Southwest Chief

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Southwest Chief
Westbound Southwest Chief - Colorado.jpg
Southwest Chief heading west toward Trinidad, Colorado; Sangre de Cristo Range in the distance
Service type Inter-city rail, higher speed rail
Status Operating
Locale Western United States
First service 1974
Current operator(s) Amtrak
Ridership 972 daily
354,912 total (FY11)[1]
Start Chicago, Illinois
Stops 31
End Los Angeles, California
Distance travelled 2,265 mi (3,645 km)
Average journey time 42 hours, 15 minutes
Service frequency Daily each way
Train number(s) 3 (Chicago to Los Angeles)
4 (Los Angeles to Chicago)
On-board services
Class(es) Coach
Seating arrangements Airline-style coach seating
Sleeping arrangements Superliner Roomette (2 beds)
Family Bedroom (4 beds)
Superliner Bedroom (2 beds)
Superliner Bedroom Suite (4 beds)
Superliner Accessible Bedroom (2 beds)
Catering facilities Dining car
On-board café
Observation facilities Sightseer Lounge Car
Baggage facilities Checked baggage (select stations)
Rolling stock P42 locomotives
Superliner cars
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Operating speed 90 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 higher speed passenger train operated by Amtrak on a 2265-mile (3645 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.

During fiscal year 2014, the Southwest Chief carried a total of more than 352,000 passengers, down 1.0 percent from FY 2013. The route earned a total of $44,361,296 in revenue during FY 2014, a 1.1 percent decrease from FY 2013.[1]


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 Super Chief name was retained after Amtrak took over passenger rail service in 1971. Then in March 1974, the Santa Fe forced Amtrak to drop the name 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 DC-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.[2][3][4]

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.[5]
  • On March 14, 2016, the Southwest Chief derailed 3 miles (4.8 km) from Cimarron, Kansas. Of the fourteen crew and 128 passengers on board, twenty were injured.[6][7]


Boy scouts unload their equipment at Raton in 2011.

The train currently consists of two P42 locomotives, one baggage car, one Superliner transition sleeping car, two Superliner sleeping cars, a Superliner dining car, a Superliner lounge car, and three Superliner coach cars (one of which is usually a coach-baggage car). A fourth Superliner coach may be added during peak travel periods.

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 Santa Fe railroad.[8] Given Amtrak's projected 41-hour travel time, the average speed is in excess of 55 mph (including stops). However, the train will be rerouted off the section where it reaches 90 mph so it can serve Pueblo, Colorado.

During the spring and summer months, Volunteer Rangers with the Trails & 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 & Rails will also be onboard providing a narrative between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri.

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

This route was one of five studied for possible performance improvements by Amtrak in FY 2012.[9]

Kansas downgrade[edit]

There is currently no BNSF freight service between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico. BNSF subsequently informed Amtrak that all maintenance costs are to be paid by the passenger carrier if it wished to continue utilizing the route. 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 routes via Wichita and Wellington, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, and Clovis, New Mexico. Amtrak sought help from the states involved to retain service as it currently is.[10]

Route changes and current route description[edit]

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

Route changes[edit]

Until 1979, the train went on a different route from Kansas City to Emporia. It was rerouted via Lawrence and Topeka, likely because Kansas wanted Amtrak to have access to the state capital.

Prior to 1996, the Southwest Chief operated on a different alignment between Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois, operating via Joliet, Streator and Chilicothe on the ATSF's Chilicothe Subdivision due to the lack of a connecting track between the Burlington Northern route used by the California Zephyr between Chicago and Galesburg and the Chilicothe Subdivision that the train takes to Fort Madison, Iowa. Following the merger of the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe in 1996, a connecting track was installed at Cameron, Illinois in order to allow both freight and passenger trains to connect from the Mendota Subdvision to the Chilicothe subdivision[11] and the Chief was rerouted through Naperville, Princeton, and Mendota out to Galesburg.

In early 1994, near its western terminus, the train 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 Line, until that route was closed to all through-traffic. This is likely because the 1994 Northridge earthquake weakened the bridge in Arcadia. The bridge has recently been rebuilt for the Gold Line Foothill Extension. The Los Angeles Metro Gold Line now utilizes that stretch of right-of-way.

Current route description[edit]

Amtrak's Southwest Chief[12] departs Los Angeles Union Station in downtown LA at 6:15 p.m. (Pacific Time), making its way through suburban Fullerton, Riverside, and San Bernardino, California. After climbing through Cajon Pass, the train enters the Mojave Desert and stops in Victorville, Barstow and Needles, California. The Southwest Chief then crosses Arizona with stops in Kingman, Williams Junction, Flagstaff and Winslow. Entering New Mexico around 8:00 a.m. (Mountain Time), the train stops briefly in Gallup before crossing the Rio Grande and entering Albuquerque for an extended stop. The rest of the afternoon is spent traversing NE New Mexico's highlands with stops in Lamy, Las Vegas, and Raton. The train then crosses Glorieta Pass and Raton Pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on a very scenic route which includes some of the last semaphore signals in use on American mainline railroads, and then stopping in Trinidad, Colorado. East of there the Southwest Chief is on the open plains, and has a handful of stops (notably La Junta, Colorado and Topeka, Kansas) before reaching Kansas City, Missouri early the next morning. After a long stop in Kansas City the train stops once more in Missouri, at La Plata, and at Fort Madison, Iowa. Crossing the Mississippi River before Noon (Central Time), the Southwest Chief stops at the Illinois rail towns of Galesburg, Princeton, and Mendota. The final leg of the trip goes through the ex-urbs and suburbs of Chicago, such as Naperville, Illinois. The train arrives at Chicago Union Station at 3:15 p.m. (Central Time), offering views of the Chicago skyline, including the famed Willis Tower (previously known as the Sears Tower) before heading underground to the station platform.

The westbound Southwest Chief (train #3) departs from Chicago Union Station at 3:00 p.m., arriving in Los Angeles at 8:15 am around 43 hours later.

Amtrak Southwest Chief (interactive map)

Trails, rails, and APRHF Rail Rangers programs[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 Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most programs take place only during the busy summer travel season. Talks presented cover such sites as Trinidad, the Purgatorie River, Raton Pass, and Apache Canyon. The Trails & Rails program is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service, and is featured on various trains across the country.

A second Trails & 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 non-profit American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) 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 APRHF, which had been providing most of the funding for the program. Despite volunteers no longer being on the eastern section of the train, a copy of the reference manual is available still for passenger at Outside The Rails. The APRHF has since launched its Rail Rangers program, which continues to provide a similar service on private railroad car excursions across the Midwestern United States.


  1. ^ a b "Amtrak Ridership Rolls Up Best-Ever Records" (PDF). Amtrak. 13 October 2011. Retrieved 7 February 2012. 
  2. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". November 10, 1996. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  3. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 11, 1997. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  4. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 17, 1998. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  5. ^ "Derailment of Amtrack 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. Retrieved 15 March 2016. 
  6. ^ "Amtrak train derails in Kansas". BBC News Online. Retrieved March 14, 2016. 
  7. ^ "Amtrak train derails near Cimarron". Dodge City Daily Globe. March 14, 2016. Retrieved March 15, 2016. 
  8. ^ "Train & Bus Tickets - National Railroad - USA & Canada". Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  9. ^ "PRIIA Section 210 FY12 Performance Improvement Plan" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  10. ^ Fred W. Frailey, "Minus its backbone, Amtrak makes a tempting target," Trains, August 2010, 18.
  11. ^ "Galesburg to Streator". Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  12. ^ "Southwest Chief Timetable, effective October 18, 2010" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-07. 

External links[edit]

Route map: Bing / Google