History of the California Zephyr

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Changes Are Made

Discussions between the railroads continued into 1947 with some changes being made in the originally planned consist of the train and an additional sleeper added to provide for a through Coast to Coast daily sleeper to be operated between Chicago and New York over the New York Central Lines and Pennsylvania Railroad alternately. Each of the six trains would now be made up of;

1 Baggage Car
3 Vista Dome Coaches
1 Coffee Shop Lounge Vista Dome Car
2 6 Bedroom 10 Cabin Standard Sleepers
1 Dining Car
1 16-Section Open Section Sleeper
1 6 Bedroom 10 Cabin Standard Sleepers
1 3 Bedroom 1 Drawing Room Vista Dome Observation Sleeper
11 Total per train.

These revenue trains would be the first ever constructed to have cars incorporating the newly developed Vista-Dome feature in which passengers could view the scenery from atop the train. The Vista-Dome compartments each had seating for 24 passengers in air conditioned comfort and were equipped with large curved windows permitting side and sky views through glare and heat resisting safety glass making for a novel and pleasant experience.

Each train contained five of the new dome type cars in each consist similar to the cars displayed with the General Motors “Train of Tomorrow”. More domed cars than would be in any other named train currently in operation by any other railroad. Further agreement was also reached that each car name would be preceded by the word "Silver" following the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy practice of naming its stainless steel train cars. Seventy-seven "Silver" names were eventually used in naming the cars of the Zephyr. The baggage cars carried names of some of the wild animals found on the western plains and mountains. Vista-domed-coaches reflected names suggesting the characteristic features of western life and the environment. Names chosen for the vista-domed-buffet-lounge, diner and the vista-domed-observation cars were suggestive as to the type of service provided in each car.

The California Zephyrs would represent the most advanced design of the car builder's art and incorporated the results of experience accumulated from the study of the performance of then existing high speed streamlined trains. Many new features were to be incorporated to provide for the maximum safety, relaxation, comfort and pleasure of passengers. The trains would be widely publicized in advance of the initial service which was expected to start late in 1946 but unavoidably delayed by non-delivery of the passenger cars. However, in 1947 sufficient baggage cars and Vista Dome coaches had been delivered to the three railroads to provide for one of each such cars daily in the Exposition Flyer between San Francisco (Oakland) and Chicago; starting March 24, 1948. When the other coaches and sleepers were delivered, they were likewise placed in service in the conventional trains until the six 11 car California Zephyrs could be fully assembled and placed in full scheduled service over the same route.

Cost and Ownership

Cost and ownership of the equipment was shared approximately on a mileage pro rate basis which resulted in Western Pacific owning two complete 11 car trains plus one coach and one open section sleeper. Joint expenses were to be pooled according to the actual route mileage but revenues would be divided based on the official short-line mileage which was the Overland Route. Therefore WP’s percentage of revenue was based on a route that between Oakland and Salt Lake City was 138 miles shorter, about 18 percent. Rio Grande and the Burlington’s mileage difference was about 8.5 percent each which put WP at a considerable disadvantage. This revenue split arrangement would come to haunt the WP in the later years of the trains operation.


BUDD Erecting Plant
BUDD Company's Red Lyon plant.

Construction of the Stainless-Steel cars, which made up the California Zephyr, began in 1946 at the Budd Company Red Lyon plant in Pennsylvania using a “line-production” technique. Covering an area of twenty-four and a half acres on the outskirts of Philadelphia it was touted by Budd as the most modern plant in the world for railway car construction. Approximately one third of the nation’s new railway passenger cars (exclusive of railroad production) were being produced by Budd at this plant. Built of 18-8 stainless steel, which had been developed by the Krupp Works in Germany and assembled with Budd's patented "shotwelding" construction method, the cars were constructed with comfort and durability in the forefront of design criteria. This material and the construction techniques made these cars almost totally resistant to corrosion. Ultralite insulation was used throughout the train, which was also a newly developed product and was exceptionally lightweight. For modern trains, such as the California Zephyr, it reduced insulation weight by about one-half without sacrificing efficiency. It is composed of soft, inorganic glass fibers, bound with a thermo-setting binder. To the passenger it meant greater comfort, which offered the latest in traveling luxury.

Motive Power

Already very familiar with Electro-Motive Division products both the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Western Pacific ordered three F3 sets. CB&Q opted for A-B-A sets numbered 9960-9962 while WP ordered A-B-B sets numbered 801-803. These 4500 horsepower locomotive sets received stainless steel side panels, dual headlights, steam generators, 56:21 gear ratios, and in the case of CB&Q smooth passenger style pilots. All units had an A, B or C suffix after the unit number. As delivered the C units did not have the feather herald on the side, it would be added later by the railroad.

Although the Denver & Rio Grande Western also had F units at the time a difference of opinion emerged between D&RGW’s Al Perlman and EMD’s Cyrus Osborn which mainly concerned the method in which EMD was rating available horsepower in their manuals and sales brochures. Because of this difference, D&RGW decided to purchase ALCo's. This initial purchase consisted of two A-B-A sets of PA1/PB1 locomotives numbered 600-601, which also had A, B and C suffixes. All of the locomotives sets ordered were rated at 4500 horsepower per set.

Delivery of CZ Cars

Delivery of the new BUDD built cars began early in 1948. Initial ideas for an “Advance California Zephyr” were discussed in which two sets of six coaches and four baggage cars equipped for lunch service would operate on a twice-a-week schedule. This idea was quickly dropped as it was felt this would tarnish the image of the train even before it debuted. Instead, a few select cars were placed in service on the Exposition Flyer. Held from inclusion in the Flyer consist were the vista-domed-buffet-lounge, dining and vista-domed-lounge-observation cars. The railroads did not want the inauguration of the California Zephyr to be anticlimactic for the public.


Public exhibition of the new train began on March 12, 1949 at Oakland, California and continued during the week at San Francisco, San Jose, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville, Oroville, Portola as well as Winnemucca, Elko and Salt Lake City, Utah. Attendance at these exhibitions was estimated to exceed 65,000 people. During these exhibition’s members of the press, civic leaders and Western Pacific employees were invited to take short “tours” of the line aboard the new train.

The week was climaxed on Saturday, March 19, a day before the inaugural run from Oakland, CA when the dedication of the California Zephyr took place at San Francisco, California. Displayed proudly in front of the Pier 3 Ferry building the train was officially christened the “California Zephyr”. Actress Eleanor Parker christened the California Zephyr by breaking a bottle of California champagne across the nose of the 802.


Wanting passengers to enjoy the scenery offered in the Feather River Canyon and the Colorado Rockies those working on the scheduling of the train took great pains to ensure passage through these areas during daylight hours, while the Nevada deserts and plains states were crossed at night. This practice allowed convenient arrival and departure times as well as giving passengers the most breathe taking views of the route during daylight hours.

Westbound the train left Chicago in mid-afternoon and arrived in Denver the next morning in time for breakfast. After traversing the Colorado Rockies, a late evening arrival brought the train into Salt Lake City. Early the following morning the California Zephyr entered California through Beckwourth Pass in the heart of the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. What followed was the spectacular Feather River Canyon, one of the highlights of the trip. Oakland, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate were reached in the afternoon.

Eastbound the train departed Oakland in mid-morning, traversing the Feather River Canyon and the Sierra Nevada before dusk and arriving in Salt Lake City early the next morning. A glorious all-day trip through the Colorado Rockies followed with arrival in Denver early in the evening. After a short stop the overnight trip to Chicago followed with arrival shortly after noon the following day.

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