In the Oxford dictionary you will find the following explanation for the word Zephyr. West Wind also a soft gentle breeze. All this and more is true about the California Zephyr a transcontinental express train from Chicago westward all the way to San Francisco. A train not made for speed but for the enjoyment of some of Americas most spectacular scenery, including the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Salt Lake Desert and the Feather River Canyon.
History and predecessors
The first known Zephyr was in fact a three car RDC built by Budd for the Burlington and being put into service in the early 1930s. It was simply called Zephyr. On various demonstration runs all over the country it made history for the Rio Grande too, when it opened Dotsero Cutoff and Moffat Tunnel in 1934. It was beat by Union Pacific as being the first streamliner train by a week, as UP commissioned its M-10000 three car integrated unit called City of Salina.
Nevertheless, the concept was a sensational success and soon the Burlington begann to introduce more Zephyrs like the Twin Zephyrs, the Mark Twain Zephyr and the Denver Zephyr. Soon the shovel nosed three car untis proved to be too small and a fourth car was added. Still the demand soared and finally the train concept was handed over to Diesel locomotives in the early 1940s.
But lets go back to 1939, the year of the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. For this occasion a new train was introduced called the Exposition Flier. This train basically followed the routing of the California Zephyr of the years to come. From the start, the train was not meant as a fast connection but rather a scenic one, arranging the schedule so as to not miss out on any of the good spots. The train was a huge success.
The various Zephyrs also continued to evolve. The first Dome cars were added in 1945 - the year which saw the completion of talks between Rio Grande, Western Pacific and Burlington for operating a new Exposition Flier called the California Zephyr.
The same year a massive order went out to Budd to build and furnish the cars - in all six 10 car trains were ordered by the railroads, plus one more car ordered by the Pennsylvania for through service from New York to Oakland.
In 1947 the order was revised to 11 car trains plus additional equipment. After initial success of the train another batch of cars was purchased in 1952. The line up was as follows:
Meanwhile preplanning continued to be an important matter, especially as far as schedules was concerned. Great effort was made to arrange passage through the Rocky Mountains and Feather River Canyon during daylight hours. This meant compromise to speed, making the planned duration from Chicago to Oakland 10 hours longer than UP Sp City of San Francisco.
Final passage time on the California Zephyr would be 51 hours. Eastbound departure from Ogden would be late morning putting passage of Feather River at noon and the Rocky Mountains during the next day. Westbound from Chicago would depart 3 in the afternoon and be at Dnver in the early morning for the Rocky Mountains. The Salt Lake Desert would be passed during late night and the early risers would enjoy Feather River.
The first California Zephyr finally departed Chicago on October 26th 1948. This train was only a test train however, set out to prove the schedule. During the first part of 1949 cars from the train were exhibited to the public. On March 20th 1949 the first California Zephyr departed Oakland for its inaugural run as train number 18. A few hours later train number 17 westbound departed Chicago on its first revenue run.
The Rio Grande had painted a set of Alco PA-PB locomotives in silver and orange, the California Zephyr colors, but the paintscheme aswell as the fact that Alco locomotives would haul the Zephyr on the Rio Grande was short lived. Soon the EMD untis took over again.
F3s were also the power for the Burlington, even though later that was changed to sleek Es.
Needless to say, that riding on the train was a true luxury. All imaginable comforts were present:
A lounge observation at the end of the train, a dining car, dome cars and a buffet lounge. More than 32 persons worked on board the train and often times the train was referred to as a rolling city. There were cooks, cleaners, mechanics and stewardesses which were called Zephyrettes.
To top things off, when the train deprated the Salt Lake desert westbound it slowed to a crawl and rolled through a high pressure train wash, so that the windows (of the dome cars) would be clean to enjoy the Feather River Canyon and the train would arrive at Oakland looking nice and clean.
The scenery to be seen was breathtaking: Byers Canyon, Gore Canyon, Glenwood Canyon, Ruby Canyon and Feather River. The train also passed over the famous Keddie Wye, a bridge high above a canyon, where two main lines meet on the bridge.
By 1957 the railroad companies were giving serious thought to revamping the entire setup and making it more modern. Several options were considered:
Updating the interior, arranging for a cheaper way of night accomodation (slumber cars) and converting Section Sleeper Cars to Compartment Sleeper Cars.
Western Pacific by the time was facing serious financial problems and was not ready to spend a lot of money. Ridership also decreased, as the airplane was taking away many passengers.
All that finally happened was, that the interiour got restyled in parts, and that the Section Sleeper Cars disappeared to later on reemerge as Coach Cars.
The Buffet cars got equipped with facilities to serve hot meals as the Dining cars were often overcrowded.
In the 1960s things started to decline for the Zephyr financially. Still there were no major cutbacks as far as service was concerned until the very end. By 1965 financially hard pressed Western Pacific was seeking to abandon the train, whilst the Burlington was fighting hard to keep it alive. To keep WP from killing off the train, more money from the fares was given to the railroad.
From 1966 onward the train became a loss maker despite reasonably high ridership.
Western Pacific was not convinced in the future of the train and filed a request with the ICC for discontinuing the California Zephyr in 1967. The ICC ordered to continue the train for at least one year and to try and salvage the train, by carrying U.S. mail for revenue, seeking State aid e.t.c..
In 1968 the WP again filed for discontinuance. By now the Burlington was also opting to discontinue as the competition by aircraft was strong and the cost of operation for the train was high. The same year there were two accidents involving the California Zephyr, one derailment at Tabernash and a rockslide at Glenwood Canyon also resulting in a derailment.
Again the ICC ordered another year of operations as none of the suggestions that had been made to make the train profitable again had been seriously followed.
1969 again saw application for discontinuance by Western Pacific and the Rio Grande, ironically the same year that Southern Pacific applied to discontinue the City of San Francisco.
Finally permission was granted for Western Pacific to discontinue its leg and for the Rio Grande to cut service to tri wekly.
The last through California Zephyr was run in March 1970. From then on the triweekly service went from Chicago to Salt Lake City and then Ogden where passengers would change onto the City of San Francisco, which was still operating.
Service was on the decline as baggage was not checked through anymore, connections were poor and riding time was increased by 6 hours. Some cars were taken off the train. The name of the train was changed, the Burlington called it California Service from now on and the Rio Grandes name was Rio Grande Zephyr.
Finally in 1971 Amtrak appeared on the scene and was very interested in providing a Chicago - San Francisco service using the Burlington, Rio Grande and Southern Pacific routes. But the Rio Grande declined. They had passenger trains of their own and they were not thrilled at the idea of paying 1.6 million dollars entry fee for Amtrak.
The Rio Grande Zephyr was continued but it was no transcontinental train. In the end, the Rio Grande Zephyr ended at Salt Lake City and the only connection to Ogden would be by bus.
It would be years until after the Rio Grande merged with Southern Pacific and Amtrak appeared on the tracks of the Moffat Route with two trains: The Desert Wind and . . . the California Zephyr. Whilst the Desert Wind is history by now, the California Zephyr lives on.
Last Update: Mar 1st 2008
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