Southwest Chief
Southwest Limited Photos (28780374161).jpg
The Southwest Limited with a mix of Superliners and Hi-Level cars in March 1981
Service type Inter-city rail, higher speed rail
Status Operating
Locale Western United States
First service 1974
Current operator(s) Amtrak
Ridership 1,006 daily
367,267 total (FY15)[1]
Start Chicago, Illinois
Stops 31
End Los Angeles, California
Distance travelled 2,265 mi (3,645 km)
Average journey time 43 hours, 15 minutes
Service frequency Daily each way
Train number(s) 3 (Chicago to Los Angeles)
4 (Los Angeles to Chicago)
On-board services
Class(es) Coach
Seating arrangements Airline-style coach seating
Sleeping arrangements Superliner Roomette (2 beds)
Family Bedroom (4 beds)
Superliner Bedroom (2 beds)
Superliner Bedroom Suite (4 beds)
Superliner Accessible Bedroom (2 beds)
Catering facilities Dining car
On-board café
Observation facilities Sightseer Lounge Car
Baggage facilities Checked baggage (select stations)
Rolling stock P42 locomotives
Superliner cars
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in)
Operating speed 90 mph (145 km/h) maximum
55 mph (89 km/h) average (including stops)
Track owner(s) BNSF Railway

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 2015, the Southwest Chief carried 367,267 passengers, up 4.3 percent from FY 2014. The route grossed $44,904,314 in revenue during FY 2015, a 0.6 percent increase from FY 2014.[1]



The Southwest Chief is the successor to the Super Chief, which, along with the Chief and El Capitan, were notable Chicago-Los Angeles trains operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. The Super Chief name was retained after Amtrak took over passenger rail service in 1971. Then in March 1974, the Santa Fe forced Amtrak to drop the name because of a perceived decline in quality after the Amtrak takeover. The train was renamed the Southwest Limited. After subsequent improvements, the Santa Fe allowed Amtrak to change its name to the Southwest Chief on October 28, 1984.

National Chief

Amtrak operated the Southwest Chief in conjunction with the Capitol Limited, a daily Washington DC-Chicago service, in 1997 and 1998. 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.[2][3][4]

Accidents and incidents

  • On October 2, 1979, the Southwest Limited derailed at Lawrence, Kansas. Of the 30 crew and 147 passengers on board, two people were killed and 69 were injured. The cause was excessive speed on a curve. Underlying causes were that the engineer was unfamiliar with the route, and that signage indicating the speed restriction had been removed during track repairs.[5]
  • On August 9, 1997, the eastbound Southwest Chief derailed about five miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona, when a bridge, its undergirding washed out by a flash flood, collapsed under the weight of the train, which was traveling close to ninety miles per hour. While the lead locomotive stayed on the track, the three trailing locomotives, nine passenger cars, and seven baggage and mail cars derailed. All stayed upright. Of the 325 passengers and crew aboard, 154 people were injured and none were killed.[6]
  • On October 16, 1999, the westbound Southwest Chief suffered a minor derailment near Ludlow, California, following the Hector Mine earthquake. All the cars stayed upright, and four passengers were injured.[7]
  • On March 14, 2016, the Southwest Chief derailed 3 miles (4.8 km) from Cimarron, Kansas. Of 14 crew and 128 passengers, twenty were injured. Investigators determined the train derailed after the tracks were knocked out of alignment by a runaway truck from a nearby farm operation. The vehicle had rolled down a hill and struck the tracks after the owners had failed to secure the parking brake.[8][9]


Boy Scouts unload their equipment at Raton in 2011.

The train 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.[10] 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.

From June through August, the Southwest Chief is used by Boy Scouts traveling to and from Philmont Scout Ranch via the Raton Amtrak Station. During those months, Raton station is staffed by Amtrak employees and handles checked baggage.

This route was one of five studied for possible performance improvements by Amtrak in FY 2012.[11]

Kansas downgrade

There is no BNSF freight service between La Junta, Colorado and Lamy, New Mexico, and the railroad informed Amtrak that all maintenance costs are to be paid by the passenger carrier if it wished to continue to use the route. 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 Class IV (79 mph passenger train maximum). BNSF offered to host the Southwest Chief over its Southern Transcon via Wichita and Wellington, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas, and Clovis, New Mexico, once used by the San Francisco Chief. Amtrak sought help from the states involved to retain existing service on the train's historic route.[12] The states of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico have since contributed money toward rebuilding the tracks and keeping the Chief on its current routing. Much of the funding for the rehabilitation projects has come from federal transportation grants.

Route changes and current route description

Southwest Limited dome car, 1974. Photo by Charles O'Rear.
Amtrak Eng. 69 on the Southwest Chief at Barstow, California in 1999

Route changes

Until 1979, the train traversed a different route from Kansas City to Emporia. That year, it was rerouted via Topeka, Kansas to replace Amtrak service lost with the discontinuance of the Texas Chief. The reroute allowed Amtrak to maintain service to the Kansas state capital of Topeka and to Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas.

Prior to 1996, the Southwest Chief operated between Chicago and Galesburg, Illinois, via Joliet, Streator and Chilicothe on the ATSF's Chilicothe Subdivision. 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 former Burlington Northern Mendota Subdivision to the Chilicothe subdivision.[13] The Chief was rerouted on the old Burlington Northern through Naperville, Princeton, and Mendota to Galesburg This route segment is also served by Amtrak's California Zephyr, Illinois Zephyr and Carl Sandburg.

In early 1994, near its western terminus, the train was rerouted between San Bernardino and Los Angeles onto the Santa Fe Third District via Fullerton and Riverside. Previously it served Pasadena and Pomona via the Santa Fe Pasadena Line, until that route was closed to all through-traffic. This resulted from ATSF selling that segment to the Los Angeles Metro for use as a light rail corridor. The Los Angeles Metro Gold Line now uses that stretch of right-of-way.

Current route description

Amtrak's Southwest Chief (train #4)[14] departs Los Angeles Union Station in downtown LA at 6:10 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. 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. The train then crosses Glorieta Pass and Raton Pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, on a very scenic route which includes some of the last semaphore signals in use on American mainline railroads, and then stopping in Trinidad, Colorado. 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.

Amtrak Southwest Chief (interactive map)

Commentary services

On certain days of the week, volunteer rangers with Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service, provide commentary for train passengers on the Southwest Chief between La Junta, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Most programs take place only during the busy summer travel season. Talks presented cover such sites as Trinidad, the Purgatorie River, Raton Pass, and Apache Canyon. The Trails & Rails program is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service, and is featured on trains across the country.

A second Trails & Rails program operated on the Southwest Chief from Chicago, Illinois to La Plata, Missouri between May 18, 2013 and July 19, 2015. It was co-sponsored by Texas A&M University and the non-profit American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) in La Plata, Missouri. Volunteers presented two round-trip programs per week and covered such topics as the urban history of Chicago, the "breadbasket" areas of Central Illinois, the Mississippi River, the Mormon National Historical Trail, and the rolling hills of Northeast Missouri. In July 2015, the National Park Service decided to end its partnership with the APRHF, which had been providing most of the funding for the program.


  1. ^ a b "Amtrak FY15 Ridership & Revenue" (PDF). Amtrak. 5 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2016. 
  2. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". November 10, 1996. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  3. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 11, 1997. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  4. ^ "Amtrak National Timetable". May 17, 1998. Retrieved 2010-03-14. 
  5. ^ "Derailment of Amtrack train No. 4 The Southwest Limited on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company Lawrence, Kansas October 2, 1979" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. April 29, 1980. Retrieved 15 March 2016. 
  6. ^ RICCARDI, NICHOLAS; GORMAN, TOM (1997-08-10). "Train From L.A. Derails in Arizona; 154 Injured". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2016-11-22. 
  7. ^ "Earthquate at TrainWeb". Retrieved 2016-11-22. 
  8. ^ "Amtrak train derails in Kansas". BBC News Online. Retrieved March 14, 2016. 
  9. ^ "Amtrak train derails near Cimarron". Dodge City Daily Globe. March 14, 2016. Retrieved March 15, 2016. 
  10. ^ "Train & Bus Tickets - National Railroad - USA & Canada". Amtrak. Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  11. ^ "PRIIA Section 210 FY12 Performance Improvement Plan" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  12. ^ Fred W. Frailey, "Minus its backbone, Amtrak makes a tempting target," Trains, August 2010, 18.
  13. ^ "Galesburg to Streator". Retrieved 2016-07-07. 
  14. ^ "Southwest Chief Timetable, effective November 6, 2016" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-01-18. 

External links