U.S., Santa Fe El Capitan History: All-Coach Train, But Both a Dining Car and Lounge Car

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 15, 2020

In April of 1961, the Santa Fe Railway was running a transcontinental all-coach train, the El Capitan, from Chicago to Los Angles. The revolutionary bi-level equipment used on this train would become the precursor for Amtrak later use to develop the Superliner fleet.

Even though it was an all-coach train, the El Capitan still carried a full lounge car and a full dining car. The Santa Fe was the same railroad that at the time was proudly operating the Super Chief on the same route, serving many Hollywood celebrities, and was complete with dome cars and the fabled Turquoise Room, the only private dining room on rails.

The El Capitan and its bi-level cars, known to the Santa Fe as Hi-Levels, was so popular that in 1964 the Santa Fe was still purchasing additional new cars.

Santa Fe knew how to play to a targeted audience. On April 30, 1961 it issued a welcoming combination brochure and dining and lounge car promotional piece for passengers:

“Welcome aboard Santa Fe’s Hi-Level El Capitan

“We are happy to have selected El Capitan for your trip. We will do our best to make your journey an enjoyable travel experience.

“Take a few minutes to glance through this folder and get acquainted with El Capitan, its many features and services.

“DINING CAR SERVICE – The Hi-Level dining car offers a fine selection of food at reasonable prices. See sample menus on the back page, also hours of service for the dining car.

“The KACHINA COFFEE SHOP-LOUNGE is on the lower level of the lounge car. Here you can purchase coffee, milk, fruit juice, sweet rolls and sandwiches. Hours of service 5 AM to approximately 11:30 PM.

“YOU’LL ENJOY THE LOUNGE CAR, it is a friendly meeting place for all passengers. Attendants serve refreshments from morning until midnight. You’ll find current magazines and newspapers in this car, also a writing desk stocked with stationery.

“BE SURE TO MEET THE COURIER-NURSE – There is a friendly Courier-Nurse on El Capitan. She is a registered nurse who is aboard to assist mothers traveling with children and any passengers requiring her assistance.

“RADIO MUSIC AND TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENTS are carried throughout all cars during certain hours. The Courier-Nurse makes brief announcements as the train passes points of interest en route.”

On the rear page, indeed, was a sample dining car menu and an innovative inducement for passengers to use the dining car: meal plans which could be purchased either in advance or onboard; all meals for the trip for a single cost.

“Now you can enjoy El Capitan Dining Club

“a new budget meal plan covering complete full course meals ….

“Chicago – Los Angeles for only $10 (children only $5)

“Here are samples of Dining Club Menus:


Choice of Fruit or Cereal and – Bacon & Eggs; or Ham & Eggs; or Griddle Cakes with Bacon & Syrup

Muffins – Marmalade – Toast

Coffee – Tea – Milk


• Filets of Halibut, Saute Meuniere

• Omelette with Minced Ham, Currant Jelly

• Grilled Salisbury Steak, Sauce Lyonnaise

American Fried Potatoes, Kernel Corn, Lettuce and Tomatoes, Bread and Butter, Choice of Dessert

Coffee – Tea – Milk


• Grilled Halibut Steak, Hoteliere

• Broiled Half Spring Chicken, Cranberry Sauce

• Cottage Fried Steak

Whipped Potatoes, New Peas

Dinner Rolls

Romaine, Orange and Grapefruit Salad

Choice of Dessert

Coffee – Tea – Milk

El Capitan Dining Club Meal Books can be purchased from Santa Fe Ticket Offices along route of train or from Dining Car Steward.

“All meals aboard El Capitan are featured at popular prices: Breakfast from 85 cents; Lunch from $1.25; Dinner from $1.95.


“Westbound: First day Dinner Service starts at 6:30 PM. Breakfast next morning starts at 6 AM (CST); Lunch 11:30 AM; Dinner 4 PM (MST). Second morning Breakfast starts at 5 AM (PST).

“Eastbound: First day Dinner service starts at 8 PM (PST). Breakfast next morning 5 AM (MST); Lunch 11:30 AM; Dinner 4 PM (MST). Next day Breakfast starts at 5:30 AM; Lunch 11:30 AM (CST).”

Even though El Capitan was an all-coach train, the consist still carried crew space for onboard service employees to sleep in beds, plus, the coaches and lounge cars were all designed for a hide-away private crew room for the car attendant’s use for sleeping on the lower level.

The Santa Fe Hi-Level fleet was part of the early Amtrak era, and served Amtrak for over 20 years. The lounge cars continued to be a vital part of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight consist, serving as the Pacific Parlour Cars for sleeping car passengers until just a few years ago. The dining cars were often found on Pacific Surfliner corridor trains. Many of the coaches were converted by Amtrak into crew cars, but, those conversions did not make permanent changes to car layouts. Coaches also were used until recent years on Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer service in Texas an Oklahoma.

The Santa Fe Hi-Level fleet is available for leasing from Corridor Rail Development Corporation. See elsewhere on this website for further information about the Hi-Level fleet and the complete rebuilding and refurbishing of each car including all mechanical systems, all electrical systems, all seating, and a complete updated interior design to meet modern travel needs in a health-safe, post-pandemic world.

Please share with others