The Illinois Central may have only been a moderately sized Class I system but its passenger services were legendary. While the railroad’s flagship train was the Panama Limited, it’s super luxurious service between New Orleans and Chicago, its fabled City of New Orleans, which plied the same route as the Panama became its most legendary train. While the Panama was all about luxury and first class traveling the New Orleans, similar to that of the California Zephyr, was meant to be a vacationing experience that anyone could enjoy. The streamliner would earn renowned status when Steve Goodman wrote that famous song immortalizing the train in 1970 (performed by Arlo Guthrie). Today, due the immense popularity brought to the train by Mr. Goodman’s hit song, Amtrak revived the name in 1981 after a brief hiatus when it was initially discontinued upon the railroad’s startup in 1971.
The Illinois Central Railroad's slogan described the railroad quite well, The Main Line of Mid-America. It was one of only a very few railroads to serve markets with north-south running main lines and not the traditional east-west movements. What made its routing even more odd was that it served Midwestern markets that likewise traditionally moved goods east and west, such as Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Regardless of this the IC carved out a living hauling goods from Chicago to New Orleans and while today the Canadian National Railway owns the railroad, its name continues to survive after over 150 years of existence.
While the IC’s Panama Limited was all about style and class, the railroad’s City of New Orleans was all about speed and comfort. The train debuted in 1947 entirely streamlined and bedecked in IC’s beautiful livery of chocolate brown and orange with yellow trim (just like its sister train) with EMD E7s for power. However, aside from their matching liveries the two trains were very different from an operational and equipment standpoint. Whereas the Panama Limited was an overnight passenger train complete with all-Pullman status, the City was a dayliner, or a train that reached its destination in one day and was coach-only.
However, the train was very popular with the everyday American and even with the City’s many station stops along the way, could reach Chicago or New Orleans usually within 16 hours, covering over 900 miles! Another attribute that made the train very popular was its punctuality. As with all IC passenger trains, they very rarely ever departed late from the scheduled timetable, even by a few minutes! According to the Illinois Central's May, 1947 timetable, Trains #1 (southbound) and #2 (northbound) could cover the run between Chicago and New Orleans in 15 hours and 55 minutes with a train speed averaging nearly 60 mph!
The train also offered connecting service via St. Louis (listed as Train #201-1) as well as Louisville, Kentucky (listed as Train #101-1. Given that the train operated only during the day its consist was rather short featuring a diner, coach-lounges, and standard coach service (unfortunately, as patronage declined the train was relegated to essentially an all-coach affair). For more information regarding the train's consist and timetable please click here. Interestingly, the New Orleans did not earn iconic status until nearly the days of Amtrak. In 1970 the train was commemorated by songwriter Steve Goodman, which was performed by Arlo Guthrie. However, just a year later when Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail operations in the spring of 1971 it dropped the City in favor of the Panama.
This setup lasted for a decade until 1981 when, due to the City’s immense popularity brought on by Mr. Goodman’s song it was brought back by Amtrak and today remains one of the carrier’s most popular trains. To have a listen to the City of New Orleans please click here. Interestingly, today's version of the train includes available sleeper service, something it never had under Illinois Central ownership. Today, the train can make the jaunt between Chicago and New Orleans in about 19 hours, according to Amtrak's official timetable although you should probably expect the trip to take a bit longer given the normality of delays. For more information about the today's train please click here.