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North Coast Hiawatha

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North Coast Hiawatha
BN 9762 in Yakima Aug 71 NthCstHiRP.jpg
An EMD F3 leads the North Coast Hiawatha into Yakima, Washington in August, 1971.
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleWestern United States
PredecessorNorth Coast Limited/Mainstreeter
First serviceJune 5, 1971
Last serviceOctober 6, 1979
Former operator(s)Amtrak
StartChicago, Illinois
EndSeattle, Washington
Distance travelled2,228 miles (3,586 km)
Average journey time46 hours, 40 minutes
Service frequencyTri-weekly
Train number(s)17/18
On-board services
Sleeping arrangementsSleeping cars
Catering facilitiesFull dining car
On-board lounge
Observation facilitiesDome lounge
Baggage facilitiesBaggage car

The North Coast Hiawatha was a streamlined passenger train operated by Amtrak between Chicago, Illinois, and Seattle, Washington, in the United States. It operated from 1971 to 1979. The train was a successor to the Northern Pacific Railway's North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter, although it used the route of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad ("Milwaukee Road") east of Minneapolis–Saint Paul. The train's name combined the North Coast Limited with the Milwaukee Road's famed Hiawathas. Created at the behest of the United States Congress, the North Coast Hiawatha enjoyed an uncertain existence before being discontinued in 1979. Since then there have been several attempts to restore the service, without success.



A 1956 advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post touted the North Coast Limited's amenities.

The flagship train on the Northern Pacific Railway ("NP") main line was the North Coast Limited, which had begun running in 1900. Its running mate since 1952 was the Mainstreeter, which operated on a slower schedule with fewer amenities. The Northern Pacific main line mirrored that of its great rival, the Great Northern Railway ("GN"), running through southern Montana and North Dakota.

From the 1920s onward, however, the NP, GN, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad ("CB&Q") shared closer relations, culminating in their 1970 merger Burlington Northern Railroad. After the merger, service continued on both the ex-Northern Pacific and ex-Great Northern. When passenger service was transferred to Amtrak, the new provider chose the Empire Builder, the former flagship train of the Great Northern, as its Chicago–Pacific Northwest route. Amtrak based this decision on several factors, including the overall higher speed of the ex-Great Northern route and better availability of alternative transportation options along the ex-Northern Pacific.[1]


The North Coast Hiawatha at Missoula in May 1974

Amtrak's decision to discontinue the NP trains caused consternation in Montana. Mike Mansfield (D-Montana), then Senate Majority Leader, pointed out that the Empire Builder bypassed Montana's major population centers, and had no difficulty in making his displeasure felt. He demanded that Amtrak find a way to serve Montana's larger cities. The new company reacted to the pressure and announced a resumption of service over the ex-Northern Pacific line, to begin on June 14. This service took the form of an unnamed section of the Empire Builder which split in Minneapolis en route to Spokane, Washington.[2] Mansfield's intervention earned the train the nickname “Mike Mansfield Limited”.[3] The Northern Pacific route, which included the Yellowstone River, Homestake Pass and Bitterroot Mountains, was praised for its scenery.[4] Amtrak considered the route one of the company's six most beautiful.[5] The train also provided a convenient connection to Yellowstone National Park at Livingston, Montana.[6]

On November 14, 1971, Amtrak formally named this service the North Coast Hiawatha, For four days a week, it ran independently of the Empire Builder from the Twin Cities to Spokane. On the other three days of the week, it combined with the Empire Builder in Spokane for the trip to Seattle.[7][8] Amtrak initially named the Minneapolis train Hiawatha, but adopted the Twin Cities Hiawatha name on January 16, 1972. Amtrak reverted to Hiawatha on October 29, and this name remained until the North Coast Hiawatha went daily for the first time on May 19, 1974.[9]

This joint operation ended on June 11, 1973, when Amtrak extended the North Coast Hiawatha to Seattle over the Great Northern's route, which included Stevens Pass and Cascade Tunnel. This new routing served the northern Washington communities of Wenatchee and Everett, which had previously been without service. The train remained on a tri-weekly schedule west of Minneapolis.[7] For the summer of 1974 Amtrak added a second train, the Expo '74 (named for the "Expo '74" then being held in Spokane), to the Seattle–Spokane segment.[10]

The schedule fluctuated over the next three years, with the train operating daily between Chicago and Seattle in the summers and reverting to tri-weekly west of Minneapolis the rest of the year. Amtrak would also run a daily service during the holiday season (as in 1975, when the train operated daily December 12 – January 12), but the train never operated a daily schedule for a full calendar year.[7][11] In early 1976 the North Coast Hiawatha was threatened with discontinuance, along with the Pacific International and the three daily Portland, Oregon—Seattle trains, after the Ford Administration proposed budget cuts. Several members of Congress protested the proposed cuts, including Representative Max Baucus (D-Montana), and Senators Warren Magnuson (D-Washington) and Bob Packwood (R-Oregon). In the end Congress approved a budget for Amtrak $62 million above the administration's request, saving all three services.[12][13][14]

Amtrak announced in October 1976 that the North Coast Hiawatha would be the second train, after the Empire Builder, to receive the new bi-level Superliner coaches, then on order from Pullman Standard.[15] In the end the train was cancelled before the Superliners entered long-distance service. In the spring of 1977 Amtrak added seven hours to the schedule, increasing it to 52 hours 30 minutes. The change was prompted by new speed restrictions on Amtrak trains after a rash of derailments involving the new EMD SDP40F diesel locomotives.[7][16] In September Amtrak eliminated the off-day Chicago—St. Paul service, leaving the North Coast Hiawatha with three trips a week. Amtrak reduced the Empire Builder to quad-weekly service as well.[17] The Twin Cities Hiawatha returned as a daytime service between Chicago and Minneapolis.[18]

In November Amtrak reduced the running time to 46 hours 40 minutes, after the replacement of the SDP40Fs permitted an easing of speed restrictions.[19] Even as this improved service began, the train was threatened with cancellation. Facing a budget deficit of $60 million, Amtrak identified a half dozen routes which it considered "financially troubled." Amtrak proposed merging the North Coast Hiawatha and the Empire Builder, or even cancelling both.[20] Throughout 1978 no decision was taken, and the two trains continued to provide between them daily service between Chicago and Seattle.[21]


It would be cheaper to buy every Chicago-Seattle rail passenger a free $170 plane ticket and two drinks than it is to operate the Hiawatha.

US Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams, 1979[22]

In January 1979 Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams announced plans to cut 12,000 miles (19,000 km) from Amtrak's network. The North Coast Hiawatha was one of many routes scheduled for elimination.[23] The train had faced cancellation before, but after eight years of federal subsidies members of Congress favored retrenchment.[24][25] Once-vocal supporters such as Senator Magnuson expressed regret but made no public commitment.[26] Adams noted that the service recovered only $6 million against expenses of $24 million, and that the per-passenger cost was $178.[22]

In July an attempt by Representative (and future Vice President) Al Gore (D-Tennessee) to impose a one-year moratorium on the proposed system-wide cuts failed 214-197.[27] In the end the Senate approved a smaller cutback, citing a 24% spike in Amtrak ridership after an oil shock during the summer, but the North Coast Hiawatha remained on the chopping block.[28] In late September the Railway Labor Executives' Association, along with Senator John Melcher (D-Montana) and Representative Pat Williams (D-Montana), sued the U.S. Department of Transportation to prevent the discontinuance of the service, then scheduled for October 1.[29] A federal judge temporarily restrained Amtrak from ending the service, but the last North Coast Hiawathas ran on October 6, 1979, arriving in Chicago on the 7th and Seattle on the 8th.[30]

Proposed return[edit]

Over the years there have been periodic attempts to restore service in southern Montana and North Dakota. A proposed plan from 1982–1983 would have involved North Dakota and Montana paying 45% of costs in the first year and 65% thereafter of a new section of the Empire Builder operating tri-weekly between Fargo and Sandpoint. This proposal went nowhere as neither state voted funds. Another proposal mooted in 1991 would have required an additional yearly federal appropriation of $12–15 million plus new equipment. In this scenario the Portland section would operate over the old route. Again, nothing came of it.[31]

In 2008 Congress directed Amtrak to study resumption of service, which rekindled hope of restoration.[32] Amtrak published a feasibility study in October 2009, which proposed restoring the North Coast Hiawatha to its 1979 route where possible with a daily schedule. Amtrak projected a yearly ridership of 359,800, some of whom would be drawn from the Empire Builder. Amtrak estimated that $1 billion in funds would be necessary to relaunch the service, including over $300 million for new locomotives and rolling stock. The corporation estimated it would take four to five years to reintroduce the service if a decision was made to move forward.[33]


The North Coast Hiawatha saw a variety of motive power and rolling stock during its eight years, as Amtrak disposed of its inherited equipment as best it could and gradually replaced the older equipment with its own stock. In the early 1970s a typical train might feature as many as four dome cars pulled by ex-Milwaukee Road EMD E9s. In the summer of 1972 the train maxed out at 18 cars, including five dome coaches, an ex-California Zephyr dome lounge, and a dome-sleeper-lounge. The 1970 Burlington/Great Northern merger notwithstanding, cars carried both the "Big Sky Blue" livery characteristic of late Great Northern passenger trains and the "Cascade Green" of the Burlington Northern Railroad.[34]

The train was one of many routes to receive the new EMD SDP40F, which worked the route between 1974–1977, although older EMD E8 and EMD E9s continued to be used.[35] A series of derailments involving the SDP40F prompted their replacement, and by late 1977 Amtrak had introduced the EMD F40PH. These sometimes ran with an E9 "B" unit as well.[36] In late 1976 a typical North Coast Hiawatha departed Seattle with two SDP40Fs, a baggage car, two 44-seat long-distance coaches, a Budd dome coach, one of the dormitory-coffee shop cars formerly used on California Zephyr, an ex-North Coast Limited dining car, and a single Pacific series sleeping car. Two more baggage cars were added at Minneapolis for mail and express service.[37]


  1. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 158
  2. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 159
  3. ^ Blackwell, Edward H. (March 18, 1973). "All Aboard! A 2 Day Trip on Amtrak". Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  4. ^ "Train travel growing". Boca Raton News. May 13, 1973. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  5. ^ Freeland, Jay (April 14, 1974). "According to Amtrak: America's Six Most Beautiful Train Trips". Daily News. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  6. ^ Shuldiner 1974, p. 111
  7. ^ a b c d Amtrak 2009, p. 9
  8. ^ "New Trains to Carry Names of Yesteryear". The Day. November 11, 1971. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  9. ^ Goldberg 1981, pp. 30–31
  10. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 160
  11. ^ "Holiday Trains Added". Milwaukee Journal. December 5, 1975. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  12. ^ Blumenthal, Les (January 25, 1976). "Amtrak may be cut in Spokane". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  13. ^ "Amtrak fight". Daily Record. January 24, 1976. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  14. ^ "State Amtrak service kept". The Spokesman-Review. May 28, 1976. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  15. ^ "Amtrak Area Schedule, Fares Are Improved". Spokane Daily Chronicle. October 14, 1976. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  16. ^ "Speed limits slow passenger trains". Tri City Herald. February 10, 1977. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  17. ^ "Amtrak Cuts Dues". The Spokesman-Review. July 27, 1977. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  18. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 161
  19. ^ "Day Train Runs Begin". Spokane Daily Chronicle. November 2, 1977. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  20. ^ "Amtrak threatens service cuts". The Spokesman-Review. November 11, 1977. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  21. ^ Klossen, Bill (October 28, 1978). "Amtrak schedule, cars change". Daily Record. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  22. ^ a b Burkhardt, Susan (May 17, 1979). "Adams: Fuel crunch is here to stay". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  23. ^ "Deep cuts asked for Amtrak". Register-Guard. January 31, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  24. ^ "Business: Ax for Amtrak". Time Magazine. March 19, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  25. ^ "Amtrak Cutback Plan Is Popular". Argus-Press. February 1, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  26. ^ Dullenty, Jim (March 6, 1979). "Magnuson adopts 'show-me' stance on rail service need". Tri City Herald. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  27. ^ "Vote on Amtrak route disappointing". The Spokesman-Review. July 26, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  28. ^ "Nation: Summertime Slowdown". Time Magazine. August 13, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  29. ^ "New suit seeks to save Montana Amtrak". The Spokesman-Review. September 27, 1979. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  30. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 166
  31. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 167
  32. ^ Straub, Noelle (24 February 2008). "Tester gets OK for Amtrak route study". Independent Record. Retrieved February 3, 2009.
  33. ^ Ward, Leah Beth (December 18, 2009). "Study shows interest in reviving Amtrak route through Yakima". Tri-City Herald. Retrieved December 18, 2009.
  34. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 170
  35. ^ Sanders 2006, p. 171
  36. ^ Dorin 1979, p. 2
  37. ^ Wayner 1977, p. 7


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