U.S., The San Francisco Chief History: An Overlooked and Unfairly Forgotten Treasure From the Santa Fe

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; February 22, 2021

Of all the storied trains running from Chicago to the Pacific coast, one of the most overlooked was Santa Fe Railway’s streamliner, the San Francisco Chief.

It is difficult to understand why a train with service as fine as that on the San Francisco Chief could be overlooked at all. In the final days before Amtrak, the San Francisco Chief carried a full length dome lounge car, a full dining car with lots of silver and heavy railroad china, Pullmans from Chicago to both the San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles, Hi-Level chair cars, and of course baggage cars.

Who could overlook that?

But the Santa Fe also ran the Super Chief. No matter how brightly the stainless steel cars shined on the San Francisco Chief, the Super Chief somehow shined even more brightly.

Then, there was the route. Excepting Tehapachi Pass, scenery was pleasant but not exceptional.

Chicago to San Francisco had some of the finest trains to have ever run in America. In the heavyweight era, the Overland Limited was the best known, and for good reason. In the streamlined era, the City of San Francisco made a name for itself, also for good reason. The California Zephyr was the most sterling of sterling trains, what with five dome cars and a route through the Rockies and astride the Feather River Canyon.

The San Francisco Chief appeared to be the slowest train from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. That was because of its exceedingly long route. The San Francisco Chief plunged all the way south to Amarillo, Texas and Clovis, New Mexico before edging northward to travel westward to the Pacific shores. It is almost as though the Santa Fe never really wanted to compete in the Chicago – San Francisco market.

It was indeed the routing which revealed the train’s real purpose. Santa Fe wasn’t going after Chicago to San Francisco passengers, although the train picked up a few. 

Santa Fe’s southern route, now known as the BNSF “Southern Transcon,” includes several cities of regional importance. Additionally, Pullmans were switched in and out of the San Francisco Chief going from Chicago to Los Angeles, Houston to Oakland, Dallas to Los Angeles, and Chicago to Lubbock, Texas.

Santa Fe intended for the San Francisco Chief to serve those smaller and medium sized cities along the southern route which individually weren’t that important, but collectively generated a lot of revenue. The San Francisco Chief was the showpiece of Santa Fe’s southern route. The train radiated the gorgeous imagery and romance of the Golden State. But the train was really there to do the heavy lifting for all those moderate sized communities which poured money into Santa Fe’s bank account.

As noted above, the San Francisco Chief transported Pullmans originating in Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth which then went to the Pacific; cars which served quite a few communities along their routes. 

The San Francisco Chief did it, and did it well.

The San Francisco Chief was a top drawer operation from its first run to its last. As previously mentioned, full length dome cars were assigned. In fact, a series of “Big Domes” was ordered from Budd specifically for use on the San Francisco Chief. Fred Harvey’s superlative dining car service was offered from the start to the end of the trip, with sandwich service available in the lower level lounge of the Big Domes. Pullmans ran everywhere the train did. In the coaches, porter service was offered to assist passengers in getting bags on and off the train. A Santa Fe Courier Nurse was assigned to the entire trip, just as on the El Capitan.

The long route implied the schedule was leisurely. It was not. Trains had to run like a bat out of Hell to hold schedule. I recall riding through Kansas with the train making a mile in 34 seconds – which converts to about 106 MPH. I was riding one of the Big Dome lounge cars with their enormous six wheel outside swing hanger trucks. It was like riding on glass.

There was absolutely nothing second class about the San Francisco Chief.

In an irony unheard of on any other railroad, the San Francisco Chief might have actually been a better train at the end when it started.

Santa Fe was enamored of its Hi-Level chair cars. Not only were they incredibly spacious and comfortable, the Santa Fe could replace three conventional chair cars with two Hi-Levels. Equipment maintenance costs were thus reduced. Even though the Hi-Levels were considered heavy for the lightweight era (they were, after all, two story cars), reduction in train length translated in net reduction of train weight reduced fuel costs.  

The Santa Fe purchased additional Hi-Levels in 1964 so the San Francisco Chief could be so equipped.

Probably the only drawback to having Hi-Levels on the San Francisco Chief was the loss of forward visibility aboard the Big Dome lounges. Hi-Levels were behind the baggage cars and in front of the dome lounge, as Pullmans were switched in and out along the way. The first couple of rows in the dome car couldn’t see forward as well as they had before. Clearly a price was paid but overall, it was a small one.

Dining car service was exemplary. I rode the last run. Service was flawless. Dinners were cooked to order by professional chefs and cooks and served by experienced waiters. Interestingly, some of the most senior crew members worked the San Francisco Chief. Crews could get a lot of hours in because of the long route, and a shorter turn-around time in the San Francisco Bay than on the Los Angeles trains. All of this translated into more time off at the home terminal.

The long route made it imperative that the San Francisco Chief optimize its use of food storage. Several of the dining cars used in later years were diners originally built for earlier incarnations of the Super Chief and the Chief. Those cars had a disproportionately large amount of refrigeration which had been originally intended for wine storage and special dessert dishes served only on the Super Chief, also the Chief when it was still an all-Pullman train (a modest selection of wine was available but most was stored in coolers on the Big Dome cars).

This should in no way suggest that dinner on the San Francisco Chief was in some way inferior to that served on other Santa Fe trains. With the exception of a few specialty items offered aboard the Super Chief, menus were quite comparable. It revealed Santa Fe’s unerring commitment to serving foods which were fresh. Adequate space for refrigerated goods was thus an imperative to maintaining standards expected by Santa Fe passengers.

China service was of the “California Poppy” pattern. “California Poppy “ was originally designed for the California Limited in about 1893. It was a clean, timeless design which in no way looked like it was a product of the late 19th century, and continued in service well into the Amtrak era.

As a matter of full disclosure, the San Francisco Chief was one of my most favorite trains. An important reason was that it was conveniently scheduled for passengers in Kansas City where I lived. Yes, the Super Chief was, after all, the Super Chief, and there was absolutely nothing like it, especially in the years immediately preceding Amtrak. However, its schedule was at best inconvenient for us Kansas Citians. Some of my most memorable journeys were aboard the San Francisco Chief.

I rode the last run west out of Kansas City. 

Coming from Chicago, it got to Kansas City Union Station a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, which was commonplace.

On the point were two of Santa Fe’s then extremely new FP-45s. Santa Fe was insistent that its passenger trains run on time. Santa Fe’s sent nearly all of its west coast freight on the southern route of its transcontinental route, just as BNSF does today. In order for Santa Fe to make its entire railroad work efficiently, passenger trains had to run on time. Santa Fe’s beloved F-7 locomotives were old and were wearing out. New, efficient, reliable locomotives had become essential. 

Santa Fe’s sparkling new FP-45s were introduced in Santa Fe’s centennial year and assigned to the Super Chief, the El Capitan, and the San Francisco Chief. Trains ran fast and they kept schedule. A motive power break-down was unthinkable. 

Behind the locomotives was a baggage car, then a pre-WWII baggage dormitory car for the dining car and lounge car crew.

After the dormitory car were (as I recall) three Hi-Level chair cars though the number varied from two to four depending upon the season. Santa Fe’s Hi-Levels were indisputably the finest chair cars on any railroad, anywhere. Spacious, comfortable, and noticeably quieter than any other cars I have traveled before or since. 

I have a personal standard for sound levels allowable for air conditioning and ventilation equipment. If I can walk through a car (or a plane) and hear it, it’s too loud. Air handling equipment on Hi-Levels were unnoticeable unless you purposely listened for them, or were sitting in the very front or very back of the car where air return vents were located. There, and only there, could you hear the sound of blower fans.

By the way, almost every Amtrak car I have traveled in has failed this simple test, along with every flying machine. Perhaps Amtrak’s aero-contraption trained management has determined that if passengers can tolerate the noise of flying machines, they can tolerate the same on trains. I do not share that sloppy thinking.

Santa Fe’s Hi-Levels proved that my standard can be met routinely and consistently (air handling in Pullman cars and even some of Amtrak’s Viewliner II cars also meet my standard).

Behind the Hi-Levels was a full length dome car with the full lounge section on the lower level. Some of Santa Fe’s full length domes took much of the downstairs lounge space for dormitory space, however those cars were assigned to the Texas Chief after the disappearance of the Chief in April 1968.

Behind the dome was the dining car, and behind the dining car were two Pullmans (but as many as four during peak periods). One car ran all the way to the San Francisco Bay. The other was switched out in Barstow, California and added to the remnant of the Grand Canyon Limited for the remainder of the trip to Los Angeles. Those two Pullmans offered passengers from Wichita, Kansas and through the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas plus southeastern New Mexico the opportunity for an undisturbed journey to either San Francisco or Los Angeles.

From the first day the San Francisco Chief ran in 1954 until the last day – before Amtrak – in April, 1971, service and equipment was as fine as the Santa Fe could provide. And, that was quite fine indeed.

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