Trackside Classic: 1949-70 California Zephyr – A Silver Thread Across America

Great trains have long lives. The Flying Scotsman is close to 150 years. The Cornish Riviera, over 120. The Broadway lasted over 80. The 20th Century Limited, 65. Canada’s Canadian is still going strong at 70. But in its original incarnation, the California Zephyr lasted only 21. So how can it be on the list of rail’s greatest hits? Three reasons.

Firstly, the route. Over two days and nights, across prairies, through canyons, over (and through) mountains, on a timetable that maximised the impact of the scenery rather than sought to meet the schedule of business passengers, to San Francisco, California and the Pacific, still the destination of dreamers the world over.

Second, the name. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (the Burlington Route, and now the B in the mega BNSF system) was the first to offer the streamlined trains that took America by storm in the 1930s, and used the inspired Zephyr brand to raise them above mere trains. California and Zephyr together – well, wow!

Finally, the train itself. Up to fifteen aluminium and stainless steel cars oozing luxury and exclusivity, sprinkled generously with domes and an observation car at the rear, hauled by the colourful EMD diesels of the Burlington and its partners the Denver and Rio Grande Western and the Western Pacific (WP), making a shining silver snake through the landscape.

Let’s look at these elements in turn.

Chicago has always been the railroad hub of north America, and from the 1930s to the 1970s the system was at its height. Railroads ran to Chicago from every direction, but not through – it was the western terminus of the Baltimore and Ohio; Pennsylvania; Chesapeake and Ohio; New York Central, and many more; and the eastern of the Burlington Route; Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific; Chicago and North Western; and Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific; and, of course, of the Aitcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe. The Burlington linked Chicago to the Twin Cities (competing with the Milwaukee and the North Western, and connecting to the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific), and to Denver, competing with the Rock Island and the Union Pacific across Nebraska, Kansas and westwards. An impressive network, with the great slogan ‘Everywhere West’.

At Denver, the mile high city at the foot of the Rockies, the Burlington linked to the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the ‘Mainline through the Rockies’. Through the Rockies means ten tunnels in 20 miles as the line heads out of Denver and up to the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel at 9,200ft above sea level, which makes possible a direct main line through Colorado into Utah to Salt Lake City, and a junction with both the Southern Pacific (the western half of the original Overland Route from Omaha to Sacramento) and later rival Western Pacific, operating on an alternative route to San Francisco via the spectacular Feather River Canyon.

This became the 2,525 mile route of the California Zephyr, competing with the Super Chief of the Santa Fe and the ‘City’ trains of the Union Pacific and its allies the Southern Pacific and Milwaukee Road. On the CZ’s schedule, passengers left Chicago in time for cocktails and dinner before enjoying an overnight cruise over the flatlands of Illinois and Nebraska; arrived in Denver after breakfast and then headed up into the Rockies for a day of spectacular mountains; then a night crossing the Utah and Nevada deserts before the Feather River Canyon led the train down to the Bay at Oakland. It’s hard to think of many more dramatic rail journeys – the Canadian comes close, but the Overland Route and the Santa Fe were on routes designed to avoid the mountains!

And the Zephyrs? Where did these beauties come from? They were a child of the Great Depression, as a response to the collapse of long distance passenger traffic after 1929 – a fall of over half in the west. And, as the economy slowly recovered, the car became a practical option. Old fashioned, slow and dirty steam trains were not going to cut it any more. Europe turned to streamlined steam; but America went further, to a new technology.

Enter the unrelated Ralph Budd and Edward Budd. Ralph was president of the Burlington, and looking for something to save his passenger business. Ed was the founder of the Budd company, producing the first all steel automobile bodies and increasingly keen to use stainless steel for its lightweight and strength. Budd had developed a railcar running on pneumatic tyres, which, while not successful, showed the potential of the body construction, especially once Budd had patented shotwelding, which allows stainless steel to be welded without distortion or loss of strength. Ralph saw the concept, and took it to General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division (EMD) to find a power unit – the 600 hp Winton 201A diesel. Bingo!

In April 1934, the Pioneer Zephyr appeared and took America by storm. It was a three-car unit, with bogies (trucks) articulated between the cars to save more weight, a driving cab at the front and an observation car at the rear, in a new and distinctive streamlined style and finished in unpainted stainless steel. Nothing like it had been seen on the rails before.

The Pioneer Zephyr was exactly that – an experimental pioneer. The Burlington sent it on a publicity tour (beating the Union Pacific’s aluminium M10000 from Pullman-Standard, a very similar concept, by 2 months), including a record breaking 1,015 mile sprint from Denver to Chicago (the longest run possible on the Burlington) at an average of 77 mph, approximately twice as fast as contemporary steam hauled trains. The die was cast – diesel powered lightweight streamlined trains in stainless steel or aluminium were the way forward for the railroads.

The Burlington quickly developed a network of Zephyrs across its system, linking Chicago to Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and Denver, and all points in between. The Burlington also cooperated with the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific to operate the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited respectively to the Pacific North West via the Twin Cities. The other railroads soon caught up, with Union Pacific running trains using a ‘City of’ theme to LA, San Francisco and the northwest, and Santa Fe creating streamlined versions of the longstanding Chief and Super Chief for its route to LA via New Mexico and Arizona.

All these services sought to deliver their passengers to their destinations quickly as possible at convenient times. But the final Zephyr would upend this railroad instinct, and deliver passengers to the scenery at the best time to see it – the model now used by cruise trains across the world.

The California Zephyr broke cover in March 1949, replacing the Exposition Flyer which had run since the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939. This is the first eastbound service. Six trainsets, each of 10 cars, were built by Budd, funded and owned by the Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific in proportion to their share of the route.

Did I mention dome cars? The first dome car was built by the Burlington in 1945, reputedly after GM engineer Cyrus Osborn travelled on the Rio Grande through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado, in a caboose and had the inspiration to develop a passenger car that gave the same 360 degree panorama – which became the first of the Burlington’s Vista-Domes. By 1949, they were well enough established for the California Zephyr to have an unmatched 5 domes in its standard 10 car consist – and the CZ was the first transcontinental train to feature them. Seats in the dome were unreserved – you bought a sleeping car berth from a choice of a double bedroom, a roomette, or a traditional section, and moved to the dome car and the diner through the day. No ordinary coach seats on the CZ!

The centre section of a dome car is effectively double deck, with observation seats above – perhaps featuring a guide (a Zephyrette, no less), or steward offering drinks, and, on some Union Pacific trains, the chance to dine under the stars.

Below would be a bar or coffee shop, or perhaps dining seats.

By 1949, EMD had moved on from the experimental Zephyr power car to the 2,000 hp E6, 2,250 hp E7 and 2,400 hp E8 that were the American standard express passenger diesel and which Paul described so well here. Known to railfans as ‘covered wagons’, from the resemblance to the horse drawn wagons that first crossed the Prairie a century before, and famous for their distinctive ‘bulldog’ nose, these had 2 six wheeled bogies and came in A and B versions – the A had a driving cab at one end, the B was just a power unit. The Burlington used these in sets of up to 4 units (usually arranged A-B-B-A) for its streamliners.

The Rio Grande and the Western Pacific stuck with EMD’s F units, of 1,800 hp and 2 four wheel bogies. Originally intended for freight service (at which they excelled – they drove steam off the mainlines of America by 1960), the lower gearing and higher adhesion factor (as all axles were powered – the E had an unpowered centre axle on each bogie) made it suitable for heavy passenger trains in the mountains when equipped with a train heating boiler.

As the same basic diesel spread to dozens of railroads, the railroads and EMD invested imagination and effort in differentiating their appearance through flamboyant liveries. Burlington, as the pioneer, stuck to plain silver, with red highlights and fluting on the sides of the units to match the cars; Rio Grande had a dramatic gold and silver scheme with dramatic ‘speed lettering’ while Western Pacific preferred orange and silver in a variety of schemes. And as the CZ was the pride of the railroads, you could expect the power to be smart – and the train ran through carwashes at Denver and at Portola on the Western Pacific on each trip, to keep the dome windows clean for the scenery.

But it couldn’t last. By the early 1960s, even a fully loaded CZ was lossmaking, and the WP in particular (the smallest and weakest of the partner railroads) wanted out. It applied for consent to abandon the service from the ICC in 1966, but was denied – the Commission referred to the CZ as ‘a unique national asset’. Eventually, persistence paid off, and consent to end the train west of Ogden was granted, effective March 1970.

Here we see the proud crew of the last service to arrive in Oakland.

The Burlington and Rio Grande were stuck with having to operate three times a week between Chicago and Ogden, running as the California Service and the Rio Grande Zephyr respectively, and connecting with the Southern Pacific. However, the birth of Amtrak in 1971 led to the San Francisco Zephyr, running via Denver and Cheyenne, replacing the Burlington train, while the Rio Grande held out from the nationalised service until 1983.

The Rio Grande’s change of heart allowed Amtrak to reinstate a through train from Chicago to Denver, then over the Rio Grande to Ogden and the SP to San Francisco, which it promptly named California Zephyr, and survives to this day. But it lacks the ambition, style and drama of the original.

And as the railroads turned themselves into freight only businesses through the 1960s and 1970s, with passenger trains disappearing across America, so they consolidated. In 1970, the Burlington joined the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific as Burlington Northern; a merger with the Santa Fe in 1995 created what is now known as BNSF. In 1981, the WP became part of the Union Pacific system; the Rio Grande took over the SP in 1988, but used the SP name for the merged operation until it too was absorbed in to UP in 1996, which also included the former Chicago and North Western.

So, yes, you can still see America by passenger train. But for 20 years you could go one better, and see America from the California Zephyr. Who wouldn’t want to?