The Wabash Railroad is another of the many smaller Class I systems whose passenger operations are sometimes lost or forgotten about because of the surrounding larger competition who better marketed their trains with, usually, more/finer on board amenities. However, the Wabash had not only one well-known train but also one that was fairly successful, the Bluebird (which should not be confused with the Nickel Plate Road’s noted blue and white livery dubbed the “Bluebird”). While the regional streamliner was one of the last unveiled to serve Chicago and St. Louis it proved to be one of the more successful, eventually operating nearly a half-dozen domes! This dome-service is what allowed the train to be as popular as it was and successor Norfolk & Western even retained it until the start of Amtrak in 1971.
While the Wabash Railroad was never a large carrier its legendary status far surpasses its size. The Wabash was a Midwestern carrier connecting Buffalo, New York with cities such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha. At its peak it was only a little over 2,000 miles in length but its bridge line status, markets it served, and high speed freight service made it a quite successful railroad, especially during its latter years. Eventually the Wabash was swept up in the merger mania beginning in the late 1950s and after a long stint of Pennsylvania Railroad ownership it eventually became part of the sprawling Norfolk & Western system in the 1960s.
The Wabash Railroad never had an extensive passenger fleet although it did provide high-quality service with names like the Banner Blue Limited and Midnight Special. Most legendary, however, was the Wabash Cannon Ball, which operated between Detroit and St. Louis. The train's status was so popular with the general public that it survived right up until Amtrak in 1971 after the N&W attempted to discontinue it in the 1960s!
The Bluebird was the Wabash’s late entrance into the streamliner revolution, with the railroad debuting the St. Louis-Chicago train in 1950. The uniqueness of the train, a factor that ultimately made it very successful, was its use of four Budd-built Vista-Dome cars including three coaches and a parlor-lounge. To keep up with demand the Wabash eventually purchased a fifth dome-lounge, which featured the famous "Blue Bird Room." This dome along with the train's other consist, a baggage-lunch counter-lounge, and diner lounge were all built by Pullman-Standard. For power the train featured E8 diesel locomotives from EMD.
For a regional operation the Bluebird was a very stylish train that featured a striking livery of dark blue and gray in conjunction with the stainless steel of the Budd cars. The interior of the train was just as elegant and classy with various blues used throughout. While the Illinois Central is often credited with offering some of the finest passenger operations in the Midwest the Wabash actually did quite well competing against it between Chicago and St. Louis. The Bluebird made a round trip each day between the two cities and had a sister train, the Banner Blue, which carried out daytime services. According to the railroad's official 1950 timetable Trains #24 (northbound) and #21 (southbound) could make the run between the two cities in just over 5 hours carrying an average train speed around 55 mph.
Interestingly, the Wabash’s trains outlived their owner. In 1964 the railroad became part of the Norfolk & Western, which, not known for extensive passenger operations itself was disinterested in continuing to run most of the Wabash’s trains. Most of the Wabash’s passenger equipment was used on other N&W trains although a semblance of the Bluebird remained on the scheduled timetable. In 1968 the train was cutback to Decatur, Illinois and renamed the City of Decatur. It remained on N&W's timetable until the end when Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail operations in 1971. For more information regarding the Bluebird, its schedule, and consist please click here.