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 2011, the Southwest Chief carried a total over 350,000 passengers, a 3.7% increase from FY 2010. The route earned a total of $44,184,060 in revenue during FY 2011, a 6.2 percent increase from FY 2010.
The Southwest Chief is the successor to the Super Chief, which, along with the Chief and El Capitan, were notable Chicago-Los Angeles trains that were operated by Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Super Chief name would be retained after Amtrak took over passenger rail service in 1971, until March 1974, when the Santa Fe forced Amtrak to drop the name because of a perceived decline in quality after Amtrak took over passenger service. The train would be renamed the Southwest Limited, and after subsequent improvements in service, the Santa Fe allowed Amtrak to change the train's name to the Southwest Chief on October 28, 1984.
During 1997 and part of 1998, Amtrak operated the Southwest Chief in conjunction with the Capitol Limited, a daily Washington-Chicago service. 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.
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. Given Amtrak's projected 41-hour travel time, the average speed is in excess of 55 mph (including stops).
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 the months of June, July and August, the Southwest Chief is used by thousands of 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.
In the January 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, this route was listed as one of five routes to be looked at by Amtrak in FY 2012 and examined like previous routes (Sunset, Eagle, Zephyr, Capitol, and Cardinal) were examined in FY 2010.
According to the August 2010 issue of Trains Magazine, the Southwest Chief faces some challenges regarding some moves made by BNSF to cease all freight operations between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico. It was reported that BNSF told Amtrak as of January 1, 2010, that all maintenance costs belonged to Amtrak if they wished to pursue routing the train over the same line. 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 a Class IV (79 mph passenger train maximum), again handing the bill over to Amtrak if they want to see service at a Class IV level. These moves have led BNSF to offer to host the Southwest Chief over BNSF's currently used freight routes via Wichita, Wellington, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, and Clovis, New Mexico; however, Amtrak has refused and insists they will pay in order to retain service as it currently is.
Route changes and current route description
Prior to 1996, the Southwest Chief operated on a different alignment between Chicago Union Station and Galesburg, Illinois via Joliet, Streator and Chilicothe on the Santa Fe’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  and the Chief was rerouted through Naperville, Princeton, and Mendota out to Galesburg.
In early 1994, near its western terminus, the train was rerouted onto the Santa Fe Third District via Fullerton and Riverside when previously it served Pasadena and Pomona via the Santa Fe Pasadena Line, until that route was closed to all through-traffic. The Los Angeles Metro Gold Line currently utilizes that stretch of right-of-way.
Current route description
Amtrak's Southwest Chief 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, Arizona. 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, New Mexico. The train then crosses Glorieta Pass and Raton Pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on a route which includes some of the last semaphore signals in use on American mainline railroads, and then stopping in Trinidad. 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.
Trails & Rails program
On certain days of the week, volunteer rangers with the National Park Service provide commentary for train passengers between Chicago, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri on the Southwest Chief. This interpretive program is free of charge for all passengers and is presented on the upper level of Amtrak's Sightseer Lounge Car. Volunteers tell passengers about the natural and historical features of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. This program typically takes place during two round-trips per week during the busy summer and winter holiday travel periods. Texas A&M University and the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation in La Plata, Missouri, serve as additional local sponsors. More information and a current schedule can be found at the link below: http://www.nps.gov/findapark/trailsandrails/index.htm.
- "Amtrak Ridership Rolls Up Best-Ever Records" (PDF). Amtrak. 13 October 2011. Retrieved 7 February 2012.
- "Amtrak National Timetable". November 10, 1996. Retrieved 2010-03-14.
- "Amtrak National Timetable". May 11, 1997. Retrieved 2010-03-14.
- "Amtrak National Timetable". May 17, 1998. Retrieved 2010-03-14.
- "Amtrak's Improvement Wish List", Trains, January 2011, 20-21.
- Fred W. Frailey, "Minus its backbone, Amtrak makes a tempting target," Trains, August 2010, 18.
- "Galesburg to Streator" retrieved July 24th, 2013 http://www.donwinter.com/Railroad%20Infrastructure%20and%20Traffic%20Data/Trunk%20Routes/Santa%20Fe%20Transcon/Route%20Descriptions/Galesburg%20to%20Streator.htm
- Southwest Chief Timetable, effective October 18, 2010
Route map: Bing