Streamliners: The Legendary American Passenger Train

In terms of the history of rail travel and its "Golden Age," streamliners were a relatively late concept and lasted for only about forty years under private ownership until Amtrak was created in 1971 (and for several years the carrier featured more "boxy" locomotive and car designs). During the first 100 years passenger trains were merely a means of traveling from Point A to Point B, fast and efficiently (and, for the most part, safely). During that time few luxuries or conveniences were added to trains as most merely included coaches with straight-back seats which were hardly, if at all, comfortable (something similar to school buses today). And, likewise, few of the trains had names and most were not famous. 

The Santa Fe's eastbound San Francisco Chief eases into the classic mission-style station at Stockton, California led by F7A #37C during February of 1968. On the next track over is the tail end of the Last Run Of An Alco PA excursion hosted by the railroad before it sold the remaining units.

However, that all began to change in the early 1930s when a new concept emerged, sleek passenger trains. Their existence came about for a few reasons; first was the fact that railroads were beginning to lose market share to other modes of transportation (such as automobiles) and were looking for an innovative way to bring passengers back to the rails; and second was the fact that railroads were also looking for a way to bring those passengers back so that they not only wanted to ride the rails but also wanted to do so in style, comfort, and relaxation. The idea also got a boost just prior to its launching when the contemporary and artistic Art Deco movement took off in the 1920s.  Below, by clicking on the links, you can learn more about several famous trains that operated on different railroads throughout the country. 

Atlantic Coast Line

The Champion 

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

Abraham Lincoln 

Capitol Limited 


National Limited 

Royal Blue 

Boston & Maine

Flying Yankee 

Chesapeake & Ohio Railway

Fast Flying Virginian 

George Washington 


Chicago & Eastern Illinois


Chicago & North Western

Twin Cities "400" 

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy

Zephyr 9900 

California Zephyr 

Denver Zephyr 

Florida East Coast

Dixie Flagler 

Great Northern

Empire Builder 

Western Star 

Gulf, Mobile & Ohio

The Rebel 

Abraham Lincolon 

Illinois Central

City of Miami 

City of New Orleans 

Green Diamond 

Panama Limited 

Kansas City Southern

Southern Belle 

Delaware, Lackawanna & Western

Phoebe Snow 

Lehigh Valley

The Black Diamond 

Louisville & Nashville


Gulf Wind 

Humming Bird 

Pan American 

Milwaukee Road

Twin Cities Hiawatha 

Olympian Hiawatha 

Midwest Hiawatha 

Maine Central

Flying Yankee 

Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (The Katy)

Texas Special

Missouri Pacific

Texas Eagle 

Colorado Eagle 

Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis

City of Memphis 

New York Central

Empire State Express 

Lake Shore Limited 


20th Century Limited 

New York, New Haven & Hartford (New Haven)

The Comet 

Nickel Plate Road

Nickel Plate Limited 

Norfolk & Western


Powhatan Arrow 

Northern Pacific


North Coast Limited 


"Fleet Of Modernism" 

Broadway Limited 


Liberty Limited 


South Wind 

Spirit Of St. Louis 



Denver & Rio Grande Western (Rio Grande)

California Zephyr 


Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island)

Rocky Mountain Rocket 

Golden State 

St. Louis - San Francisco Railway (Frisco)

Texas Special 

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe)


El Capitan 

Super Chief 

Seaboard Air Line

Gulf Wind 

Silver Comet 

Silver Meteor 

Southern Pacific

The Daylight 

The Lark 

San Joaquin Daylight 

Shasta Daylight 


Sunset Limited 

Golden State 

Southern Railway


Royal Palm 



Union Pacific


City of Los Angeles 

City of Portland 

City of San Francisco 

City of Denver 

City of St. Louis 

City of Salina 



The Bludebird 

Western Pacific

California Zephyr 

Notable Other Trains




Havana Special 

The "Rexall Train" 

It’s form and function was quickly applied to streamliner concept including the first two to debut, the Union Pacific’s M-10000 and soon-to-follow, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad's Zephyr 9900. The M-10000 kicked things off in 1934 when Union Pacific introduced it in February of that year. For its time the train was an entirely new and novel concept, looking somewhat like a sleek and shiny tube with no boxy features whatsoever (contrary to the standard coaches of the day). The trainset topped out at 204 feet, was extremely light at just 124 tons, held 56 passengers, was powered by a 600-hp distillate engine power car, and could easily top 100 mph while cruising at-speed. 

Just two months later the Burlington debuted its Zephyr at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station in Philadelphia. From a design standpoint the trainset was quite similar to the Union Pacific’s version except that the Zephyr did not include any type of cab and featured a simple, yet elegant, front-sloped nose to enhance its streamlining features. Perhaps, though, one aspect that did set the train apart from the M-10000 was its use of a conventional diesel engine, the 8-201-A model from the Winton Motor Company. Lastly, the Zephyr also featured a stainless-steel carbody that added to its sleek look. 

What could pass for a scene from the 1940s UP E9A #932 has just arrived at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) with the City of Los Angeles as in the background the AT&SF's San Diegan is about to depart led by F7A #39C during March of 1971.

While the M-10000 is credited with being the first to debut the Zephyr is often best remembered. Much of its celebrity and endearing status is the result of its historic run on May 26, 1934. On this day the blazing-fast train left Denver in the morning and arrived in Chicago, covering 1,015 miles in just 13 hours and 5 minutes! Countless spin-offs of the streamlined trainset concept would follow the two trains from UP and Burlington such as the Boston & Maine’s Flying Yankee; the New Haven’s Comet; Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s Rebel; and Illinois Central’s Green Diamond

However, all of these designs quickly found themselves with a problem of practicality. The Achilles heel of articulated trainsets is that if a problem occurred with a single car or the power car the entire train was sidelined until repairs were completed. Furthermore as demand rose for these trains seating quickly became an issue and without the ability to add additional cars entire new trains would have to be built to meet demand, which quickly became expensive. 

What railroads needed was a conventional passenger train setup with individual cars pulled by an ordinary locomotive, yet with everything streamlined like these new trainsets. In 1935 this setup debuted on two railroads, the Baltimore & Ohio and the Milwaukee Road. While not streamlined, the first of these new trains was introduced by the B&O with itsRoyal Blue operating between Washington, D.C. and Jersey City, New Jersey. The train featured lightweight aluminum cars and the first self-contained diesel locomotive ever built, the Electro-Motive Corporation’s boxcab No. 50. What’s more the train also included more creature-comforts and other amenities for passengers such as wider seats, both sit-down dining and lunch-counter services, a buffet-lounge, and round-ended parlor observation car. 

Later in 1935 the Milwaukee Road introduced its legendary Hiawathasbetween Chicago and the Twin Cities on May 29th. Originally powered by 4-4-2 Atlantic-type steam locomotives (later 4-6-4 Hudson-type locomotives) the train was entirely streamlined, including the locomotive, and home-built in the Milwaukee’s own shops. These trains became instantly successful and regularly cruised over 100 mph with nary a bump or shudder during the ride. 

By the late 1930s the shiny, sleek, and fast passenger trains were fast becoming the must-have sensation as nearly every popular railroad had some kind of consist by World War II. Some of the more famous trains to either debut or relaunched with new, lightweight equipment included the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited on June 6, 1938; the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited launched the same day; the B&O’s Capitol Limited in 1938; the first of Union Pacific’s fleet of City trains the first of which was the City of Portland which debuted on May 5, 1935; and the Southern Pacific’s Daylight of 1937

The UP's City of Los Angeles with E9A #932 up front passes LAUPT's Mission Tower as it arrives at the station during March of 1971.

Numerous railroads, such as the PRR, NYC, B&O, SP, and others would follow the Milwaukee Road and introduce traditional passengers trains which were streamlined and led by a matching streamlined steam locomotive. However, in 1937 the Electro-Motive Corporation (EMC) unveiled the EA Model (and a matching cabless booster, the EB), the first in a long line of passenger diesel locomotive designs which would come to be known as the E series. Powered by two 900-horsepower, 12-cylinder 201-A Winton engines the EA was a completely self-contained diesel locomotive and featured elegant streamlining. 

Again, the B&O, along with the Santa Fe, were the first railroads to purchase this strikingly beautiful new model. The Santa Fe was the first to introduce the E1A, equipping it on its premier Chicago-Los Angeles passenger train, the legendary Super Chief. Introduced to compete with the Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles it was instantly successful and featured a striking paint scheme of red and yellow with stainless steel matching streamlined cars, and the entire train was modeled after the Native American tribes of the Southwest. 

WP FP7 #804-D blasts out of Tunnel #3 along Altamont Pass in California leading the CZ during March of 1970. This tunnel has since been daylighted.

The B&O equipped the EA on its premier New York-Chicago train, the Capitol Limited in 1938 with the help of its Mount Clare Shops, which streamlined standard heavyweight cars to match the new diesel locomotive. What resulted was a beautiful train albeit it was never quite able to effectively compete in the New York market with rivals PRR and NYC. By the late 1940s the craze had settled down although train travel remained a popular mode of transportation for most during the decade. However, following WWII and into the 1950s railroads watched helplessly as passenger traffic plummeted and not even new equipment and promotional advertising could sway passengers back to the rails. 

As automobiles and airplanes gradually eroded rail travel railroads slowly began to bow out of the market where they could. By the 1960s most of the celebrated trains that had either debuted or were reintroduced in the 1930s were a mere shell of their former self. It was during this time that railroads were desperately looking for a way out of the passenger market. By 1971 this wish became reality with the creation of Amtrak, which took over most intercity rail travel operations throughout the country. 

The Espee's San Joaquin Daylight rolls along atop the Tehachapi Loop in California during April of 1971. Note the girl waving to the photographer from the observation car.

Interestingly, though, in recent years as rail travel has become an ever more popular mode of transportation once again, the streamlining concept is making a comeback. New diesel locomotives designed for passenger service are now given some type of streamlined look and trains like Amtrak’s Cascades and Acelas feature sleek and beautiful designs. So, while the “Golden Age” of passenger trains may never return the classic streamliner will likely always be a part of passenger rail travel. For more information about these trains and a history of our country's passenger rail system in its entirety please click here

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