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.
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.
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.
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 its Royal 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 Hiawathas between 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.
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 EA, 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.
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. Below by clicking on the links you can learn more about several famous trains that operated on different railroads throughout the country.
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.
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.