Memories of an Amtrak National Chief that wasn't.
The Amtrak National Chief is a route name that was planned to be inaugurated in 1997 but was actually never implemented. That is, the name wasn't implemented, but the service was. The trains ran the route and service was provided starting in January of 1997 and was then discontinued on May 17, 1998. However, no new equipment was deployed, no actual new route was created, and no existing route was discontinued. Service on this route was available prior to January of 1997 and continued after May 17, 1998.
Sound confusing? Actually, all that really happened was that a decision was made to use the same equipment on the Capitol Limited as on the Southwest Chief. The Southwest Chief would run from Los Angeles to Chicago, sit in Chicago for about 8 hours, and then proceed on to Washington, DC as the Capitol Limited. The same would be done for the westward journey. Through passengers would be allowed to keep carry-on luggage at their seats and be allowed to remain on the train while it underwent cleaning and minor maintenance in the Chicago station.
Startup of this feature was a bit rocky. I traveled on this route three times during its brief existence. Although we were told upon arrival into Chicago that we would be allowed to leave and reboard the train whenever we wanted, that turned out to be a bit of an obstacle course on my first two trips. To reboard the train I had to make my way past several "Authorized Personnel Only" signs and then hunt down a door on the train that was not locked! Once I reboarded the train I was mis-identified by the Chief of Onboard Services as being one of the Sleeping Car Attendants! That might not have been so bad if I could have gotten a pay check out of it.
Another startup problem is that the Amtrak reservation system did not initially try very hard to give people the same Sleeping Car Room for the segment east of Chicago and the segment west of Chicago. Thus, the Car Attendants had to put up with a number of Sleeping Car passengers playing musical chairs before the train left Chicago. This almost defeated the advantage of it being a through train! As a matter of fact, on my first trip, my Car Attendant said that I was the first person he had ever met since the service was initiated that had the same room number in the same car for both trip segments! That was probably only because I often make my travel arrangements so far in advance that the computer had no difficulty finding the same room open for both trip segments.
Somewhere down the line they fixed that reservation problem so that the computer would work a bit smarter at trying to keep Sleeping Car passengers in the same room for both segments of their journey. I wonder if they have removed that logic now that the passengers can not stay in the train during their Chicago layover? If not, a lot of passengers are going to find themselves leaving and returning to the exact same room in the train in Chicago! They might end up wondering why they couldn't have just stayed put and left their stuff in the room.
On my third trip, a last moment meeting I had scheduled in Chicago was cancelled and I never got off the train. Purely by accident I ended up traveling coast to coast from Washington, DC, through Chicago, to Los Angeles, without ever getting off the train! I guess promoting the ability to travel coast to coast along a central route was part of the reasoning that generated the idea of having a "National Chief".
Back in 1996, the original plan was to rename and renumber the Southwest Chief and Capitol Limited. If you have a "Fall/Winter 1996/97 Amtrak National Timetable Effective November 10, 1996" handy, turn to page 40. Near the bottom of the second column you will see:
Coming Soon ... New Through Service
Beginning in January 1997, through train service, with no change of trains at Chicago, will be provided between Washington and Los Angeles via the routes of the Capital Limited and Southwest Chief on the schedule shown at left. The through train service will be number 15 Washington to Los Angeles and 16 Los Angeles to Washington.
So, as you can see, they really did intend to renumber the train to 15 and 16. I also know they had intended to rename it the "National Chief". I don't know where I picked up that information, but I did see it somewhere. If any of you know where that was published, let me know so I can document it for the record.
Fortunately, I guess somebody decided that we should give this new service a try and see how it works out before we actually go rename or renumber anything! Since this service was discontinued with the schedule change on May 17, 1998, I guess it is a good idea that they never went through with that name and number change.
However, I don't want anyone to get the impression that Amtrak has actually discontinued another service. This equipment still runs from Los Angeles through Chicago and on to Washington, DC. The schedule and ability to travel along the route is still intact. The only change is that you must now leave the train and you cannot leave any carry-ons on the train. Your travel will be booked as though each segment is two totally different sets of equipment, even though it is really the same trainset.
The reason given for the change is that it is easier to clean the train without passengers on-board and it is less costly and less of a problem for the security of passengers and their belongings if they do not remain on the train during its layover in Chicago.
There never were very many people that continued through Chicago. I don't know if that is because of the 8 hour layover or just because this through service was never really promoted very much. I'm sure the latter is part of the reason. On each of my three trips on this route I surveyed everyone that I met for their awareness of the train being a through train from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. Very few knew that it was a through train!
I wasn't surprised by the results of my survey, but I was a little surprised that some people were traveling from Washington to Chicago and then from Chicago westward and did not realize they were on the same train! Since the entire crew changes, the train name and number changes, and they ended up in a different seat, they just assumed they were on a totally different trainset! I had a bit of difficulty convincing some this was the same trainset. Even telling one person that I had never left the train from the time the train left Washington, DC did not convince them that this was still the same train beyond Chicago!
I also ran into other people who had made other connections out of Washington, DC to this train not realizing they could have just started out on this train in Washington, DC. So, whether there isn't a market for people traveling through Chicago on this route, or whether the fact of the through train just wasn't widely promoted, is not a resolved issue.
In any case, I just thought this was an event, or maybe a non-event, that needed to be logged into Amtrak history!