Pioneer (train)

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The Pioneer was an Amtrak passenger train that ran between Seattle and Chicago via Portland, Boise, Salt Lake City, and Denver.

Last Amtrak Pioneer at Green River (1), May 1997.jpg
The final Pioneer at Green River, Wyoming in May 1997
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleWestern United States
First serviceJune 7, 1977 (1977-06-07)
Last serviceMay 10, 1997 (1997-05-10)
Former operator(s)Amtrak
StartChicago, Illinois
EndSeattle, Washington
Distance travelled2,662 miles (4,284 km)
Service frequencyThrice weekly
Train number(s)25/26
On-board services
  • First class (sleepers)
  • Reserved coach
Sleeping arrangements
  • Bedrooms
  • Roomettes
Catering facilities
Observation facilitiesSightseer lounge
Rolling stockSuperliners
Track gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)


Postcard depiction of the M-10001 trainset in 1939.
1977 map of the Pioneer route
The Pioneer at The Dalles in August 1977

In the 1960s, prior to the creation of Amtrak, two Union Pacific Railroad streamliners provided service to Portland via Boise: the City of Portland (from Chicago) and the Portland Rose (from Kansas City). Amtrak did not retain either train in 1971 – preferring the Empire Builder for Chicago–Pacific Northwest service – with the result that train travel between the Pacific Northwest and Denver required either going west to California or east to Chicago.

Amtrak sought to fill this gap in 1977 with the introduction of the Pioneer between Seattle and Salt Lake City.[1][2] The all-coach train operated on a daily 24-hour schedule with connections available in Ogden, Utah with the Chicago–San Francisco San Francisco Zephyr. Meal service was provided in an on-board cafe, one of the then-new Amfleet dinettes. Coaches were reserved except between Portland and Seattle, where the Pioneer supplemented existing corridor service. In early 1977, Amtrak authorized approximately $500,000 to improve 13 stations along the route in Utah, Idaho, and Oregon. Work included installation of passenger shelters, platforms and rehabilitation of existing stations.[3] Regular service began on June 7.[4][5]

The arrivals and departures board inside Portland Union Station in 1981, listing the Pioneer, among other trains

The Pioneer began exchanging a Seattle–Chicago through coach with the San Francisco Zephyr on April 26, 1981; this was supplemented by a through sleeping car on October 31, 1982. When the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad decided to join Amtrak in 1983, Amtrak renamed the San Francisco Zephyr to California Zephyr, shifted it south to the Moffat Tunnel Route, and changed its interchange point with the Pioneer from Ogden to Salt Lake City, the Pioneer's terminus.[6]:143–144

On June 17, 1991, the Pioneer's terminus and California Zephyr interchange point was moved from Salt Lake City to Denver, its route was changed to use the Union Pacific's Overland Route in Wyoming (which had last seen service in 1983), and a bus was added between Salt Lake City and the Pioneer at Ogden. This change was made for two reasons:

  • The combined California Zephyr/Desert Wind/Pioneer consisted of 16 Superliner cars, the longest such train Amtrak had ever operated. Amtrak required at least four EMD F40PH locomotives to haul this behemoth between Chicago and the Moffat Tunnel Route between Denver and Salt Lake City. Splitting the Pioneer in Denver reduced the load along this segment.
  • The faster running time over the Overland Route allowed a more reasonable departure time from Seattle.

The Pioneer was reduced to thrice-weekly on November 4, 1993.[6]:148–150

In January 1997, Amtrak announced that the Pioneer would end May 10, 1997, when a Congressionally-funded mandate to keep it operating expired. States affected were given until March 15 to submit funding proposals to keep the train operating.[7] While visiting Pendleton, Oregon on February 22, Amtrak President Thomas M. Downs said the Pioneer could be converted to a coach-only Chicago–Portland mail-and-express train operating on an all-Union Pacific routing through Iowa and Wyoming (but missing Ogden) if interested states could provide about $4.8 million to fund the existing operation through that October when the new train could start.[8]

By the March 15 deadline, state funding had not been secured even though the requested funding package had been reduced. Instead of seeking $4.8 million, Amtrak asked the Oregon legislature for $2.9 million in loan guarantees, which would have resulted in triweekly service between Portland and Salt Lake City through the October startup of a daily mixed train carrying express freight and passengers between Chicago and Portland via Omaha, Cheyenne, and Ogden. Oregon refused to provide the loan guarantees because it found Amtrak's collateral (ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level cars) unacceptable.[9] On April 10, Union Pacific told Amtrak that the proposed express train would require $56 million in capital improvements.[10] On May 10, 1997, the Pioneer made its last run, as did the Desert Wind.[11][12] It was reported in the December 1998 issue of Trains that a Chicago–Portland replacement for the Pioneer via Omaha and Cheyenne had been postponed.[13]

The end of the Pioneer severed Wyoming from the national rail network, and also spelled the end of intercity rail service in the more populated portions of Idaho. To maintain service levels in the Seattle–Portland corridor, Amtrak instituted an additional corridor train between the two cities.


Superliner cars on the Pioneer in 1997

The original all-coach Pioneer had Amfleet coaches and a lounge. Amtrak added a Heritage Fleet sleeping car in 1978. With the start of through service with the San Francisco Zephyr in 1981 the Pioneer received bi-level Superliner coaches, but the single-level sleeping car and lounge remained until 1982, when the train went all-Superliner.[6]:155

Service restorationEdit

In accordance with the Passenger Rail Improvement Act of 2008 Amtrak evaluated the possibility of restoring service to the Pioneer and other discontinued long-distance routes. Amtrak considered four options for a restored Pioneer, all of which would have through service to Chicago via the California Zephyr:[14]

Endpoints Route Estimated ridership Revenues Operating costs Operating loss Farebox recovery Capital costs
Salt Lake City Seattle Rio Grande Route 102,000 $11.6m $36.6m $25.0m 31.7% $373.9m
Denver Seattle Overland Route 111,000 $13.1m $46.2m $33.1m 28.4% $469.8m
Salt Lake City Portland Rio Grande Route 82,000 $7.6m $35.9m $28.3m 21.2% $370.5m
Denver Portland Overland Route 95,000 $9.2m $44.7m $35.5m 20.6% $484.8m

According to the study the projected farebox recovery ratio was "significantly lower than the average fare box recovery for Amtrak long distance trains in FY2008 (51.8%). Fare box recovery for the two Seattle options (Options 1 and 2) is lower than all but one of Amtrak's 15 existing long distance routes, and the Portland options have a lower fare box recovery than any Amtrak long distance route." Amtrak projected lower ridership than in the mid-1990s owing to the proliferation of low-cost air travel between Seattle and Salt Lake City (particularly Southwest Airlines).[14]


  1. ^ Smith, Tamera (June 7, 1977). "Amtrak Pioneer rolls into S.L." Deseret News. (Salt Lake City, Utah). p. B1.
  2. ^ "Pioneer Inaugural Run Brings Out The People". Amtrak NEWS 4 (11). 15 June 1977. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  3. ^ "New Route's Station Work Set". Amtrak NEWS 4 (3). 15 February 1977. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  4. ^ "Inaugural Run Introduces Pioneer To Boise Route Cities". Amtrak NEWS. 4 (10): 1. June 1977. Retrieved August 9, 2013.
  5. ^ Amtrak (June 22, 1977). "National Train Timetables".
  6. ^ a b c Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34705-3.
  7. ^ Johnston, Bob (April 1997). "Amtrak's countdown to confusion". Trains: 16.
  8. ^ Johnston, Bob (May 1997). "Amtrak, in dire straits again, needs champions". Trains: 17.
  9. ^ Johnston, Bob (June 1997). "Amtrak goes down to the wire on train-offs". Trains: 16.
  10. ^ Johnston, Bob (July 1997). "Union Pacific, Amtrak at odds over Pioneer". Trains: 16–17.
  11. ^ Van Eyck, Zack (May 10, 1997). "A classic rides the rails one last time". Deseret News. (Salt Lake City, Utah). p. A1.
  12. ^ Johnston, Bob (August 1997). "The Pioneer's last stand". Trains: 24–26.
  13. ^ Johnston, Bob (December 1998). "Amtrak's mail-and-express balancing act". Trains: 27.
  14. ^ a b Amtrak (16 Oct 2009). "Pioneer Route Passenger Rail Study" (PDF). Retrieved 1 May 2011.

External linksEdit

  Media related to Pioneer (train) at Wikimedia Commons