Other trains may have been more luxurious and for the well-to-do but none could compare to what the California Zephyr offered in the way of friendly service and breathtaking scenery. Operated jointly by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the Burlington Route), Denver & Rio Grande Western, and Western Pacific the train traveled through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and it was not surprising that it continued to do well even when train travel by the 1960s and 1970s was waning with the public. The train would eventually be operated only by the Rio Grande (which was then renamed as the Rio Grande Zephyr) and after it relinquished the train to Amtrak in the 1980s it was not only retained but also returned to its original name and today the CZ remains one of the most popular long distance trains in the country.
Individually, the CB&Q, Western Pacific, and Rio Grande could not offer a transcontinental streamlined passenger train such as other carries like the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, or even the Milwaukee Road. The Burlington offered the longest stretch of unbroken lines reach as far west as Denver. The railroad also offered important access to Chicago, which was key to the success of any long-distance passenger train. Still, without the beautiful topography afforded along the Rio Grand and Western Pacific in California and Colorado, their streamliner that became known the California Zephyr would also not have been nearly as successful.
While the California Zephyr, or CZ for short, was another product of the Burlington’s very successful fleet of Zephyr passenger trains the success of the CZ could never happened without the partnership of the Rio Grande and Western Pacific, whose scenic lines through Colorado, Utah, and northern California was a big reason why the train was so cherished by passengers. After the initial success of the Burlington’s original Zephyr 9900 and its subsequent sister trains the railroad came to the WP and D&RGW with the idea of operating a Chicago-San Francisco train in direct competition to others already out there like the Union Pacific-Chicago & North Western (at the time, until the Milwaukee Road began carrying UP’s trains in 1955) City of San Francisco. In 1945 all three agreed on the new train dubbed the California Zephyr and while it did not begin operations until 1949 it quickly made up for any lost time. Officially, the three railroads debuted their new train on March 19, 1949 and it was immediately splashed by the railroads as "The most talked about train in America".
What made the CZ so successful was its uniqueness. While the train intended to get you to your destination in a timely fashion, it also was expressly marketed as a sightseeing journey and above all passengers were treated warmly no matter if you were just a vacationer or a well-known celebrity (although the “rich and famous” tended to take other trains like the Super Chief and City of Los Angeles. A big reason why the services on board became legendary was the CZ’s “Zephyrettes,” whom were courtesy, friendly, and just plain nice young women that made a lasting impression on thousands of passengers.
As for the train’s other key attraction, the scenery; to allow for maximum sightseeing opportunities the owning railroads purchased an entire fleet of Vista-Dome cars. During the CZ’s “Golden Years” between 1949 and 1970 each train was equipped with no less than five of these cars, very uncommon for even the most popular trains of the day. The CZ's dome service typically included three coaches, a mid-train Pullman lounge, and a Pullman observation-lounge. What’s more, the train’s timetable was setup in such a way that it always traveled through the most scenic parts of the trip (west through Colorado) during the day so passengers didn’t miss a thing at night or while sleeping.
According to the train's 1950 timetable it could complete a Chicago to San Francisco run in just over two days across the three different railroads. The CB&Q and Western Pacific carried the train for much of its journey while the Rio Grande was in charge of the train during perhaps the most scenic stretches through the Rockies between Denver and Salt Lake City. For more information regarding the California Zephyr's early timetable and complete consist please click here.
The downfall of the original California Zephyr is an interesting story. While passenger traffic remained incredibly high through the mid-1960s costs to operate the train were increasing so much that even with sustained high levels of demand during the end of the privately operated passenger train era it was becoming increasingly unprofitable to operate the CZ by the late 1960s. No less than two times did the train’s original route attempt to be downsized, first by the WP in 1966 and then the Rio Grande in 1969. Amazingly, the ICC would not allow either to do so on the basis of the train’s immense popularity.
By 1970, however, that had all changed and both were granted permission to discontinue their portions of the train. On March 20th of that year the original California Zephyr left Chicago for the final time, at least under private ownership. After this, regional versions of the train continued to operate under the three railroads by different names with the most popular the Rio Grande’s Rio Grande Zephyr. Interestingly, while Amtrak had been setup in 1971 to operate all intercity passenger trains in the country, the Rio Grande would not relinquish control of its Rio Grande Zephyr until the early 1980s.
(Thanks to Bill Haithcoat for help with the historical information regarding the California Zephyr.)
It was at this time, in 1983, that Amtrak due to the train’s popularity decided to reinstate the train, operating virtually the same route as the original California Zephyr! While the reborn CZ may no longer feature streamlined equipment, "Zephyrettes," classic diesel locomotives on the head-end, or Vista-Domes it remains a very popular and respected train under Amtrak. For more information on the California Zephyr please click here to visit the website of the train's official museum. Finally, if you are interested in possibly riding the train please visit Amtrak's website to learn more about reserving and booking a trip (there you can learn more about cost, available stations, and on-board amenities offered).