Southern Pacific Railroad History Center


The Blue Streak Merchandise Operation

The Blue Streak Merchandise originated as an overnight less-than-carload merchandise train on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt) from East St. Louis, Illinois, to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Originally called the Blue Streak, it commenced operation between East St. Louis and Pine Bluff (397 miles) on October 1, 1930. Operating as a first class train in the time- table and at passenger train speeds (55 miles per hour) with passenger train locomotives, the Blue Streak was touted by the Cotton Belt in advertisements as “America’s Fastest Freight Train.” The initial schedule between East St. Louis and Pine Bluff Shops was 10 1/2 hours (39.4 miles per hour), faster than Cotton Belt’s passenger schedule of 11 3/4 hours. The Blue Streak was scheduled to arrive Pine Bluff at 5:15 a.m. and connect with No. 43 due to depart at 5.30 a.m. for Texarkana, Texas. A Shreveport section originated at Lewisville, Arkansas, in connection with No. 43.

The primary mission was to deliver goods from manufacturers to regional warehouses for retailers including Sears-Roebuck, SS Kresge, FW Woolworth and JC Penny. Trucks were utilized for delivery from the warehouses to retail stores. Merchandise leaving East St. Louis at 7.00 p.m. on the Blue Streak would be available at retail stores at all points served by the Cotton Belt in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and at Memphis by noon the following day.

Southern Pacific began purchasing St. Louis Southwestern Railway common and preferred stock on October 25, 1929. The Interstate Commerce Commission approved Southern Pacific control of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway on April 14, 1932. Southern Pacific’s executive department in San Francisco set general guidelines for management of the Cotton Belt, however, day-to-day management was headquartered in Tyler, Texas until June 1965, when operational control was assigned to Ralph Kirk, Southern Pacific’s general manager in Houston.

The Blue Streak was extended from Pine Bluff to Dallas and Fort Worth in late 1935. The following year, the Motor Special was inaugurated between East St. Louis and Los Angeles via connection with Southern Pacific at Corsicana, Texas. Operating with a 102 hour schedule on a 2,450 mile run, the Motor Special carried auto parts for the South Gate Assembly Plant in California, plus high priority freight including merchandise. The Motor Special added cars from the Blue Streak at Pine Bluff, providing transcontinental merchandise service. In 1939, the Texas Streak was established between Pine Bluff and Houston, replacing the Lewisville – Shreveport section of the Blue Streak.

In addition to the westbound Motor Special, Southern Pacific and Cotton Belt operated eastward two through perishable trains through Corsicana, the CB Colton Block (Colton, CA to East St. Louis) and the SR-IV Salt River – Imperial Valley (Yuma, AZ to Pine Bluff). Plans to extend the Blue Streak through to California were delayed by wartime traffic build up before and during the Second World War.

Excluding the section of joint track with the Missouri Pacific Railroad between Illmo and Dexter Junction, Missouri, (47 miles), the Cotton Belt was physically unprepared for the crush of wartime traffic. Most of the Cotton Belt was single tracked, devoid of block signals, lacked heavy rail, and sufficient siding capacity. Gridlock ensued as traffic increased to 40 trains per day south of Pine Bluff and any semblance of prewar schedule performance disappeared. Transcontinental schedules were lengthened 24 hours in late 1942.

After traffic had receded to a manageable level in early 1946, Blue Streak service was rearranged with establishment of the Blue Streak Merchandise (BSM) between East St. Louis and Los Angeles. The Dallas – Fort Worth section designated as the Blue Streak now originated at Texarkana with cars set out by the Los Angeles train. The new BSM operated as a second section of the Motor Special and the two trains were often consolidated. By 1949 the Blue Streak Merchandise was established as a daily train, operating ahead of the Motor Special. The opening of the Van Nuys Assembly Plant near Raymer, California, in 1947 increased auto parts traffic and a second auto parts train the Advance Motor Special was inaugurated.

In the 1950s, the BSM and MS operated on 93 hour and 96½ hour schedules from East St. Louis to Los Angeles, a distance of 2,447 miles. Effective March 14, 1958, these schedules for both trains were slashed to 65½ hours to compete with other western railroads. The BSM now arrived in Los Angeles at 1:00 pm, which was too late for customer deliveries, and therefore, in November 1958, the BSM schedule was reduced to 52 hours, 40 hours shorter than the previous year. The Motor Special schedule was extended to 67½ hour and the Advance Motor Special schedule remained unchanged at 73½ hours. Maxi- mum speeds for these expedited trains increased from 60 miles per hour to 65 in 1958 and to 70 in 1963. The AMS (Advance Motor Special) was renamed the Advance Blue Steak Merchandise in May of 1961. A second section of the BSM began operation in 1966, followed by third section in 1971.

The MBSM (Memphis Blue Streak Merchandise) was inaugurated as an East St. Louis to Los Angeles train on March 3, 1962. Traffic from Memphis was handled by Train 725 to Pine Bluff and added to the MBSM. Operation of a dedicated Memphis to Los Angeles train didn’t begin until March 3, 1979 as train MBSMF.

Southern Pacific served two General Motors auto assembly plants in Southern California. The South Gate Assembly Plant on the San Pedro Branch opened in 1936 and the Van Nuys Assembly Plant on the Coast Line at Raymer opened in 1947. By 1969, Southern Pacific was handling 2,900 carloads of auto parts each month from East St. Louis to Southern California. Southern Pacific also transported fully-assembled autos and empty auto parts cars east. General Motors wanted its own unit auto parts train and Southern Pacific obliged in order to prevent the Union Pacific and Santa Fe from stealing the business. The first test run was March 20, 1970 on a 50½ hour schedule and became operating as the First BSM from East St. Louis. On December 15, 1970, the auto parts train was renamed APW (Auto Parts West) and began operation from Pine Bluff to Los Angeles (the APW became the APLAA on February 3, 1974). The eastward counterparts carrying finished automobiles and empty auto parts cars originated at City of Industry (Train APECI) and at Los Angeles Taylor Yard (APELA), both operating on 47 hour schedules and terminating at Pine Bluff.

Southern Pacific faced competition from Missouri Pacific for traffic from St. Louis to the west coast via El Paso (the Missouri Pacific route between Fort Worth and El Paso was 257 miles shorter than Southern Pacific’s). In the 1960s, the two railroads twice discussed a joint operation between Fort Worth and Sierra Blanca over Missouri Pacific’s subsidiary, Texas & Pacific, which would cut four hours off the BSM schedules and afford $3.9 million in annual savings ($33.4 million in 2020 dollars). All of Southern Pacific’s trains moving between East St. Louis and the west coast would have used the Texas & Pacific’s trackage, abolishing 267 jobs by reducing crews from six operating trains between Corsicana and El Paso to two crews using the Texas & Pacific. The railroad companies could not agree on expenditures for capital improvements.

The combined Southern Pacific – Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad “Golden State” route was 424 miles shorter between St. Louis and El Paso than the traditional Southern Pacific route via Corsicana. Southern Pacific purchased the Rock Island between St. Louis and Santa Rosa, New Mexico, for $57 million in 1980, and spent $99 million rehabilitating the Rock Island west of Kansas City ($156 million investment, $566 million in 2020 dollars). The final BSMFF operated via Corsicana on January 6, 1983; the following day its journey was over the trackage of the Missouri Pacific from St. Louis to Kansas City and then over trackage of Union Pacific from Kansas City, to Topeka, Kansas.  From Topeka, the BSMFF operation over the new Southern Pacific – Cotton Belt route to Tucumcari.

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