The Southern Pacific and Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island) teamed up in the late 1930s and launched their own Chicago – Los Angeles train named, the Golden State. It featured all streamlined equipment with fine on board amenities. However, the train was never as well known as other names in the hotly contested LA – Chicago corridor as it did not travel through territory nearly as scenic as trains like the Super Chief, City of Los Angeles, and even the California Zephyr. As such, it did not carry nearly the same number of patrons. Still, for twenty years the train did its best to find a niche for itself in this cutthroat region until the Espee and Rock Island finally gave up on the train in April of 1968. Today, both the train and the railroads which hosted it are but a memory.
The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific better known as simply the Rock Island was a legend even during its own time (the railroad even had a song named after it!). And perhaps this is what makes it’s ending so depressing. For all of the railroad’s fame and recognition, this did not translate into wealth and power. Several times throughout the railroad’s history it would go into receivership, its last in 1975 when it would be liquidated five years later in 1980. Much like the Pennsylvania Railroad was to the State of Pennsylvania so was the Southern Pacific to the State of California, an institutional icon. Also just like the Pennsy the Southern Pacific (also referred to affectionately as the “Espee” by railfans and historians after its SP reporting marks) has such a history that entire libraries of books could be written on the differing aspects of the railroad. The SP was by far our country’s single largest classic railroad (i.e., before the modern-day merger movement began in the 1950s), spanning over 15,000 miles and reaching from the stretches of northwest Oregon to southeast Louisiana!
The streamliner actually has its beginnings dating back all of the way to the early 20th century in 1902, named the Golden State Limited, and remained a seasonal train until the 1930s. Even during this time the train offered premier services to passengers such as air conditioning and in-room showers. Despite this stately service the train did not fully catch the public’s eye until after World War II when it received streamlined, lightweight equipment (delivered by both Pullman-Standard and the Budd Company) that debuted on the train in 1948. The train would later receive additional equipment from the never-launched Golden Rocket, another transcontinental train once planned by the two railroads. The upgraded Golden State itself boasted onboard features that included (along with air conditioning and showers) reclining seat coaches, diners, a coffee shop lounge-diner, club lounge, sleepers, and even a barbershop, running on a 45-hour schedule between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Still, the streamliner lacked many things that made the train difficult to effectively compete with its rivals: first, the train traveled through some of the blandest scenery in the west losing a valuable marketing opportunity to attract and retain, travelers; secondly, the train featured no Vista Domes or general dome cars to give patrons an impressive 360-degree panoramic view of what scenery was available; and thirdly, the Golden State simply could not offer schedules as fast as trains like the Super Chief (which could speed across the desert and Heartland between Chicago and Los Angeles in just over 39 hours).
The streamliner's only true marketing ploy was its ability to provide through sleeper service to New York via the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads. It also offered available connecting service from St. Louis via Kansas City during the Rock Island portion of the trip (the Southern Pacific offered no such connecting services during its leg). Listed as Trains #3 (westbound) and #4 (eastbound) on the railroads' official timetable the Golden State would depart Chicago just after 10 pm and arrive at Tucumcari, New Mexico and the connection with the Southern Pacific by nearly 8 pm the next day. The SP would continue the train westward and into Los Angeles by just after 6 pm the following day. Considering the train had to make additional stops other western transcontinental trains did not it carried a respectable average train speed of 52 mph.
As patronage on the train declined so did the service, which by the late 1960s included just a dismal few cars, often being hauled by a banged-up Rock Island EMD E-series diesel locomotive (the Rock Island itself was in financial trouble during this time). As mentioned before, the SP and Rock Island came extremely close to launching a much more luxurious train that would have operated over the same route as the Golden State and meant to fully compete with the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and others with no expenses spared. The train was to be called the Golden Rocket and came so close to becoming a reality that the Rock Island actually had its consist delivered before the Southern Pacific backed out (and whose consist had not yet been built). For more information regarding timetable and consist please click here.