-to-coast passenger train

Ask Trains from the August 2015 issue
Amtrak’s westbound 'Sunset Limited' pauses for a station stop in Atmore, Ala., at sunrise in January 1995. It was the nation’s first and only transcontinental passenger train.
Bob Johnston
Q There were numerous named passenger trains that spanned distances beyond the reach of a single railroad, such as the California Zephyr between Chicago and Oakland, Calif., jointly operated by the Burlington, the Denver & Rio Grande, and the Western Pacific. It appears that the maximum distance any of these jointly operated trains ran was between Chicago and the West Coast. Was there ever a passenger train that operated all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast, and if not, why? – Scott Palmer, Colorado Springs, Colo.

A The Sunset Limited became the country’s first transcontinental train when Amtrak expanded the former Southern Pacific Los Angeles-New Orleans tri-weekly train to Miami in April 1993. The Sunset was cut back to the Orlando, Fla., area in 1996, however, because freight delays on Union Pacific and CSX Transportation hammered the train’s schedule. It then stopped running east of New Orleans following extensive damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. Although CSX immediately rebuilt its tracks and towns restored most stations along the route within several years, Amtrak continues to show service between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Fla., as “suspended.”

Prior to Amtrak’s debut in 1971, competing railroads terminating at Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans provided so many options that there was no need for a train across the continent. However, the lines did jointly establish transcontinental Pullman sleeping car routes through these cities. (The last such car was a New York-Los Angeles sleeper on the Crescent and Sunset through New Orleans, operated by Amtrak until 1985.) At Chicago, here trains to and from both coasts often arrived and departed from different stations, cross-country travelers were permitted to leave everything in their rooms while the cars were switched; the passengers transferred on a shuttle bus. – Bob Johnston
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