Amtrak National Chief
Train #15 & #16
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
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!
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