The Train of the Stars
The Santa Fe Super Chief was the epitome of luxury travel in its heyday. It was surpassed only by the "Orient Express" in lavishness and worldwide fame. It was the way to travel in the golden era, a moving 4-Star hotel and restaurant inhabited by movie stars, musicians, politicians, and other notables of that long past era of glamour and class.
But, sadly the Super Chief was born into an era that had already foreseen the benefits of alternative forms of travel. In many ways the Super Chief was conceived much in the same way a child is to parents trying to save a marriage, as a last ditch effort to fight an inevitable end.
In 1937 Santa Fe hoped that the first class service, glamour, and opulence of the train would attract passengers who might travel by the as of yet, fledgling and uncomfortable airlines, or across country by automobile or bus. The strategy did work, but passenger railway service continued to erode, even as Santa Fe introduced additional trains in the Super Chiefs shadow, and other railways developed luxury trains of their own.
One of the biggest detractors from Santa Fe passenger service was Route 66. The route which also traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles, meets up with the Santa Fe Super Chief tracks in New Mexico, and follows it very closely all the way to Los Angeles. Introduced as part of the US Route highways system in 1926. Route 66 was one of many paved cross country routes being built by the government to encourage commerce and cross country travel.
By 1926 and in the years to come automobiles where becoming more and more advanced, and Americans had a wide variety of vehicles to choose from. Matched with paved roads automobiles of the late 20's and early 30's could travel long distances easily and at higher rates of speed covering the 2000 miles from Chicago to LA in 3 days to a week.
Route 66 quickly became a favorite of drivers because the route left Chicago and the Midwest and headed Southwest to milder climates, through relatively flat terrain. This meant that Route 66 was for the most part, a year round East-West route. Meaning the route also attracted trucks, and buses as well. Route 66 coupled with the more modern cars of the era quickly became a competitor of the Santa Fe Railway. Automobile travel after all allowed people to travel at their own pace, stay where they want, and see things they want to. It also allowed them to do this in the comfort of there own automobiles, and considerably cheaper then train tickets.
Another option that Route 66 gave cross country travelers was bus. In the 1930's and 1940's bus travel didn't have the negative implications it does now. Look at movies like "It Happened One Night", and the song "We Fell in Love on a Grayhound Bus", as examples of the eras view of cross country bus travel. Bus travel was significantly cheaper then train travel, and gave passengers access to more towns along the way.
The future of both Route 66 and the Super Chief would soon be intertwined. By 1935 two years before the Super Chiefs development, and 9 years after US 66's development Douglas Aircraft would come out with the DC-3. The twin engine airliner wasn't the worlds first airliner, but it was the first to offer an airframe sturdy enough to fly longer, and in adverse conditions within reason, while keeping passengers comfortable. The sturdy airframe also gave that airlines more utility since the DC-3 could take on some of the more primitive runways at the time, allowing the airlines access to medium and small cities, and giving passengers more options.
By World War II the DC-3's legacy had spread into the next generation of four engine airliners. Douglas, as well as Boeing, Convair, Lockheed, and others where all building long range transport aircraft, not only to hopefully snag lucrative government contracts, but to help claim market share with the airlines after the war ended. By the late 1940's air travel became more prevalent then ever, and the airlines of that era became synanomous with the aircraft they used, TWA had is Constellations, and United its Stratoliners, and Pan Am its DC-6's.
But the railways lucked out breifly due to the fact that in the minds of most Americans air travel was either still unsafe and/or meant only for overseas travel. Trains like the Super Chief also benefited from the fact that domestic airline traffic was considered to lack the glamour and comfort of rail travel. In the film "North by Northwest", there id a scene that takes place on New York Centrals luxury liner the 20th Century Limited, in which Eva Marie Saints character Eve Kendall, mentions that she discussed rail versus air travel this with Cary Grant's character Roger Thornhill when she is questioned by police about her meeting with him in the dining car. Meaning such opinions about rail and air travel permiated pop culture even into the late 50's.
As challenging as the 1940's would be on railroad passenger operations, and to a lesser extent Route 66, the 50's would prove to be even harder on both. Aviation and a new Federal Highway act would both deal hard blows to the legendary pair before the decade was out.
In 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed, as part of the Eisenhower Interstate Commerce System. Eisenhower was a participant of General Pershings Army expidetion down the Lincoln Highway in 1919 and became aware of the value of paved roads in increasing military mobility. Not to mention President Eisenhower was as many returning vets where, impressed with the Autobahn system they saw in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during World War II. The large flat and straight sections of highway, without stops, and toll booths would in Eisenhowers mind as a former general, be of strategic military value in moving men and equipment accross country quickly. It also had the benefit of increasing interstate commerce with trucks, and moving people quickly and safely in buses and cars.
The Interstates where far superior to the US highway system in place already. Route 66 was getting a reputation for being dangerous as "Bloody 66" for accidents, and for being a bottle neck through some towns. Planned interstates such as I-40 wouldn't enter towns, and being flat and four lanes would greatly reduce accidents. One of the first sections of Interstate to be constructed would be I-44 in Missouri a section of interstate built to replace Route 66 in Missouri, and later Eastern Oklahoma all the way to Oklahoma City. For Route 66 it's future was becoming clear.
For Santa Fe and the Super Chief it meant road travel would cut even deeper into passenger operations. The super slab interstates where fast and could delivery cars and trucks anywhere in the nation quickly. Trucking in the world of interstates posed a major danger to Santa Fe's frieght operations. With the government awarding mail contracts to trucking companies, railways across the country began to panic, and it would soon be time to cut losses.
In 1958 passenger aviation was revolutionized once again when Boeing introduced the 707. The 707 ushered in a new era of commercial aviation, that is still with us to this day. The 707 replaced prop driven and first generation jet airliners that took 8 or more hours to go from Chicago to LA, with a trip of 4 or less hours at high altitude above turbulence, and near the speed of sound. Passenger aviation was now more comfortable and quicker then it had ever been.
The 707 was also able to sway public opinion on aviation thanks in part to pop culture embracing the "Jet Age" at that time. An era in which even cars where being made to look like jet fighters and spaceships, and Americans became obsessed with space flight, technology, and science fiction. People began to connect glamour with the "Jet Set", and train travel became outdated and slow in public opinion.
With only two weeks of vacation a year why would a family want to spend days of it on a train when they could reach there designation in a few hours? This also applied to the concept if driving across country, why waste 3 days driving down Route 66 when you could be there in 4 hours, and rent a car at the airport?
The 707 and its Lockheed, and Douglas clones soon to come, spelled certain doom for both Route 66 and the Super Chief.
2 Rivals, 1 Death
The 1960's bought more jet liners and more completed interstates. The railroads realizing they had to save themselves began to cut passenger operations, and/or merge with other railways. For Santa Fe the all sleeper Super Chief, would be combined with the all coach El Capitan. The combined train would operate as the Super Chief but its glamour days where gone. Movie stars traveled first class on commercial airlines or in first generation private jets. The glitz of places like Dearborn and Union Stations had been replaced with O'Hare, and LAX.
Initially the 60's where easy on Route 66 and bought very little change since the interstates where still under construction, but traffic slowly but surely began to decline. By the late 60's and early 70's this would change competely. I-44 would see sections completed in both Missouri and Oklahoma but the early to late 60's both detracting from, and even eating up sections of Route 66. I-40 would see construction starting in Oklahoma as early as 1959, and Texas as early as 1962. Sections completed in New Mexico by 1960, and many in Arizona by 1968, and various sections completed in California during the same time frame. In Illinois I-55 would eat up many parts of Route 66, by 1970.
The 70's saw the death of both Route 66 and the Super Chief. The jet age and interstates had taken their final toll on the geographically intermingled pair, and passengers dried up on the Santa Fe's passenger services, and traffic dried up through Route 66 towns.
On May 1st, 1971 Santa Fe turned the train over to Amtrak, ending the railways operation of the famous passenger train. By 1974 Santa Fe pulled the Super Chief name from Amtrak, placing the final nail in the coffin of what was once the epitome of style, glamour, and class known as The Super Chief, and ending an era. It would be 1984 before a Chief or Amtraks Southwest Chief would ride the rails again, having been known as the Southwest Limited between 1974 and 84. But the Super Chief and all of Santa Fe's famous passenger trains where now gone.
In the late 70's Santa Fe and many other railroads would struggle to survive and make thier freight operations competitive against interstate trucking. Santa Fe would survive and blossom with a "if you can't beat them, join them" philosophy. The railway would introduce a train known as the Super C, an all TOFC or Trailer on Flatcar train that rain between Chicago and LA. This train would be the first of the intermodal transports that would become highly lucrative in years to come.
But as 1984 saw the mere spark of the Chief's return the rails under Amtrak, it also saw the final end to Route 66. The last sections of the old Route would be decommissioned near Williams, Arizona. Decertifing Route 66 as a US Highway. In effect Route 66's death certificate had been signed.
1984 was a year of finality for US Route 66 and the Santa Fe Super Chief. Even though both would leave legacy's that to this day are remembered, commemorated, and loved that year would be that final goodbye for both.