U.S., California Zephyr, City of San Francisco and San Francisco Chief: Prolific Dome Cars, Luxury Service

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 18, 2021

Of the three post-war rival streamliners for upscale travel between Chicago and San Francisco, the California Zephyr was perhaps the leader for scenery, innovative food service such as the San Francisco Cable Car Room lounge in a dome car, and the multiple other vista domes throughout the train.

The California Zephyr is a consequential train, whether you are referring to the current Amtrak Superliner version or the previous vista dome version which ran from 1949 to 1970. Today’s Amtrak California Zephyr, running from Chicago to Emeryville/San Francisco Bay in California serves major cities such as Omaha, Denver and Salt Lake City on a route which partially includes the route of the original version and part of the Zephyr’s arch-rival train, The Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco.

The 1949 to 1970 Zephyr version was jointly operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad and the Western Pacific. It began in Chicago and terminated in Oakland. A through sleeping car from New York City to Chicago by the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central on alternating days was forwarded to the Zephyr consist. Some of the most well-designed passenger equipment for the Zephyr was created by the Budd Company in stainless steel, and much of it survives today in private hands. The Burlington had a vast pool of Budd dome cars it placed on a myriad of its passenger trains. The California Zephyr featured unique round-end dome observation cars which included a drawing room and three double bedrooms. Sisters to these notable cars can be found today on VIA Rail Canada’s Canadian. The Canadian’s equipment was originally ordered by Canadian Pacific Railroad for its streamlined version of that train.

The rival City of San Francisco, also operating between Chicago and Oakland, had a longer life than the Zephyr as it was inaugurated in 1936 and lasted until the beginning of Amtrak in 1971. The City of San Francisco used Union Pacific’s Overland Route, and had a ferry connection to San Francisco from Oakland.

A third streamlined train between Chicago and Oakland was Santa Fe’s San Francisco Chief, which was inaugurated in 1954, a bit late to the rivalry. The San Francisco Chief was the last new streamliner inaugurated by the Santa Fe, and ran until the beginning of Amtrak. Uniquely, the San Francisco Chief was the only Chicago-San Francisco Bay streamliner to operate solely on one railroad. As its two rivals, the San Francisco Chief was also equipped with dome cars, such as Budd Company’s stainless steel “Big Dome” cars. In the 1960s, Santa Fe ordered and placed into service 24 Hi-Level coaches for the train, following their proven successful use on Santa Fe’s all-coach El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles.

In a non-pandemic time, the Amtrak Zephyr consist includes a baggage car, transition-dorm crew car, three coaches, 2 sleeping cars, a diner and a Sightseer lounge. It takes six full sets of equipment to provide daily service. Amtrak inaugurated its California Zephyr in 1983.

The July 1954 edition of The Official Guide of the Railways provides the following consist information:

CB&Q, D&RGW and WP Railroads

(The following information is transcribed from the Burlington California Zephyr equipment information. All three operating railroads shows equipment information in The Guide, but the Burlington’s provided the greatest detail.)

Chicago – Denver – Salt Lake City – San Francisco
Burlington – Rio Grande – Western Pacific

Completely Air-Conditioned
Vista Dome California Zephyr, Trains 17 and 18, Daily (via Moffat Tunnel)
Wire-recorded music, controlled radio reception, Hostess Service, Valet Service, and fluorescent lighting.

Vista-Dome Observation-Lounge, Chicago – San Francisco, 1 Drawing Room (with shower bath), 3 Double Bedrooms

Standard Sleeping Cars

Chicago – San Francisco, 16 Sections

Chicago – San Francisco, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – San Francisco, 6 Double Bedrooms, 5 Compartments

New York – San Francisco, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms (See Note A)

Vista-Dome Buffet-Lounge, Lounge for all passengers; Dome for sleeping car passengers, Chicago – San Francisco (This was the San Francisco Cable Car Room)

Dining Car – For all meals.

Vista-Dome Reclining Chair Coaches, (3 Coaches)

Note A – Westbound – Through New York – San Francisco sleeping car operates from New York via Pennsylvania Railroad odd days during July, September and October, even days during August; via New York Central Railroad even days during July, September and October odd days during August.

Eastbound – Through San Francisco – New York sleeping car operates from Chicago via New York Central Railroad odd days during July, September and October, even days during August; via Pennsylvania Railroad even days during July, September and October, odd days during August.

ALL SPACE on the California Zephyr – both COACH and PULLMAN – is reserved and SPECIFICALLY assigned in advance. Coach seat reservations westbound from Chicago must be claimed at train gate by 3:25 p.m. Dome seats are not reserved. Checked baggage is carried only for through movement between Chicago and Denver or beyond and not to or from intermediate points. Banana messenger, caretaker and circus tickets not honored.

The Milwaukee Road, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads

(The following information is transcribed from the Union Pacific City of San Francisco equipment information. All three operating railroads shows equipment information in The Guide, but the UP’s provided the greatest detail.)

Streamliner, City of San Francisco, Trains 101 and 102, Daily

Club Car, Chicago – San Francisco – for use of sleeping car passengers. (Radio, Bath, Valet Service)

Streamlined Sleeping Cars

New York – San Francisco – 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms (Pennsylvania Railroad No. 69-59 [Liberty Limited] to Chicago). Alternate days – see page 863 – Note 3.

New York – San Francisco – 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms (New York Central Railroad No. 67 [Commodore Vanderbilt] to Chicago). Alternate days – see page 863 – Note 1.

Chicago – San Francisco – 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – San Francisco – 6 Sections, 6 Roomettes, 4 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – San Francisco – 4 Double Bedrooms, 4 Compartments, 2 Drawing Rooms

Chicago – San Francisco – 4 Double Bedrooms, 4 Compartments, 2 Drawing Rooms

Reclining Seat-Leg Rest Coaches (all seats reserved)

Chicago – San Francisco (3 Coaches)

Café Lounge Car – Chicago – San Francisco – Moderately priced meals and lounge for coach passengers

Coach Lounge Car – Chicago – San Francisco

Dining Car – Club and a la carte service.

The reference to the Pennsylvania Railroad/New York Central Railroad New York through cars was similar to the California Zephyr alternate days through cars.

Santa Fe Railway

Completely Air-Conditioned
San Francisco Chief, Trains 1 and 2, Daily
Light Weight Streamlined Train.

Radio and recorded musical programs. Courier Nurse. All chair car seats reserved between Chicago and Oakland and Houston and Oakland and intermediate points.

Chair Cars

Chicago – Oakland

Houston – Oakland

Amarillo – Lubbock (on connecting train).

Lunch-Counter Diner, Chicago – Oakland (Fred Harvey Service)

Big Dome Lounge Car, Chicago – Oakland

Dining Car, Chicago – Oakland. Service all meals (Fred Harvey Service)

Sleeping Cars

Chicago – Oakland, 2 Drawing-rooms, 4 Compartments, 4 Double Bedrooms

Chicago – Oakland, 24 Duplex Roomettes.

Chicago – Oakland, 4 Drawing-rooms, 1 Double Bedroom, Lounge

Chicago – Lubbock, 10 Roomettes, 3 Double Bedrooms, 2 Compartments (on No. 93 from Amarillo)

Kansas City – Oakland, 10 Roomettes, 6 Double Bedrooms (ready for occupancy 9:30 p.m.)

Houston – Oakland, 8 Section, 2 Compartments, 2 Double Bedrooms. (On No. 66-75 to Clovis)

There have been references to “banana messengers” for some trains in The Guide. Wikipedia offers this explanation:

“Banana messengers or fruit messengers were agents sent on US railroads to accompany shipments of bananas and other fruit. They were accorded special ticket rates, similar to those for railway employees and clergy, as late as the 1960s. The tickets were not honored on some premium trains. Reportedly, the reduced rate also applied to the return trip (sans bananas).”

Please share with others