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.
Along the Western Pacific at Altamont, California the CZ is seen here traveling eastbound led by F3A #803-A during February of 1970. Just below the train is the now-abandoned Southern Pacific corridor through the pass.
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 CZ would also not have been nearly as successful.
While the California Zephyr 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 CZ
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".
It is the Rio Grande Zephyr era as D&RGW F9A #5771, two F9Bs, and a rare Alco PB lead the train westbound near Denver during a November evening in 1976.
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.
This spectacular scene shows the east and westbound "CZs" passing one another in Colorado's Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River, likely taken during the late 1940s or early 1950s. Note the A-B set of Alco PAs.
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
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. The downfall of the original CZ
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. For more reading about the history of the train please click here.
Interestingly, 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. To see historical brochures, timetables, postcards, and other material related to the train please click here.
The tail-end of the CZ is seen here with a dome-observation as the train rolls along Burlington trackage near Eola, Illinois on September 10, 1964.
was at this time in 1983 that Amtrak, due to CZ’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 thanks largely to the corridor it travels across the West. Finally, if you are interested in possibly riding the train 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). To read more about other other trains like the CZ please visit the Streamliners section of the site, which can be reached from the top of this page.
(Thanks to Bill Haithcoat for help with the historical information regarding the California Zephyr.)