Southwest Chief

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Southwest Chief
Southwest Chief at Devil's Throne, New Mexico.jpg
Amtrak's Southwest Chief at Devil's Throne in New Mexico
Service typeLong-distance higher speed rail
LocaleMidwestern and Southwestern United States
PredecessorSuper Chief, El Capitan
First service1974
Current operator(s)Amtrak
Ridership1,006 daily
367,267 total (FY15)[1]
StartChicago, Illinois
EndLos Angeles, California
Distance travelled2,265 mi (3,645 km)
Average journey time43 hours, 15 minutes
Service frequencyDaily each way
Train number(s)3 (Chicago to Los Angeles) Westbound
4 (Los Angeles to Chicago) Eastbound
On-board services
Seating arrangementsAirline-style[vague] coach seating
Sleeping arrangementsSuperliner Roomette (2 beds)
Family Bedroom (4 beds)
Superliner Bedroom (2 beds)
Superliner Bedroom Suite (4 beds)
Superliner Accessible Bedroom (2 beds)
Catering facilitiesDining car
On-board café
Observation facilitiesSightseer Lounge Car
Baggage facilitiesChecked baggage (select stations)
Rolling stockP42 locomotives
Superliner cars
Track gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Operating speed90 mph (145 km/h) maximum
55 mph (89 km/h) average (including stops)
Track owner(s)BNSF Railway

The Southwest Chief (formerly the Southwest Limited and Super Chief) is a passenger train operated by Amtrak on a 2,265-mile (3,645 km) route through the Midwestern and Southwestern United States. It runs between Chicago, Illinois and Los Angeles, California, passing through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Amtrak bills the route as one of its most scenic, with views of the Painted Desert and the Red Cliffs of Sedona, as well as the plains of Iowa, Kansas and Colorado. According to Amtrak, it affords views that are not possible while traveling along interstate highways.

During fiscal year 2019, the Southwest Chief carried 338,180 passengers, increase 2.1 percent from FY 2018.[2] The route grossed $43,184,176 in revenue during FY 2018, a 3.8 percent decrease from FY 2017.[3] Amtrak had plans for replacing the route between Albuquerque, New Mexico and Dodge City, Kansas with bus service, but as of October 2018, these are shelved.


The Southwest Chief is the successor to the Super Chief, which, along with the Chief and El Capitan, were notable Chicago-Los Angeles trains operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Santa Fe inaugurated the Super Chief in 1936, and merged it with the El Capitan in 1958. The merged train was known as the Super Chief/El Capitan, but retained the train numbers used by the Super Chief, 17 westbound and 18 eastbound.

The Super Chief/El Capitan name was retained after Amtrak took over passenger rail service in 1971, but the El Capitan half was dropped in 1973. Then in March 1974, the Santa Fe forced Amtrak to discontinue using the Chief brand on its former trains because of a perceived decline in quality after the Amtrak takeover. The train was renamed the Southwest Limited. After subsequent improvements, the Santa Fe allowed Amtrak to change its name to the Southwest Chief on October 28, 1984.

National Chief[edit]

Amtrak operated the Southwest Chief in conjunction with the Capitol Limited, a daily Washington-Chicago service, in 1997 and 1998. The two trains used the same Superliner equipment sets, and passengers traveling on both trains could remain aboard during the layover in Chicago. Originally announced in 1996, Amtrak planned to call this through service the "National Chief" with its own numbers (15/16), although the name and numbers were never used. Amtrak dropped the practice with the May 1998 timetable.[4][5][6]

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On October 2, 1979, the Southwest Limited derailed at Lawrence, Kansas. Of the 30 crew and 147 passengers on board, two people were killed and 69 were injured. The cause was excessive speed on a curve. Underlying causes were that the engineer was unfamiliar with the route, and that signage indicating the speed restriction had been removed during track repairs.[7]
  • On August 9, 1997, the eastbound Southwest Chief derailed about 5 miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona, when a bridge, its undergirding washed out by a flash flood, collapsed under the weight of the train, which was traveling close to 90 miles per hour. While the lead locomotive stayed on the track, the three trailing locomotives, nine passenger cars, and seven baggage and mail cars derailed. All stayed upright. Of the 325 passengers and crew aboard, 154 people were injured and none were killed.[8]
  • On October 16, 1999, the westbound Southwest Chief suffered a minor derailment near Ludlow, California, following the Hector Mine earthquake. All the cars stayed upright, and four passengers were injured.[9]
  • On March 14, 2016, the Southwest Chief derailed 3 miles (4.8 km) from Cimarron, Kansas. Of 14 crew and 128 passengers, 20 were injured. Investigators determined the train derailed after the tracks were knocked out of alignment by a runaway truck from a nearby farm operation. The vehicle had rolled down a hill and struck the tracks after the owners had failed to secure the parking brake.[10][11]


Boy Scouts unload their equipment at Raton in 2011.

Unique among all long-distance Superliner trains, the Southwest Chief is permitted to run up to a maximum of 90 mph (145 km/h) along significant portions of the route because of automatic train stop installed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Given Amtrak's projected 41-hour travel time,[12] the average speed is in excess of 55 mph (89 km/h), including stops.

During the spring and summer, Volunteer Rangers with the Trails and Rails program from the National Park Service travel onboard and provide a narrative between La Junta, Colorado, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Starting in May 2013, Volunteer Rangers with Trails and Rails will also be onboard providing a narrative between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri.

From June through August, the Southwest Chief is used by Boy Scouts traveling to and from Philmont Scout Ranch via the Raton station. During those months, Raton station is staffed by Amtrak employees and handles checked baggage.

This route was one of five studied for possible performance improvements by Amtrak in FY 2012.[13]

Kansas downgrade[edit]

No BNSF freight service is offered between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico, and the railroad informed Amtrak that all maintenance costs are to be paid by the passenger carrier if it wished to continue to use the route.[14] BNSF also declared it will maintain trackage between Hutchinson, Kansas, and La Junta, at a Class III (60 mph passenger train maximum) speed instead of Class IV (79 mph passenger train maximum).

BNSF offered to host the Southwest Chief over its Southern Transcon via Wichita and Wellington, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, and Clovis, New Mexico, once used by the San Francisco Chief. Amtrak sought help from the states involved to retain existing service on the train's historic route.[15] The states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico have since contributed money toward rebuilding the tracks and keeping the Chief on its current routing. Much of the funding for the rehabilitation projects has come from federal transportation grants.

In 2018, the Southwest Chief became the focal point of a struggle to determine whether to continue Amtrak as a national network or to operate regional stand-alone networks.[16]

The issue was provoked by Amtrak introducing new requirements for the third renewal grant and raising previously undiscussed technical issues regarding the midsection of the route.[17] A letter dated May 31, 2018, co-signed by 11 Senators condemned the action and urged providing the match.[18] Former Amtrak President and CEO Joseph H. Boardman in an open letter stated, "The Southwest Chief issue is the battleground whose outcome will determine the fate of American’s [sic] national interconnected rail passenger network."[16]

In June, Amtrak announced that it was considering the replacement of rail service along the Kansas portion of the Southwest Chief with Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach buses between Albuquerque and Dodge City, where train service east to Chicago would resume.[19] Senators in the affected area succeed in offering an amendment to a funding bill. Per a press release from the office of co-sponsor Senator Jerry Moran, "This amendment would provide resources for maintenance and safety improvements along the Southwest Chief route and would compel Amtrak to fulfill its promise of matching funding for the successful TIGER IX discretionary grant ... In addition, this amendment would effectively reverse Amtrak’s decision to substitute rail service with bus service over large segments of the route through FY2019."[20]


Sample consist
August 23, 2019
LocationRaton, New Mexico
  • GE P42DC #154
  • GE P42DC #189
  • Viewliner Baggage car #61049
  • Superliner II transition-dorm #39033
  • Superliner II Sleeping car # 32091 "Minnesota"
  • Superliner I Sleeping car # 32068 "Wind Cave"
  • Superliner I Dining car # 38004
  • Superliner I Sightseer Lounge # 33016
  • Superliner I Coach # 34004
  • Superliner I Coach-Baggage # 31007
  • Superliner I Coach-Baggage # 31012

A fourth Superliner coach may be added during peak travel periods. Sometimes, private cars or deadhead cars can be seen riding along, also.

Route changes[edit]

Southwest Limited dome car, 1974. Photo by Charles O'Rear.
Amtrak Eng. 69 on the Southwest Chief at Barstow, California in 1999

Until 1979, the train traversed a different route from Kansas City to Emporia. That year, it was rerouted via Topeka, Kansas, to replace Amtrak service lost with the discontinuance of the Texas Chief. The reroute allowed Amtrak to maintain service to the Kansas state capital of Topeka and to Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas.

Prior to 1996, the Southwest Chief operated between Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois, via Joliet, Streator, and Chillicothe on the ATSF's Chillicothe Subdivision. Following the merger of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe in 1996, BNSF constructed a connector track at Cameron, Illinois, allowing for freight and passenger trains to connect from the BN Mendota Subdivision to the Chillicothe Subdivision.[21] The Chief was rerouted on the old Burlington Northern through Naperville, Princeton, and Mendota to Galesburg, a route shared with the California Zephyr, Illinois Zephyr, and Carl Sandburg.

In January 1994, the Southwest Chief was rerouted between San Bernardino and Los Angeles onto the Santa Fe Third District via Fullerton and Riverside. Previously, it served Pasadena and Pomona via the Santa Fe Pasadena subdivision, until that route was closed to all through traffic following the damage to a bridge over the eastbound lanes of Interstate 210 in Arcadia during the Northridge Earthquake. This resulted from ATSF selling that segment to the Los Angeles Metro for use as a light rail corridor. The Los Angeles Metro Gold Line now uses that stretch of right-of-way. A section of the track still exists, although it terminates in Irwindale adjacent to Interstate 210.

There were plans to add service to Pueblo and connecting with the proposed Front Range regional rail service between Denver and Pueblo. It would have also run along former Colorado & Southern tracks through Walsenburg, reconnecting with its current alignment at Trinidad. A more recent plan is to run a section of the train to Colorado Springs, Colorado via Pueblo.[22]

Amtrak Southwest Chief (interactive map)

Commentary services[edit]

On certain days of the week, volunteer rangers with Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service, provide commentary for train passengers on the Southwest Chief between La Junta, Colorado, and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Programs take place only during the busy summer travel season, typically from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Talks presented cover such notable sites as Trinidad, the Purgatoire River, Raton Pass, and the Santa Fe Trail. The Trails and Rails program is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service, and is featured on other Amtrak trains across the country.

A second Trails and Rails program operated on the Southwest Chief from Chicago, Illinois, to La Plata, Missouri, between May 18, 2013 and July 19, 2015. It was co-sponsored by Texas A&M University and the nonprofit American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation in La Plata, Missouri. Volunteers presented two round-trip programs per week and covered such topics as the urban history of Chicago, the "breadbasket" areas of central Illinois, the Mississippi River, the Mormon National Historical Trail, and the rolling hills of Northeast Missouri. In July 2015, the National Park Service decided to end its partnership with the foundation, which had been providing most of the funding for the program. Docents went on to form the APRHF Rail Rangers, which provides similar services on private rail excursions and on the South Shore Line.

Current Amtrak Southwest Chief Subdivisions[edit]

From Chicago Illinois to Los Angeles California. The three (3) train is westbound, the four (4) train is eastbound. *Note, [BNSF] is the AAR reporting mark for the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad headquartered in Fort Worth Texas.

  • [BNSF Chicago Subdivision] Chicago Union Station to Aurora Illinois
  • [BNSF Mendota Subdivision] Aurora Illinois to Galesburg Illinois
  • [BNSF Ottumwa Subdivision] Galesburg Illinois to east of Cameron Illinois
  • [BNSF Cameron Connection] This is a 1.20 mile connector track, connecting the [BNSF Ottumwa Subdivision] and the [BNSF Chillicothe Subdivision] east of Cameron Illinois.
  • [BNSF Chillicothe Subdivision] Cameron Illinois to Fort Madison Iowa
  • [BNSF Marceline Subdivision] Fort Madison Iowa to Kansas City Missouri
  • [Kansas City Terminal Railway] This provides trackage for BNSF, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, and Amtrak through the Kansas City Metro Region.
  • [BNSF Emporia Subdivision] Kansas City Kansas through [BNSF Argentine Yard] to Shawnee Kansas
  • [BNSF Topeka Subdivision] Shawnee Kansas to Emporia Kansas
  • [BNSF Emporia Subdivision] From Peyton Street in Emporia Kansas to Saffordville Kansas
  • [BNSF La Junta Subdivision] Saffordville Kansas to Purgatoire River east of Las Animas Colorado
  • [BNSF Boise City Subdivision] Purgatoire River east of Las Animas Colorado to La Junta Colorado
  • [BNSF Raton Subdivision] La Junta Colorado to Las Vegas New Mexico
  • [BNSF Glorieta Subdivision] Las Vegas New Mexico to Belen Junction near Los Lunas New Mexico

From the below subdivisions, Amtrak's Southwest Chief will be on the [BNSF Southern Transcon]

  • [BNSF Gallup Subdivision] Belen Junction near Los Lunas New Mexico to Winslow Arizona
  • [BNSF Seligman Subdivision] Winslow Arizona to Needles California
  • [BNSF Needles Subdivision] Needles California to Barstow California [BNSF Barstow Rail Yard] is located on the north side of Barstow California.
  • [BNSF Cajon Subdivision] Barstow California to San Bernardino California
  • [BNSF San Bernardino Subdivision] San Bernardino California to Soto Street southeast of downtown Los Angeles California

From the above subdivision, the Southwest Chief will depart the [BNSF Southern Transcon] and begin its entrance into downtown Los Angeles. The [BNSF Southern Transcon] will turn south into the [Alameda Corridor] used by both BNSF and Union Pacific to the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

  • [BNSF River Subdivision] Soto Street, southeast of downtown Los Angeles California to Los Angeles California Union Station *Note, The Southwest Chief will travel over the Redondo Flyover when transitioning to this subdivision. This will take the Southwest Chief over the Los Angeles River east of downtown Los Angeles, and provide views of downtown Los Angeles California.

Current Cities and Towns Served by Amtrak Southwest Chief[edit]

  • [Illinois] Chicago's Union Station, Naperville, Mendota, Princeton, Galesburg
  • [Iowa] Fort Madison
  • [Missouri] La Plata, Kansas City
  • [Kansas] Lawrence, Topeka, Newton, Hutchinson, Dodge City, Garden City
  • [Colorado] Lamar, La Junta, Trinidad
  • [New Mexico] Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy, Albuquerque, Gallup
  • [Arizona] Winslow, Flagstaff, Kingman
  • [California] Needles, Barstow, Victorville, San Bernardino, Riverside, Fullerton, Los Angeles


  1. ^ "Amtrak FY15 Ridership & Revenue" (PDF). Amtrak. November 5, 2015. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 1, 2016. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". November 10, 1996. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved March 14, 2010.
  5. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 11, 1997. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved March 14, 2010.
  6. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 17, 1998. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved March 14, 2010.
  7. ^ "Derailment of Amtrak train No. 4 The Southwest Limited on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company Lawrence, Kansas October 2, 1979" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. April 29, 1980. Archived (PDF) from the original on February 17, 2017. Retrieved March 15, 2016.
  8. ^ Riccardi, Nicholas; Gorman, Tom (August 10, 1997). "Train From L.A. Derails in Arizona; 154 Injured". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Archived from the original on November 22, 2016. Retrieved November 22, 2016.
  9. ^ Dvorak, John (February 4, 2014). Earthquake Storms: An Unauthorized Biography of the San Andreas Fault. New York: Open Road Media. p. 264. ISBN 9781480447868. Archived from the original on November 22, 2016.
  10. ^ "Amtrak train derails in Kansas". BBC News Online. Archived from the original on March 15, 2016. Retrieved March 14, 2016.
  11. ^ ""Amtrak train derails near Cimarron". Dodge City Daily Globe. March 14, 2016. Archived from the original on June 3, 2018.
  12. ^ "Southwest Chief Schedule" (PDF). Amtrak. May 30, 2018. Retrieved June 3, 2018.
  13. ^ "PRIIA Section 210 FY12 Performance Improvement Plan" (PDF). Amtrak. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 19, 2016. Retrieved July 7, 2016.
  14. ^ Zimmermann, Karl (September 2, 2019). "Amtrak's Southwest Chief lives to ride the rails another day". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 3, 2019.
  15. ^ Fred W. Frailey, "Minus its backbone, Amtrak makes a tempting target," Trains, August 2010, 18.
  16. ^ a b Joseph A. Boardman, "Where is the public input? Where is the transparency?" Railway Age, May 10, 2018.
  17. ^ Jim Souby, "Amtrak gets big boost from Congress, grant from DOT, reviews long-distance trains," ColoRail Passenger, Issue 84, 2018, 5.
  18. ^ "We write to express our deep concern... "
  19. ^ Ben Kuebrich, "Amtrak May End Passenger Rail Service In West Kansas. Moran: “Amtrak Is Not Doing Its Job”", KCUR
  20. ^ Senate Approves Moran, Udall Amendment to Maintain Southwest Chief Train Services Senator Jerry Moran official website Aug. 1, 2018
  21. ^ "Galesburg to Streator". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved July 7, 2016.
  22. ^ "Senators land $225k to study adding Amtrak spur in Colorado Springs". KOAA News 5 Southern Colorado. Retrieved March 3, 2020.

External links[edit]

Route map:

KML is from Wikidata