U.S., Amtrak; Rivals California Zephyr, City of San Francisco and San Francisco Chief: Prolific dome cars, luxury service

Train Number 1, Santa Fe Railway’s westbound San Francisco Chief at Kansas City Union Station in 1967. Santa Fe made great use of Alco diesel locomotives. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on this platform on March 18, 2021. It has been updated and photographs and illustrations added. – Corridorrail.com Editor

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; October 11, 2022

As luxurious as many heavyweight Pullman dining and lounge cars were, the new streamliners such as the post-war California Zephyr completely redefined passenger train luxury in North America. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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 (Originally Chicago & North Western Railroad before moving to The Milwaukee Road), Union Pacific and Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr, shown in 2010 near Green River, Utah. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An illustration of a typical Budd Company-built California Zephyr dome car. Much of the Budd fleet built for the California Zephyr remains extant, in private hands. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
California Zephyr promotional photograph, circa 1960s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The eastbound California Zephyr originated in Oakland, California on Western Pacific Railroad tracks. A 1968 departure is readying to launch eastward. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The California Zephyr at Glenwood Springs, Colorado in a circa 1960s company promotional photograph. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The California Zephyr traversed some of North America’s most exciting and unique scenery, and the Zephyr was adequately equipped with dome cars to meet the scenery challenge for passengers. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Circa 1950s timetable cover. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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, featuring VIA Rail’s Prestige Service. The Canadian’s equipment was originally ordered by Canadian Pacific Railroad for its streamlined version of that train.

Bringing up the rear of the California Zephyr at Aurora, Illinois in 1967 is one of the famous combination dome/Pullman sleeping car/lounge cars. Both the California Zephyr and Canadian Pacific Railway’s Canadian featured these unique and comfortable cars, built by the Budd Company. Today, Canadian Pacific’s fleet of these cars continue to be operated by VIA Rail Canada on the transcontinental Canadian as Prestige Service Park cars. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A dome car-laden California Zephyr circa 1960s postcard featuring Denver & Rio Grande Western locomotives along the Colorado River. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
Post-war postcard featuring the City of San Francisco. Note the nose of the locomotive features the logos of all three operating railroads, the Union Pacific, Chicago & North Western and the Southern Pacific. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
Luggage tag, City of San Francisco. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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. After Amtrak Day, the City of San Francisco became a daily train between Chicago and Denver, then offered only tri-weekly service west of Denver Oakland across the bay from San Francisco with a bus connection into the city.

The City of San Francisco was inaugurated in 1936 with a consist as seen on the right. This photo, taken at the Oakland Pier in 1938 shows the new trainset on the left which will replace the 1936 version. On this occasion celebrating the new passenger equipment, both trainsets will operate the City of San Francisco for the departure. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The City of San Francisco branding name under Amtrak lasted only until June of 1972 when it became the San Francisco Zephyr. The San Francisco Zephyr branding name continued until July of 1983 when the last name change occurred and the California Zephyr name reappeared and remains today.

The San Francisco Chief has a Big Dome Car snuggling next to Hi-Level coaches in 1967. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The San Francisco Chief in Amarillo, Texas in 1967 receiving a full tank fill-up. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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.

The San Francisco Chief in December 1967 in Chicago, including Santa Fe’s exclusive Hi-Level coaches. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Circa 1950s Santa Fe Railway San Francisco Chief postcard. Wikimedia Commons illustration.
The San Francisco Chief in Stockton, California in 1968, Wikimedia Commons photo.

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:

A 1955 billboard in Denver, Colorado by the Burlington Railroad promoting its Zephyr departures. Internet photo.

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.

California Zephyr promotional dining car photo from 1961. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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)

California Zephyr promotional materials from 1961. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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)

File illustration.

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.

Pennsylvania Railroad’s Budd Company-built Silver Rapids was a through-car which operated from New York City Pennsylvania Station to Chicago where it was transferred to Burlington Railroad’s California Zephyr to provide “one seat” service for Pullman passengers from New York City to California. The service lasted until 1957. The Pennsylvania dressed their smooth-sided streamlined cars in their famous Tuscan Red paint scheme, but that would have looked out of place on the equally-streamlined all-silver California Zephyr. The California Zephyr won the contest as to what the through-cars would look like as they hurtled down the tracks with a uniform appearance. Today, this car is available in charter service. California Zephyr Railcar Charters photo.

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.)

1946 Southern Pacific Railroad promotional material for the City of San Francisco. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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)

Southern Pacific Railroad/Union Pacific Railroad jointly operated City of San Francisco in April 1971, just weeks before Amtrak Day on May 1, 1971. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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)

Amtrak Train Number 5, soon to be named the City of San Francisco, in July of 1971 when Amtrak was less than 90 days olds. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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 1954 Life Magazine advertisement. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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.

The eastbound San Francisco Chief taken from the locomotive window on the fireman’s side (left side) of the train in 1967. The San Francisco Chief was a very long train carrying baggage cars, sleeping cars, exclusive to the Santa Fe Hi-Level coaches, a Big Dome Car and diner. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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)

San Francisco Chief rear car drumhead. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

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)

Santa Fe Railway Big Dome Car interior on the San Francisco Chief in 1954. Wikimedia Commons photo.

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

Santa Fe Railway 1958 magazine ad which featured its five primary trains including the San Francisco Chief. Wikimedia Commons illustration.

“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).”

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