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Santa Fe All the Way! A Love Affair with Customers

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Santa Fe All the Way! A Love Affair with Customers

Santa Fe Railway Thrived on Superb Marketing And Excellent Customer Service

A 1966 Santa Fe timetable—the yellowed pages reveal its age—showed up for an article I am writing, and what a treasure trove it is.

At the time, in my opinion no railroad treated its passengers better. And, probably no American railway was more loved by its traveling customers.

Although several other companies still offered good sleeping car service on a few trains in the 1960's, all too often coach passengers faced near nightmares of surly treatment and dirty, ill-maintained coaches as railroads desperately tried to exit a money-losing business.

In contrast, just 44 years ago, Santa Fe saw fine passenger service as a way to promote its overall business and build goodwill.

We will talk about the outstanding service, but first let's discuss the marketing that filled the trains.

Marketing “all the way”

Santa Fe All the Way!

Santa Fe knew how to market itself itself big time.

From its catchy slogan “Santa Fe all the way!” to lovable little Chico, its passenger service icon above, Santa Fe placed itself squarely in the American consciousness.

People actually looked forward to traveling this railroad.

Santa Fe

While Chico’s name emphasized the Hispanic heritage of much of Santa Fe’s operating territory, his clothes and feather evoked images of the Navajo and other lands of native peoples its trains passed through.

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief still travels through a portion of the Navajo Nation on former Santa Fe tracks.

I will let others decide if Chico would be politically correct today, but he has to be one of the most effective corporate symbols ever created. He set the tone.

Santa Fe turned itself into an "essential" Southwest experience

Red tinted bluffs along Santa Fe's & now Amtrak's route west of Albuquerque New Mexico.

Along with Chico, Santa Fe extensively used images and western icons that showed off the Southwest in its passenger marketing and on its trains. This was the railroad that took you to the Grand Canyon, to the Painted Desert—to Santa Fe, and it made sure you knew it.

In national publications, on model trains, and even in Hollywood films, Santa Fe featured its colorful and memorable “Santa Fe Warbonnet” passenger locomotives. This painting scheme became the most recognizable of any railroad. 

The easily remembered slogan “Santa Fe all the way” (with an emphasis on “all”) showed this was the only railroad that served both Chicago and California at that time.

You had to change railroads, though usually not trains, if you traveled other routes. In contrast, Santa Fe could make sure you had a quality experience throughout your trip.

Sadly, nothing Santa Fe successor BNSF does nutures the types of positive emotional ties that developed between Santa Fe and its current and potential customers. Santa Fe was special and the public knew it.

Trains, trains everywhere

Santa Fe system route map, 1966

Even though it did not provide passenger service on all its lines shown above, Santa Fe still ran an amazing number of passenger trains in 1966, while its competitors retrenched.

Some of these attained speeds over 100 MPH.

Santa Fe took you from Galveston to Gallup, Denver to El Paso, Stockton to Topeka. You could even travel to the rim of the Grand Canyon without changing trains from Los Angeles and then onward to Chicago.

Most importantly, the railway dominated the Chicago to California market running many extra sections of scheduled trains during the summer and other school holidays, as well as playing a big role in Chicago to Texas travel.

Super Chief

Of all the trains Santa Fe operated, the deluxe all-private room Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles became the most famous.

The Super Chief still attracted many Hollywood celebrities into the 1960’s. It even offered a dining room, the Turquoise Room, which could be booked for private use.

Reviews show the meals and dining service on the Super Chief rivaled five-star restaurants, with caviar, elegant champagne dinners, and the like.

Many believe this was the best train ever in the U.S., not surprisingly considering the company that ran it.

However, a key difference between Santa Fe and so many airlines is that its passengers sitting in economy coach usually thoroughly enjoyed their trips also.

A Santa Fe Super Chief promotional film >

Santa Fe family plan

Santa Fe's family fare savings

Most likely its family plan was the main way Santa Fe attracted so much school holiday business. If you have paid to take your family on an airline lately, you will be totally jealous of the discounts Santa Fe customers received.

  • One parent or guardian paid the full roundtrip fare,
  • The spouse and children 12 through 21 (!) paid the one-way fare (a little more than half the roundtrip fare),
  • Kids 5 to under 12 paid half the one-way fare, and
  • Children under 5 (not 2) traveled free.

No wonder Santa Fe packed them in! Clearly, this railroad realized it was competing with the family car, just as Southwest Airlines did a few years later.

Santa Fe offered these discounts seven days a week, with similar family markdowns for one-way trips.

Special features smoothed your trip

Santa Fe dining club discount, 1966

Even coach passengers looked forward to high-quality meal service on the Santa Fe via its contract with the famed Fred Harvey Company. These were freshly prepared meals from professional chefs in a kitchen onboard, not the defrosted, reheated fare so common today.

The railroad provided attractive dining plans, nurses on some trains, pillows, radio and recorded music, etc. If still operating today with the same management, I am sure it would have quickly moved to offer Wi-Fi especially on its long-distance trains, unlike Amtrak that so seriously lags in this area.

For extra comfort, Santa Fe installed seats on most long-distance trains that rivaled what some airlines use in first class. Passengers looked out through big picture windows that Santa Fe kept clean.

Best of all, Santa Fe offered up some great scenery.

Above: Although it did not segregate its passengers, as did some U.S. railways into the 1960’s, Santa Fe dining car servers and chefs were of African descent. Perhaps to avoid altercations between the races over incorrectly taken orders, passengers were asked to submit their meal requests on a form.

What went wrong?

Blame the post office.

In 1967, the U.S. postal service canceled all of its mail contracts with passenger railroads, electing to use airlines and trucks instead. Not the most environmentally friendly decision and in my opinion not one that considered the greater good.

For Santa Fe, the passenger business became a really, really losing one, as its contract with the post office to carry mail on passenger trains was worth some 35 million per year. With deference to its shareholders, Santa Fe reluctantly moved to cancel most passenger service. What a shame.

The Santa Fe legacy lives

By an act of Congress, Amtrak took over most of what remained of U.S. long-distance passenger rail service in 1971.

Apparently because Santa Fe’s president did not think kindly of the service he received on Amtrak’s trains, Santa Fe soon stopped allowing Amtrak to use the names of its former passenger trains.

Nevertheless, Amtrak wisely adopted key Santa Fe attributes, including incorporating some of Santa Fe’s principal routes into its system, instead of competing ones.

Superliners

Superliner Car

Amtrak’s “Superliner” cars (such as the one shown above) became the most visible legacy of Santa Fe, which pioneered high-level seating for better views and quieter operation on its premier long-distance trains.

With these, most passengers traveled high above the rails. The lounge cars had an upper level with big windows that extended toward the center of the ceiling. Passengers loved these trains.

Amtrak adopted this type of comfortable design for all its long-distance trains, except sadly those that have to pass through tunnels with low ceilings into New York Penn Station. That includes all trains from New York City to Florida and all but one from the Northeast to Chicago.

Above: An Amtrak high-level lounge car, a “sightseer lounge” in Amtrak terminology, stops at San Luis Obispo station. As with the other Superliner cars on the Coast Starlight, the lounge tracks closely Santa Fe’s design.

A tour group from the Midlands area of England occupies most seats. Normally, most lounge seats were filled on this scenic route, but at San Luis Obispo some passengers had time to step off the train to smoke.

A snack bar with tables takes up the lower level. An adjacent high-level dining car serves hot meals from a kitchen below.

Thank you Santa Fe. You were a class act.

Some of the other rail related posts by Don Nadeau:

Comments

Robin Rife
December 27, 2011

Hi Mr Nadeau,

I found an old picture of my Dad circa 1960’s with a group of performers. I am trying to find out more information about the picture and the people in the picture. In the background of the picture it features Santa Fe “All the Way” on a train car. Would you happen to know if Sante Fe had live entertainment such as singers, and magic acts? My Dad was known as the Magic Man and all we know is that he traveled doing his act. Thank you in advance for any information.

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Don Nadeau
April 17, 2012

Sorry for the late reply! Thought I had done so.

My family and I traveled on all of Santa Fe’s Chicago to Los Angeles or Bay Area trains, some of them multiple times, except for the Super Chief (all sleeping accommodation), the one most likely to have had live entertainment still into the 1960’s, and never had live performers.

Nevertheless, if the picture shows “all the way” then it must be Santa Fe. No other railway would have used that. However, an Internet search done earlier in preparation to reply to you brought up no evidence. Thank you so much for your comment.

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Sherry
June 25, 2012

Hi Don,

Loved this article! Thank you so much for sharing. If my calculations are correct, it was 1965 that I did my first solo train trip aboard the Super Chief. I distinctly remember the last (aft!) lounge car, sitting at a writing desk and scribbling a short note to family. However, the cigarette smoke hit you in the face as you entered! How times have changed.

“Santa Fe all the way….it’s fun to ride the train.” ...Chico.

Thanks again for sharing all of your train lore.

Regards,
Sherry

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Don Nadeau
July 1, 2012

Thank you so much, Sherry. Simply awesome that your first rail trip was on the Super Chief!

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ClaireFromYVR
December 30, 2013

Hi Don,
I did the trip when I was a child, from Santa Fe to LA. My first long-distance train trip.  Sure beats driving! Loved all the stops along the way.

Thanks for sharing and reminding me of the great train journey!

-Claire (ClaireFromYVR.com)

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Don Nadeau
January 4, 2014

Hi Claire,

Thank you for visiting the blog!

Travelling by train between Vancouver and Winnipeg and between Montreal and Vancouver are among the very first trips I took on my own. Sadly, Via Rail no longer runs along the north shore of Lake Superior, between Montreal and Sudbury, and via Banff and Yolo national parks. The current route is very scenic but just not the same.

Am so glad you enjoyed your trip. There has been quite a of press saying that the route might be discontinued or rerouted away from northern New Mexico due to financial issues related to track maintenance.

Trains in both Canada and the States always seem to be on the endangered list. This winter, Via cut its sole Toronto to Vancouver service to just twice a week.

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Paul Marshman
September 6, 2014

A great glimpse of railroad history, Don—I’m jealous of anyone who got to ride the old Santa Fe system. The only railroad I’ve seen that compares was Rail New Zealand, which used to run a great service on its scenic routes, each of which had a colourful name. They even put a map of the route on your place mat. The kiwis seemed to have captured a little of the marketing savvy that made the Santa Fe a classic.

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Don Nadeau
September 6, 2014

HI Paul,

I was blessed with parents who loved Santa Fe. They raised me right. One very long road trip by car had been enough for them.

Am fortunate to have taken Rail New Zealand from Auckland to Wellington. What a pleasant journey through the heart of the island. This trip duplicated the great service that you experienced

Unfortunately, rail did not fit well into my ideal South Island itinerary, but that leaves a lot to experience next visit.

I did enjoy very much New Zealand’s Inter-city bus service on the South Island. http://www.intercity.co.nz/

On some routes, we even enjoyed photo stops on these trips meant primarily as transportation, not tours. I also loved that we enjoyed our meal and snack stops at locally-owned places, not national chains, unlike Greyhound in Canada and in the U.S.

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