Other trains may have been more luxurious and for the well-to-do but none could compare to the California Zephyr in the way of friendly service and breathtaking scenery. Operated jointly by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the Burlington Route); Denver & Rio Grande Western (Rio Grande); and Western Pacific the train traveled through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. As a result it is not surprising the CZ continued to do well even even during rail travel's waning years after World War II. Following the CZ's cancellation as a through service in 1970, Rio Grande picked up the torch and operated a truncated version along its territory between Denver and Salt Lake City/Ogden as the Rio Grande Zephyr. The RGZ remained in service for more than a decade until the D&RGW finally handed over the train to Amtrak during the early 1980s. The national carrier brought back the California Zephyr name and today it remains one of the most popular long distance trains in the country.
Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh note in their fabulous book, "Streamliners: History Of A Railroad Icon," that the California Zephyr had a "double beginning." An argument could be made that it actually had a so-called "triple beginning" as two notable events preceded its inauguration. In 1934 the Burlington made a splash by deputing one of the first-ever streamliners, the Zephyr 9900 (also known as the Pioneer Zephyr) during April of 1934. The sleek, stainless-steel contraption was the first of its kind powered by a diesel engine and proved more successful, operationally, than UP's design. Both wowed the public and led to the Burlington christening an entire fleet of Zephyrs through the 1940s. In 1939 the Golden Gate International Exposition opened on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The CB&Q, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific subsequently came up with a plan to provide a through train for this event; known as the Exposition Flyer it traveled virtually the same route as the later California Zephyr albeit utilized largely heavyweight Pullman equipment and was steam powered.
The train entered service on June 10, 1939 and became so popular thanks to its scenic route the railroads agreed to continue its operation after the San Francisco event. Into the 1940s the Flyer gained diesel power and some lightweight equipment while the three lines contemplated revamping the entire service with new, streamlined cars and locomotives after the war (the Flyer remained in service until the CZ's inauguration in 1949). The Burlington led the charge, buffered by the success of its Zephyr fleet and new Vista-Domes first delivered by the Budd Company in 1947. According to, "The Art Of The Streamliner" (Bob Johnston, Joe Welsh, Mike Schafer), Budd designer John Harberson toured the CZ's proposed route, which passed through the Colorado Front Range, entered scenic Glenwood Canyon, worked its way along California's rugged Feather River Canyon, and finally wound through the rolling green hills of Altamont Pass before terminating in Oakland. He concluded that trainsets should feature no fewer than five dome cars, nearly unheard of at the time, for maximum viewing pleasure of the passengers.
Individually, the three roads could not offer a flagship, transcontinental streamlined train such as the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, Northern Pacific, or even the Milwaukee Road. The Burlington provided the longest stretch of unbroken territory reaching as far west as Denver. The railroad was also the gateway to Chicago, the key to any successful long-distance passenger train; without large markets at each end point no train would garner considerable patronage and there was no bigger market than the Windy City. The Burlington understood this (as did all other western lines) and already worked with allying roads GN and NP to provide service from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest with popular trains like the North Coast Limited and Empire Builder. In a first within the industry, and perhaps only time it proved wildly successful, the California Zephyr was routed specifically as a scenic train. It sacrificed speed for viewing and the concept proved a huge success.
In December of 1945 all three agreed on what was dubbed the California Zephyr. In 1947 they placed an order for six sets of stainless-steel cars from the Budd Company, all of which carried a western theme but with the prefix "Silver" as per Burlington's standards. As the authors point out in "Streamliners," each CZ trainset normally consisted of a baggage, three reclining-set Vista-Dome coaches, a Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge, diner, four sleepers, and the Vista-Dome sleeper-lounge observation bearing the train's famous neon "California Zephyr" drumhead featuring the Golden Gate Bridge. Officially, the new train debuted on March 20, 1949 when the first eastbound consist, train #18, departed from Oakland under the Western Pacific. It was immediately splashed as "The most talked about train in America" and despite its slower schedule the use of new lightweight cars and diesels enabled the CZ to sped up its running times from 60 hours, under the Exposition Flyer, to just 51 hours.
Historically, the CZ was also noteworthy as being the first-ever transcontinental train to run with dome cars. To provide the very best scenic enjoyment, the train was scheduled so vacationers could enjoy the fabulous views through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California during daylight hours. Once again, Electro-Motive was contracted to provide the power as all three roads used a combination of the builder's popular E and F series cab model "covered wagons" as primary road power. Beyond the scenery, the CZ success was thanks to its friendly staff; 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). And then, there were the "Zephyrettes," a distinctively Burlington creation; these hostesses were courtesy, friendly, and just plain nice young women that made a lasting impression on thousands of passengers.
Other attractive features included prerecorded music played into passenger's rooms and hall windows which allowed guests to enjoy views from both sides of the train. If their was one signature car aboard-train, similar in nature to the Super Chief's "Turquoise Room," it was the buffet-lounge. Given the moniker of "Cable Car Room" it was dressed in murals and motifs from the Bay Area and even featured scale models of San Francisco's trademark cable cars. 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; such scheduling was not bad considering its scenic routing and the fact that Santa Fe's "San Francisco Chief" made the run only about 3.5 hours faster (47 hours and 30 minutes). After only a few years of operation it was clear the railroads were on to something; annually the CZ averaged about 80% ridership and was often sold out during the summer. In 1952 new cars were ordered to meet demand and sellouts persisted throughout 1965.
The CB&Q and Western Pacific carried the train for much of its journey while the Rio Grande was in charge during perhaps the most scenic stretches across the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Salt Lake City. The downfall of the original CZ is an interesting story. While patronage remained incredibly high throughout the 1960s, particularly when compared to the severe declines experienced overall by the industry, costs to operate the train were increasing so rapidly that even strong, sustained ridership made it increasingly unprofitable to operate. The larger, and more financially stable carriers, Rio Grande and Burlington, could more or less weather the growing red ink although the much smaller Western Pacific could not. During September of 1966 the WP petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue its leg.
There was strong public backlash from this attempt, which the ICC labeled a, "unique national asset." A second try came in 1969 when the Rio Grande filed to discontinue its section but again the ICC rebuffed the idea. The commission finally relented a year later; in a ruling that came down on February 13, 1970 it allowed the WP to cancel its section but required the D&RGW and Burlington to continue operating a tri-weekly version of the CZ from Chicago to Ogden. From there passengers continuing westward could take Southern Pacific's/Union Pacific's City of San Francisco into the Bay Area. On March 20th the final, original California Zephyr's left Chicago and Oakland for the last time arriving at their destinations on March 22nd. Following its cancellation regional versions included Burlington's "California Service" (Chicago - Denver) and Rio Grande's Rio Grande Zephyr (Denver - Salt Lake City - Ogden). Interestingly, while Amtrak had been setup in 1971 to operate all intercity passenger trains across the country the Rio Grande would not relinquish control of its Rio Grande Zephyr until the early 1980s.
It 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.Home › Streamliners › California Zephyr