The Panama Limited was a passenger train operated by the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago, Illinois and New Orleans, Louisiana. It operated from 1911 to 1971. The Panama Limited took its name from the Panama Canal, then under construction and three years from completion. For most of its career the train was “all-Pullman,” carrying sleeping cars only. The Panama Limited was one of many trains discontinued when Amtrak began operations in 1971; though Amtrak would revive the service in late 1971 and continue it until 1981. Today the Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, another former Illinois Central train, provides overnight service between Chicago and New Orleans.
In the early 1900s the Illinois Central’s premier train on the Chicago-New Orleans route was the Chicago and New Orleans Limited. On February 4, 1911, the Illinois Central renamed this train the Panama Limited, in honor of the anticipated opening of the Panama Canal. The train included a St. Louis, Missouri section which connected at Carbondale, Illinois. The train was first-class only north of Memphis, Tennessee. It carried through sleepers for Hot Springs, Arkansas and San Antonio, Texas. It made the journey in 25 hours.
In 1912 the train was replaced with an all-steel, all electric consist. The Illinois Central relaunched the train on November 15, 1916, with new equipment and a new schedule: 23 hours from Chicago to New Orleans. The new train carried sleeping cars only for its entire route. Its old equipment and schedule became a new train, the Louisiana.
The Great Depression led the Illinois Central to discontinue the luxurious Panama Limited between May 28, 1932, and December 2, 1934. When it returned it had new air-conditioned equipment and an improved 20-hour schedule between Chicago and New Orleans.
The Panama Limited was streamlined in 1942, during World War II. The Illinois Central had ordered two lightweight sets of equipment prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor; after an appeal the War Production Board allowed their delivery. The first diesel/electric-powered streamlined run of the Panama Limited was on May 3, 1942 on an 18-hour schedule. On hand for the first run was Janie Jones, the widow of famed engineer Casey Jones. The Panama Limited carried a new orange-and-black paint scheme which later became standard on Illinois Central passenger trains. For the duration of the War the Illinois Central dropped the extra fare. In June 1946 the schedule dropped to 17 hours; later the schedule was reduced to 16 hours, 30 minutes again with the extra fare.
The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its dining car service, with a first rate culinary staff and creole fare in the Vieux Carre themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the ‘Kings Dinner,’ on the menu for about $10 (other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4–$5).
In 1952 the Illinois Central acquired several 2-unit 175-foot dining cars from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad which it used on the Panama.
With the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited it was one of the last two “all-Pullman” trains in the United States.
On October 29, 1967, the Illinois Central added coaches to the Panama Limited, although it attempted to save face by designating the coaches the Magnolia Star. The Illinois Central dropped this separate designation on December 13, 1968. The Illinois Central petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to end the train altogether on November 23, 1970, but the ICC deferred the request pending the startup of Amtrak.
The final day of operation of the Panama Limited by the Illinois Central Railroad was 30 April 1971.