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The Panama Limited was an all-Pullman car train between Chicago, Illinois and New Orleans, Louisiana. For most of its history a St. Louis section operated between St. Louis, Missouri, and Carbondale, Illinois, where it connected to the main train.
The Panama Limited was always operated by the Illinois Central Railroad except for its last three years (1971–74) when it was operated by Amtrak. The train ran overnight between Chicago's Central Station, St. Louis Union Station and New Orleans Union Station (replaced in 1954 by the current New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal). At times it carried through sleepers for connections to Gulfport, Mississippi, Little Rock and Hot Springs, Arkansas and San Antonio, Texas.
The train began on February 4, 1911, replacing the Chicago and New Orleans Limited and was named in honor of the anticipated opening of the Panama Canal.
The first Panama Limited ran as train numbers 3 northbound and 4 southbound carrying sleepers, dining and lounge cars between Chicago and Memphis and adding coaches south of Memphis. In 1912 the train was replaced with an all-steel, all electric, all-Pullman consist, and on September 15, 1916 it got new steel cars again. The train became number 7 northbound and 8 southbound with the earlier numbers re-assigned to a slower companion, the Louisiane. The Panama's schedule dropped to 23 hours for the 921 miles, and the Illinois Central charged an extra fare.
The train was discontinued between 1932 and 1935 during the depression. On December 2, 1935 service resumed with upgraded, air-conditioned equipment on an 20 hour schedule, leaving each terminal at 1 PM CST. After 1935 it ran as Illinois Central train 5 southbound from Chicago and 6 northbound until 1971.
The Panama Limited was streamlined in 1942. The War Department allowed delivery of new lightweight equipment from Pullman-Standard because the train-sets were nearly completed. It was the last delivery of passenger equipment for any railroad until the end of World War II. The first diesel/electric-powered streamlined run of the Panama was on May 1, 1942 on an 18 hour schedule. For the duration of the War the Illinois Central dropped the extra fare. In June 1946 the schedule dropped to 17 hours; later the schedule was reduced to 16 hours, 30 minutes again with the extra fare.
The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its dining car service, with a first rate culinary staff and creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the 'Kings Dinner', on the menu for about $10 (other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4–$5). In 1952 the Illinois Central acquired several 2-unit 175-foot (53 m) dining cars from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad which it used on the Panama. With the Pennsylvania's Broadway Limited it was one of the last two "all-Pullman" trains in the United States.
In 1967 the Illinois Central combined the Panama with a coach-only train called the Magnolia Star. After 1970 the designation Magnolia Star was dropped from the timetable and Illinois Central discontinued the St. Louis section of the Panama Limited, replacing it with a connecting bus service between St. Louis and Carbondale.
The final day of operation of the Panama Limited by the Illinois Central Railroad was 30 April 1971. On May 1 Amtrak took over, retaining the City of New Orleans over the Panama Limited. This train made no connections with other trains at New Orleans or Chicago, so Amtrak moved the train to an overnight schedule on November 14, 1971 and revived the Panama Limited name.:94
Amtrak restored the City of New Orleans name, while retaining the overnight schedule, on February 1, 1981. Amtrak hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the eponymous song written by Steve Goodman and recorded in 1972 by Arlo Guthrie.:96
"The Panama Limited" song
A song immortalizing the train under its original name is credited to blues singer Bukka White, who recorded it in the 1930s. "The Panama Limited" was popularized by folk singer Tom Rush on his self-titled debut album in 1965 and was recorded later by folk musicians Mike Cross and Doug MacLeod. A British band of the late 1960s and early 1970s called itself Panama Limited Jug Band, later shortened to Panama Limited.
- Passenger train service on the Illinois Central Railroad
- "Some Classic Trains" by Arthur Dubin.[full citation needed]
- Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34705-X. OCLC 61499942.
- Ward, Thomas. "Bukka White: The Panama Limited". Allmusic. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- Eder, Bruce. "Tom Rush: Tom Rush". Allmusic. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
- "The Panama Limited". Allmusic. Retrieved 2011-11-06.
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