The Santa Fe’s El Capitan was another of the railroad’s premier passenger trains connecting Chicago with Los Angeles. However, unlike the Chief and Super Chief the El Cap provided no Pullman sleeper service and was an all-coach operation. Nevertheless the train was extremely popular (partly due to its super-scenic route) and is best remembered for the Hi-Level cars it carried, the first application of such cars on a long-distance passenger train. Additionally, as an all-coach intercity service the train was certainly one of the most luxurious to be found anywhere across the country. Through the end the Santa Fe retained very high service levels on board the El Capitan until the spring of 1971 when it, along with the rest of the Santa Fe passenger fleet was handed over to Amtrak.
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, distinctively known as the Santa Fe, likely is not only this country’s but also the world’s most recognized and famous railroad. It has had its own movie, song, and numerous model trains and other purchasable gifts created in its honor. The railroad’s renowned Warbonnet livery has been made in several variations ranging from the more popular silver and red with yellow trim to the blue and yellow. The Santa Fe, albeit no longer an operating company, is truly a railroad whose name is as common as that of Coca Cola or General Electric. What led the Santa Fe to becoming an industrial icon was the introduction of the Chief passenger train in late 1926, and then the Super Chief ten years later.
In the late 1930s its legendary Warbonnet paint scheme was born, applied to the new streamlined Super Chief led by Electro-Motive’s new EA streamlined passenger diesels (the new motive power was something the Santa Fe was very quick to embrace), and it was an instant hit. The El Capitan (which is derived from the Spanish influences of the Southwest regions during the 1700s), inaugurated in February 1938, was born primarily to help supplement the incredibly popular and luxurious Super Chief as a low-cost, economy-friendly version of Santa Fe's flagship train. The El Cap came fully equipped with streamlined equipment from the Budd Company. All stainless steel the cars included were coaches with reclining seats, lunch-counter diner, and a coach observation car (a five-car consist in total).
During the 1940s the El Cap received new equipment and upgrading, twice (194 and 1948) so that it could provide daily service in each direction. Then, in the mid-1950s the train was given more upgrades, this time to the extent that the El Capitan earned near legendary status. In 1954 the train received full-length dome cars that the Santa Fe named “Big Domes,” allowing passengers unparalleled views of the spectacular scenery along the Santa Fe's Chicago – L.A. main line. Then in 1956 the El Cap received its signature cars, Hi-Levels.
The Santa Fe listed the El Capitan as Trains #21 (westbound) and #22 (eastbound) on its official timetable. Departing Chicago's Dearborn Station at 5:45 pm the train could make the westward jaunt to Los Angeles in under 40 hours, arriving at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) 7:15 am, a day and a half later. Quite fast, the train carried an average train speed better than 56 mph even with 22 to 23 stops along the way. Additionally, the railroad offered connecting services to Denver via La Junta, Colorado and Phoenix via Ash Fork, Arizona.
A typical consist for the upgraded El Capitan included baggage-dormitory-lounge, reclining seat coaches, diner, dome, and observation all of which, of course, were Hi-Levels. Now commonly seen on commuter trains (even back then as well) and long distance Amtrak passenger trains, the Hi-Levels were revolutionary on intercity passenger trains at the time. Not only was the car more economical by allowing twice the seating in the same amount of space but also provided passengers a quieter and more comfortable ride from the top level. For more information regarding the El Capitan's consist and timetable please click here.
The El Capitan remained a popular choice for travelers even through the 1960s due to the scenic views and fast schedule between Los Angeles and Chicago. While downgrades did occur, even on the El Cap (including being combined with the Super Chief by the late 1960s), the Santa Fe did not waiver in excellent on board services right until the end when Amtrak took over the Santa Fe's vast and vaunted passenger operations on May 1, 1971. Today, amazingly, some of the Santa Fe's Hi-Level coaches remain in operation on the Amtrak system, along with the passenger carrier’s newer Superliners.
For more reading on the Santa Fe you might want to consider Santa Fe Railway from Steve Glischinski. Of course, being that the Santa Fe is our country's most legendary railroad hundreds of publications (many quite good) have been written about it over the years detailing various subjects. However, this book will at least give you a general overview and history of the Santa Fe (filled with many, excellent, historical and colorful photographs) at which point you can decide if you are interested in further books of study on the railroad. Even if you are a historian of the ATSF and have not seen this book I'm sure you will enjoy it!
And, for more reading on the Santa Fe's famous El Capitan you might want to consider the book Super Chief and El Capitan by author Patrick Dorin. The book gives a detailed, comprehensive look, with plenty of photos, of the El Capitan from its beginning through the very end with the startup of Amtrak. If you have any interest in the train you should definitely enjoy Mr. Dorin's books. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing either (or both) of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.