Postcard depiction of the train, circa 1917.
|Service type||Inter-city rail|
|Locale||Central United States|
|First service||February 4, 1911|
|Last service||February 1, 1981|
|Successor||City of New Orleans|
|Former operator(s)||Illinois Central Railroad
|End||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Average journey time||
|Track gauge||1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in)|
|Track owner(s)||Illinois Central Railroad|
The Panama Limited was a passenger train operated from 1911 to 1971 by the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago, Illinois, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Panama Limited took its name from the Panama Canal, which in 1911 was then under construction and three years from completion. For most of its career, the train was "all-Pullman", carrying sleeping cars only. The Panama Limited was one of many trains discontinued when Amtrak began operations in 1971, though Amtrak revived the service later that year and continued it until 1981.
Today, overnight service between Chicago and New Orleans is provided by Amtrak's City of New Orleans, another former Illinois Central train.
In the early 1900s the Illinois Central's premier train on the Chicago-New Orleans route was the Chicago and New Orleans Limited. On February 4, 1911, the Illinois Central renamed this train the Panama Limited, in honor of the anticipated opening of the Panama Canal. The train included a St. Louis, Missouri, section that connected at Carbondale, Illinois. The train was first-class only north of Memphis, Tennessee. It carried through sleepers for Hot Springs, Arkansas, and San Antonio, Texas. It made the journey in 25 hours.
In 1912, the train was replaced with an all-steel, all electric consist. The Illinois Central relaunched the train on November 15, 1916, with new equipment and a new schedule: 23 hours from Chicago to New Orleans. The new train carried sleeping cars only for its entire route. Its old equipment and schedule became a new train, the Louisiane.
The Great Depression led the Illinois Central to discontinue the luxurious Panama Limited between May 28, 1932, and December 2, 1934. When it returned it had new air-conditioned equipment and an improved 20-hour schedule between Chicago and New Orleans.
The Panama Limited was streamlined in 1942, during World War II. The Illinois Central had ordered two lightweight sets of equipment prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor; after an appeal the War Production Board allowed their delivery. The first diesel/electric-powered streamlined run of the Panama Limited was on May 3, 1942 on an 18-hour schedule. On hand for the first run was Janie Jones, the widow of famed engineer Casey Jones. The Panama Limited carried a new orange and brown paint scheme which later became standard on Illinois Central passenger trains. For the duration of the War the Illinois Central dropped the extra fare. In June 1946 the schedule dropped to 17 hours; later the schedule was reduced to 16 hours, 30 minutes again with the extra fare.
The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its dining car service, with a first rate culinary staff and creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the 'Kings Dinner', on the menu for about $10 (other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4–$5). In 1952 the Illinois Central acquired several 2-unit 175-foot (53 m) dining cars from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad which it used on the Panama. With the Pennsylvania's Broadway Limited it was one of the last two "all-Pullman" trains in the United States.
On October 29, 1967, the Illinois Central added coaches to the Panama Limited, although it attempted to save face by designating the coaches the Magnolia Star. The Illinois Central dropped this separate designation on December 13, 1968. The Illinois Central petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to end the train altogether on November 23, 1970, but the ICC deferred the request pending the startup of Amtrak.
The final day of operation of the Panama Limited by the Illinois Central Railroad was April 30, 1971. On May 1 Amtrak took over, retaining the City of New Orleans over the Panama Limited. This train made no connections with other trains at New Orleans or Chicago, so Amtrak moved the train to an overnight schedule on November 14, 1971 and revived the Panama Limited name.
Amtrak restored the City of New Orleans name, while retaining the overnight schedule, on February 1, 1981. Amtrak hoped to capitalize on the popularity of the eponymous song written by Steve Goodman and recorded in 1972 by Arlo Guthrie.
A song immortalizing the train under its original name is credited to blues singer Bukka White, who recorded it in the 1930s. "The Panama Limited" was popularized by folk singer Tom Rush on his self-titled debut album in 1965 and was recorded later by folk musicians Mike Cross and Doug MacLeod. A British band of the late 1960s and early 1970s called itself Panama Limited Jug Band, later shortened to Panama Limited.
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