Serving Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, and intermediate points
Amtrak train numbers: 58 and 59
Predecessor railroad train numbers: Illinois Central 1 and 2
Shortly after World War II, the Illinois Central Railroad ordered new lightweight coaches from Pullman to equip a new train on their Chicago-to-New Orleans "Main Line of Mid-America." That train, which began running April 27, 1947, was named the City of New Orleans.
It ran on a daytime schedule with coaches only, to complement the overnight, sleeping-car-only Panama Limited. While the Panama Limited moved vacationers north and south, the City of New Orleans served people who were using the train as basic transportation: college students traveling between Chicago and Champaign, people going to visit friends two towns down the line in Mississippi, and so on.
Thanks to that type of business, despite Arlo Guthrie claiming it had the "disappearing railroad blues," the City of New Orleans survived the Amtrak takeover on May 1, 1971, as the sole Chicago-New Orleans train.
On June 10, 1971, the City of New Orleans was involved in Amtrak's first fatal train wreck; a locked axle on one of the locomotives caused the train to derail while going 90 miles per hour about 40 miles south of Effingham, Illinois. 11 people were killed, and in terms of number of fatalities, it stood as Amtrak's worst wreck until the Colonial collision in 1987.
When Amtrak made its first major schedule change on November 14, 1971, the train was switched to an overnight schedule and changed to the Panama Limited name. While the memory of the derailment may have been involved in the decision, the more important factors were likely a desire by Amtrak to have as many of their trains connect to other trains as possible, especially in their main hub of Chicago, as well as the poor timekeeping caused by the deteriorated condition of the Illinois Central's track (passengers can't tell how slow a train is going while they're asleep).
On February 1, 1981, to commemorate the newly upgraded Heritage Fleet cars the train was now full equipped with, and with the Arlo Guthrie song still showing up on the radio, Amtrak changed the train's name back to City of New Orleans, although it remained on the old Panama Limited overnight schedule.
In the Illinois Central days, both the City of New Orleans and Panama Limited had carried through cars that ran between St. Louis and New Orleans, being added to or subtracted from the main train at Carbondale, Illinois. In 1984, coinciding with the World's Fair in New Orleans, the through cars returned, with service extended to Kansas City, under the name River Cities. This connection lasted for about 10 years, long past the World's Fair.
Thanks to its high ridership between intermediate points but low end-to-end traffic, plus frequent delays due to Illinois Central freight traffic and trackwork, the City of New Orleans became Amtrak's most lackluster long-distance train, even losing full dining car service in the mid-1980s. Even after the train finally received Superliner equipment in 1994, including a dining car, it was cut back to a 5-day-a-week schedule soon afterward (Thursday through Monday) in one of Amtrak's periodic cost-cutting frenzies. Daily service returned in 1997, though.
Condensed historical timetables:
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(1956) (1984) (2002) (2002) (1984) (1956)
7:50A 6:45P 8:00P Dp Chicago Ar 9:00A 10:45A 11:40P
9:50A 9:13P 10:34P Champaign 6:10A 8:00A 9:40P
12:48P 12:29A 1:26A Carbondale 3:16A 4:52A 6:35P
5:15P 5:08A 6:55A Memphis 10:35P 12:06A 1:55P
9:05P 9:08A 11:12A Jackson, MS 5:34P 8:04P 10:21A
12:15A 12:45P 3:40P Ar New Orleans Dp 1:55P 4:45P 7:15A
The Amtrak Train Names Project