The Illinois Central Railroad may have only been a moderately sized Class I railroad but its passenger train services were legendary. First among these services was the railroad’s flagship train, the Panama Limited, which connected the Deep South at New Orleans with the Midwest at Chicago. Later, the Panama would see a sister train ply its route, the City of New Orleans, a train that would become equally famous. While the Panama was all about luxury and first class traveling the City of New Orleans, similar to that of the California Zephyr, was meant to be a vacationing experience that anyone could enjoy. Even today, the Panama remains one of this country's premier passenger train (up there with the likes of Broadway Limited or Empire Builder), especially among those who were lucky enough to travel aboard it.
The northbound Panama Limited heads towards Chicago's Central Station during March of 1964 led by E8A #4019.
The Illinois Central 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 owns the railroad, its name continues to survive after over 150 years of existence.
The IC’s Panama was all about style and class.
The train had been around since 1911, making it one of the oldest named
trains in the country. However, like most passenger trains the Panama's
iconic status was not achieved until the IC streamlined it in May of
1942. That spring when the train was re-inaugurated as a lightweight,
streamlined operation (equipment came courtesy of Pullman-Standard) it
was bedecked in a beautiful livery of chocolate brown and red with
yellow trim (another masterful artistic creation from the design team at
An early streamlined scene of the "Panama Limited," probably during the early 1950s as it appears an E8B is operating within the consist.
The interior designs of the Panama were just as striking.
Playing on Deep South and Cajun themes the train’s entrées highlighted
the finest of the region’s cooking and lounge and parlor cars included
bamboo furniture, floral patterned curtains, and squared etched glass on the windows. Two other attributes the Panama Limited became famous for was its ultra-fast schedule, as it was able to complete the journey between Chicago and New Orleans
sometimes in as quick as just 16 hours, typically traveling at speeds
of up to 100 mph (what allowed for such high speeds was the IC’s main
line between the two cities, which was very flat and straight); and two,
its punctuality, as you hardly ever saw the Panama, or any of the IC’s most important trains leaving even a few minutes late!
A good example of this was the high regard placed on the
scheduled timetable by then-IC president Wayne Johnston. Able to see
the Panama from its platform at Chicago Central Station,
if the train had not departed exactly at its scheduled time someone was
usually catching serious flack regarding the holdup. During the train's early streamlined years it could complete the Chicago-New Orleans
run in about 18 hours with connecting service to St. Louis. However,
by the 1960s the train could complete the trip in just about 16 1/2
hours. The train's typical consist included sleepers, club-lounges,
diners, a cafe service (note, no coach service). For a bit more reading about the train please click here.
Interestingly, the Panama Limited
continued to see relatively high ridership numbers through the 1960s
and in 1959 was even upgraded with Vista-Dome sleeper-lounges. During
the 1960s the train was one of the few to still offer all-Pullman
service, an increasing rarity by that date. Still, increasing costs to
operate passenger trains and the loss of RPO service from the U.S.
Postal Service in the late 1960s forced the Illinois Central Railroad to begin downgrading its plush Panama,
which lost all-Pullman status during that time. Still, the IC, for the
most part, remained dedicated to its flagship through to the end and
while its final run occurred on April 30, 1971 (the day before Amtrak
took over intercity passenger rail operations in the country) its sister
train and celebrity City of New Orleans continues to ply the same route and remains a popular operation under Amtrak.