Amtrak Superliner

Introduced in the late 70s, the Amtrak Superliner cars have been the backbone of various Amtrak routes throughout the country. They are bi-level passenger cars that were built to replace the aging equipment handed over to Amtrak after its inception in 1971. 

Amtrak has been the preferred mode of travel for many since it was introduced in May 1971. One of the most noticeable aspects of Amtrak is its bi-level Superliner cars, mainly used on many of the railroad’s long-distance routes. The Superliner cars are based on the old Santa Fe Hi-Level cars, which were a roaring success on some of Santa Fe’s most notable trains, such as the Super Chief and El Capitan.

The Amtrak Superliner cars were designed to provide a luxurious experience, providing passengers with an unforgettable trip. Let’s take a closer look at the Superliner cars, the history, specs, and more below.

History of Amtrak Superliner Cars

When Amtrak was formed in 1971, it was given various cars from the Class 1 railroads that turned over their passenger services to the newly formed Amtrak. They received many single-level railcars from these roads; however, they were also provided 73 of the highly successful Santa Fe Hi-Level cars. These cars were built by the Budd Company between 1954-1964 and soon became known for their picture-perfect windows and smooth ride.

In 1973, Amtrak realized that they needed additional cars for the long-distance routes that they had taken over. Noting the success of the Santa Fe Hi-Level cars, they favored this bi-level design for their new railcars. Amtrak issued a request for proposal, (RFP) in 1973, and had the opportunity to choose between 13 different companies. They eventually settled on the proposal put forth by Klauder. They then considered four different companies to potentially manufacture the cars, Boeing, ROHR, Budd, and Pullman-Standard. Amtrak ended up choosing Pullman-Standard, and they were awarded the contract.

This first order of Amtrak Superliner cars were built by the Pullman-Standard company between 1975-1981 and are referred to as Superliner 1 cars. In this order, there were 284 cars built. When the Superliners were first introduced, it was common to see them in the same consist as the original ATSF Hi-Level cars.

Seeing a need for more capacity on its long-distance trains, Amtrak ordered an additional 195 cars from Bombardier, the successor to Pullman-Standard, and coined them the Superliner II.

Superliner cars under construction in Hammond, Indiana
Superliner cars under construction in Hammond, Indiana

Superliner I

Production of the Superliner I began in 1975, and lasted until 1981. The original order consisted of the following cars:

  • 120 coaches
  • 55 sleepers
  • 34 diners
  • 26 lounges

The order was then increased, and the following cars were added:

  • 30 coaches
  • 15 sleepers
  • 5 diners
  • -1 lounge

This increased the total number to 284 total cars, and brought the total cost from $143.6 million to $250 million.

Amtrak took this opportunity to involve its employees in the process and asked them to come up with a name for these new cars. In its June 1977 newsletter, the winner was announced, where the winning entry was to name the new cars “Vistaliners”, which can be traced back to the esteemed railcars of the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy. However, this name was actually already under copyright by another company, therefore, the new cars would be dubbed “Superliners”.

The cars began to arrive in 1978 and 1979, and were initially put on intercity routes originating in Chicago. They were first introduced on the Chicago-Milwaukee route, and replaced the Turboliner equipment that were presently running on the route. The new cars were soon added to the Illini and Shawnee trains, with the first Superliner diner being placed on the Shawnee, acting as a lounge.

In October 1979, with much fanfare, the Superliners were publically unveiled at Chicago Union Station. The Superliners were first introduced on the Empire Builder, which operates between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. Due to the harsh winters throughout many portions of this route, the traditional steam-heated equipment often broke down, causing significant delays and even cancellations.

Therefore, Amtrak decided to introduce the new Superliner equipment on the Empire Builder to alleviate these issues and provide an overall better experience for passengers. The Superliners were equipped with electrical head end power, which performed far better in these harsh conditions.

To further introduce the new Superliner to the public, Amtrak had the Superliner on the cover of the national passenger train schedule in 1979, with the slogan, “Amtrak’s Superliner is Somethin’ Special.”

The Amtrak long-distance trains in the west were all eventually equipped with Superliners, with the Desert Wind, Coast Starlight, Southwest Limited, and Sunset Limited all receiving the new cars by 1981.

amtrak superliner coach
Roger Puta

Superliner II

In the 1990s, Amtrak was looking to replace the aging Santa Fe Hi-Level cars, are add more Superliner routes to the long-distance network. Therefore, Amtrak contracted Pullman-Standard’s successor, Bombardier to build 140 Superliner II cars. In this order, the following cars were ordered:

  • 55 sleepers
  • 38 coaches
  • 20 diners
  • 15 lounges
  • 12 transition-dormitory cars

This order cost $340 million and allowed Amtrak to exercise the option for an additional 39 cars. Amtrak exercised this option in 1993 and ordered an additional 55 for an additional cost of up to $110 million, increasing the order to 195 cars. This new option of 55 cars included ten dining cars, ten lounges, and 35 transdorms.

Upon delivery, the ATSF Hi-Level cars began disposition, and a few east coast routes received Superliner cars. These routes included the Chicago-New Orleans, City of New Orleans, the Washington D.C.- Chicago Capitol Limited, and the Lorton, VA to Sanford FL, Auto Train.

Superliner Design

The Superliners were basically derived from the ATSF Hi-Level cars; however, at 16 feet 2 inches (4.9 m), they were 8 inches (20 cm) taller. Due to clearance issues, the Superliner were originally used on routes west of Chicago; however, with the advent of double-stack intermodal trains, many railroads raised their clearances, and they were able to operate on certain routes in the east.

The Superliner I cars were equipped with Waggon Union MD-76 trucks, which were notoriously known for their rough ride, and had to be rebuilt often. This issue was resolved with the Superliner II, which were equipped with GSC-G70 outboard bearing trucks. Both the Superliner I and II have a maximum speed of 100 mph.

superliner train
David Wilson

Superliner Coaches

The Superliner coaches have seating on both the upper and lower levels. Superliner I cars could accommodate 62 passengers on the upper level and 15 passengers on the lower level. On the coach/baggage cars, 78 seats were available on the upper level. Seating is extremely spacious on the upper and lower levels, with the seats in a 2×2 configuration with recline.

Superliner Sleepers

There were 70 Superliner I sleepers built by Pullman-Standard, while Bombardier built 49 standard sleepers and six deluxe sleepers. The standard sleepers included 14 roomettes, five bedrooms, a family bedroom, and an accessible bedroom, while the deluxe sleepers included ten bedrooms, four roomettes, a family bedroom, and an accessible bedroom. The Superliner I sleeping car weighs 167,000 pounds, while the Superliner II weighs 160, 275 pounds. The deluxe sleeper is slightly heavier, coming in at 161,375 pounds.

amtrak roomette
Ben Schumin

Superliner Lounges

The sightseer lounges are a highly sought-after accommodation on many Superliner-equipped trains, especially on some of Amtrak’s most scenic routes. In these cars, the windows wrap around the ceiling, creating a view like no other. The Superliner I lounge weighs 160,000 pounds, while the Superliner II lounge weighs 151,235 pounds.

Superliner Diner

The Superliner Diners are quite popular with travelers on many Amtrak routes. There are 30 Superliner I diners and 39 Superliner II diners. The kitchen is located on the lower level, while the dining area is located on the upper level of the car. The Superliner I diner weighs 174,000 pounds, while the Superliner II weighs 158,070 pounds.

Transition Sleepers

In the Superliner II order, there were 47 transition sleepers built. These were designed to accommodate crew, with 16 roomettes on the upper level, an accessible bedroom, and a crew lounge on the lower level. There were also bathrooms and showers available on both levels. The Superliner II transition sleepers weigh up to 156,085 pounds.

train rides
Antony Guppy


The Amtrak Superliner cars have played a significant role in shaping America’s train travel landscape. With a rich history dating back to the 1980s, these bi-level cars symbolize comfort, luxury, and efficiency. From the cozy Roomettes to the spacious Family Bedrooms, the Superliner offers a range of accommodations to cater to diverse traveler needs.

Traveling on a Superliner is not just a means of reaching a destination; it’s an experience that transports passengers back to a time when train travel was the epitome of elegance and adventure. As technology and design continue to advance, Amtrak’s commitment to enhancing the Superliner experience ensures that this iconic mode of transportation remains an integral part of America’s rail heritage for generations to come. However, replacement is on the horizon for the Superliners, with Amtrak looking to replace the cars with a new long-distance fleet by 2032.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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