Passenger Railroads / The Rocket Trains

Anyone who has read about passenger rail service in the United States during the first half of the 1900’s knows that it was a very competitive business. Passenger railroads serviced towns and cities of all sizes. If you lived in a small town in the 1920’s or 1930’s there was a very good chance you had passenger rail service. One railroad in particular, the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, remained very aggressive in an arena that included the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad.

E2 diesel locomotives
The streamlined EMC E2 locomotives

For those interested in the history of the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and railroads in general, there is an excellent museum in Chillicothe Illinois in an old Rock Island depot. The depot was saved by the Chillicothe Historical Society when the depot was donated to them by the Rock Island in 1980. Because of the society’s hard work, today the museum, which opened it’s doors in 1987, is a first rate railroad museum. The Rock Island Depot Museum also has many exhibits on early 1900’s life in rural Illinois.

Passenger railroads had really two things to market to the traveling public. One was the comfort and convenience they could provide and the other was the speed of travel. The AT & SF did an outstanding job on the comfort factor offering the hospitality services of Fred Harvey and his famed Harvey Houses. The AT & SF also had a route that traversed the southwest and it’s pueblo Indian culture, not to mention the Grand Canyon, one of the more scenic and historic areas of the U.S. As far as speed went, there was always an effort to offer a fastest service, especially between Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Rock Island Railroad offered named trains called the “Rocket Trains“. The use of the term “rocket” as a train name may have originated with an invention from 1829 named “Stephenson’s Rocket”  which was an innovated steam locomotive design that set the standard for future steam engine construction for decades to come. Locomotives using Stephenson’s principals were used into the 1960’s by British locomotive builders. The term Rocket Train also suggests that the travel was fast, something many passengers wanted to hear. The Rocket Trains had routes all over the midwest. There was the Rockey Mountain Rocket, the Zephyr Rocket, the Corn Belt Rocket, the Twin Star Rocket, the Texas Rocket, the Des Moines Rocket and more.

rock island railroad transcontinental logo
The Rock Island and Southern Pacific transcontinental emblem

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad’s Rocket Trains began in 1937 with the purchase of six lightweight and streamlined locomotives built by the Budd Company. These were the railroad’s very first diesel-electric locomotives.The trains had a great color combination of red, yellow, and white, and red, maroon, and silver.

One of the most interesting railroad stories is the tale of the “Golden State Limited” and the  “Golden Rocket“.

The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad did not have a proprietary route from Chicago to Los Angeles as did the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The Union Pacific started running their new streamlined trains with it’s “City of Los Angeles” running a more central route from Chicago to L.A. To compete against the very popular AT & SF “Super Chief”, and the Union Pacific, the Rock Island entered an agreement with the Southern Pacific Railroad to operate the “Golden State Limited” beginning in 1902 as a partnership. The Rock Island had track down into Texas and to Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The Southern Pacific had trains operating to Los Angeles from the lower tier of the U.S., Houston, New Orleans, etc.

super chief train
AT & SF Super Chief in Albuquerque New Mexico 1943

The Rock Island’s route map showed just how bad they needed this kind of arrangement. Their national route map would include Minnesota to the north, Texas to the south, Memphis to the east and eastern New Mexico and Colorado to the west. While they were servicing some very big cities, they were boxed in to the extent that they couldn’t compete for transcontinental passenger traffic. At the start of the 1900’s, transcontinental rail passenger traffic was the big industry since travel alternatives were slim to none. The Rock island’s only option was to form an alliance with a larger carrier.

A railroad partnership, on this one route only, made a lot of sense if a railroad like the Rock Island wanted to compete for Chicago to Los Angeles traffic against the other big two lines. The “Golden State Limited” would travel a route out of Chicago not too different than the AT & SF route but somewhat to the south. The Golden State Limited would make it’s way southwest to Amarillo Texas and then on to Tucumcari New Mexico (where it would be picked up by the Southern Pacific) and continue southward to El Paso. From El Paso, the Golden State Limited would head west through southern New Mexico and Arizona into southern California. The Golden State Limited was operated by the two railroads until 1947 at which time it was just called “The Golden State“. Two advantages of this route that would be marketed to the public was it’s low elevation and better weather than the more northern routes and also that the route would traverse cities like Tucson and Phoenix, both growing resort areas. Probably the only real disadvantage of this route is that it ran through some of the least scenic parts of the U.S., at least in direct comparison to the Union Pacific and the AT & SF.

rock island golden rocket advertisement
Promotional ad for the Rock Island “Golden Rocket”

Right after the end of World War Two, the Rock Island and the Southern Pacific discussed plans to create a new named train, the “Golden Rocket” which would be used to compete directly against the popular “Super Chief” mostly on a time basis. The Golden Rocket project was agreed upon by both railroads. Equipment was ordered by the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad as well as the Southern Pacific. The Rock island received their rail cars at about the time that the Southern Pacific backed out of the Golden Rocket project entirely. As far as the reason, most articles written on the subject contend that the Southern Pacific just decided not to spend the money required to update the rail route. The Interstate Commerce Commission had recently mandated that the maximum speed for a passenger train would not be more than 79 MPH  on rail track not equipped with special signaling equipment. As far as the Southern Pacific was concerned, updating the tracks would cost significant money and the decision was made to drop the Golden Rocket. Why was speed so important? The route of the Golden State was some 115 miles longer than that of the AT & SF Super Chief. To try to compete against the Super Chief, the Golden Rocket would have had to have some segments requiring 100 MPH speeds and that meant a lot of spending on new signal equipment. Supposedly, the Rock Island didn’t have the necessary funds to spend and while the Southern Pacific did, they decided not to. The main reason for the Golden Rocket project in the first place was to match the Super Chief’s time schedule and when this proved to be too costly, the Southern Pacific pulled out.rock island and pacific golden rocket


The halt of the Golden Rocket train project came suddenly and after a lot of publicity and advertising had already taken place. While this was quite a shock and embarrassment, the Golden State continued to operate on it’s transcontinental route until 1967. This was surely the final years of private transcontinental railroads with the establishment of Amtrak in 1971. During the 1950’s with the building of the Interstate highway system and early 1960’s the automobile and increased airline competition slowly but surely eroded railroad passenger traffic. The Rock Island and Pacific was not in a envious financial position and parts of the railroad were sold off to the Union pacific, the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific railroads. In 1975, the railroad entered it’s third bankruptcy. As the Rock Island strained to survive as a grain carrier to the Port of Galveston Texas, financial pressures continued to mount.

Please see our related articles about Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and The Railroad Post Office Cars.

A federal judge ordered the Rock Island Railroad to be shutdown in 1980 and it’s assets were ordered  liquidated. On March 31, 1980, the final liquidation of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad occurred.

(Photos and images are from the public domain)