California Zephyr

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California Zephyr
Amtrak California Zephyr Green River - Floy, Utah.jpg
Westbound California Zephyr by Book Cliffs in Utah
Service type Inter-city rail
Locale Western United States
Predecessor San Francisco Zephyr/Rio Grande Zephyr
First service March 20, 1949 (original service)
April 24, 1983 (current service)
Last service March 22, 1970 (original service)
Current operator(s) Amtrak
Former operator(s) Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad
Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad
Western Pacific Railroad (1949-1970)
Ridership 1031 daily
Start Chicago, Illinois
Stops 33
End Emeryville, California
Distance travelled 2,438 miles (3,924 km)
Service frequency Daily
Train number(s) 5, 6
Rolling stock Superliner sleepers and coaches
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Operating speed 55 mph (average)
Track owner(s) Union Pacific Railroad
BNSF Railway

The California Zephyr is a passenger train operated by Amtrak between Chicago, Illinois, and Emeryville, California, via Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. At 2,438 miles (3,924 km) it is Amtrak's second longest route. Amtrak claims the route as one of its most scenic, with views of the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada.[2]

Before Amtrak, the California Zephyr (the CZ, or "Silver Lady") was a passenger train operated by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) and Western Pacific railroads, all which dubbed it "the most talked about train in America" on March 19, 1949, with the first departure the following day. It was scheduled to pass through the most spectacular scenery on its route in the daylight. The original train ceased operation in 1970, though the D&RGW continued to operate its own passenger service, the Rio Grande Zephyr, between Salt Lake City and Denver using the original equipment until 1983. Since 1983 the California Zephyr name has been applied to the Amtrak service, which operates daily and is a hybrid of the route of the original Zephyr and its former rival, the City of San Francisco.

During fiscal year 2012, the California Zephyr carried more than 376,000 passengers, an increase of 5.9% on 2011. The train had a total revenue of $47,605,728 in 2012, a 6.4% increase on 2011.[1]


The original California Zephyr operated over the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad from Chicago to Denver, Colorado, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Western Pacific Railroad from Salt Lake City to Oakland, California. Cars owned by different railroads ran together; cars cycled in and out for service, repairs, and varying passenger loads with the seasons.

The first train was named in San Francisco by Eleanor Parker while California Lieutenant Governor Goodwin Knight, mayor of San Francisco Elmer Robinson, and WP President Harry A. Mitchell looked on. For the inaugural run in 1949, every woman on the train was given "silver" and orange orchids flown from Hilo, Hawaii. The car hostesses were known as "Zephyrettes."[3]:68

In summer 1954 the schedule for 2,532 miles Chicago to San Francisco was 50hr 50min. An eastbound California Zephyr through Ruby Canyon saw the train's first birth on March 1, 1955, when Reed Zars was born.

The Zephyr was not immune to falling passenger travel in the 1960s; moreover, it began to lose money even when sold out. The Western Pacific applied to discontinue its portion in 1966 but the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) refused after public outcry. The D&RGW made the same request in 1969 and in 1970 the ICC permitted Western Pacific to end its portion, provided the D&RGW and Burlington provide "some semblance of [service]" between Chicago and Ogden, Utah. The last westbound California Zephyr to the west coast left Chicago on March 22, 1970 and arrived in Oakland two days later. The California Zephyr had operated for 21 years and 2 days. East of Salt Lake City the train was reduced to a tri-weekly schedule, operating as California Service on the Burlington and as the Rio Grande Zephyr on the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande portion of the train was extended beyond Salt Lake to Ogden, Utah, allowing Nevada and California passengers to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad's City of San Francisco. This continued until the creation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.[3]:69–70


A Zephyrette (center, in blue uniform) at work on the lower level of a California Zephyr Vista-Dome car in 1967
Main articles: Zephyrette and Zephyrette (train)

The brainchild of Velma McPeek, the Burlington's Supervisor of Passenger Train Services, the Zephyettes were train hostesses who performed a wide variety of roles, from tour guide to first aid responder to babysitter. After debuting on the Denver Zephyr in 1936, they served on the California Zephyr from 1949 until it was discontinued in 1970.[4] Described by former Zephyrette Julie Ann Lyman as "the railroad's answer to the air line stewardess",[5] the various duties of the position included welcoming passengers, making announcements, sending telegrams, making dinner reservations, and generally serving as a liaison between the train's passengers and its crew. At any one time, there were 10 or 11 Zephyrettes who were actively employed.[4] When Amtrak revived the California Zephyr in 1983 it invited a former Zephyrette, Beulah Bauman, to christen the train.[6]

A pair of the Western Pacific's Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs), replacements for the Royal Gorge (trains No. 1 and 2), also picked up the name Zephyrette.[7]:26 From September 15, 1950 to October 2, 1960, they were in service between Oakland, California, and Salt Lake City, a distance of 924 miles (1,487 km),[8] which made the route the longest RDC service in the United States.[9][10][11]

Amtrak era[edit]

Amtrak California Zephyr (interactive map)
An EMD FP7 and two EMD SDP40Fs pull the eastbound San Francisco Zephyr through the Yuba Gap in 1975.

Amtrak intended to revive the California Zephyr as part its original route network in 1971, using the Burlington Northern east of Denver, the Rio Grande between Denver and Ogden, and the Southern Pacific west of Ogden, Utah. At the last minute Rio Grande refused to join Amtrak, fearing the new company's passenger trains would interfere with profitable freight traffic. This forced Amtrak on to the Union Pacific's Overland Route through southern Wyoming instead of Colorado. For a brief time, between the spring of 1971 and the summer of 1972, passengers traveling between Chicago and Oakland would have to travel on two different trains: the Denver Zephyr, which operated daily between Chicago and Denver, and the City of San Francisco, which operated three times a week, between Denver and the San Francisco area. Eventually, however, after several false starts, Amtrak began operating a single train, dubbed the San Francisco Zephyr, homage to both the California Zephyr and the San Francisco Chief, between Chicago and Oakland. The Rio Grande continued to operate the Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Ogden.[12]:136–137

In 1983 the D&RGW elected to join Amtrak, citing increasing losses in passenger operations. Amtrak re-routed the San Francisco Zephyr over the D&RGW's main line between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, its original preference from 1971. The change was scheduled for April 25, but a mudslide at Thistle, Utah closed the line and delayed the change until July 16. With the change of route, Amtrak reinstated the California Zephyr name.[13][14] The modern California Zephyr uses mostly the same route as the original east of Salt Lake City. However, the route in Nevada and California is essentially the route of the former City of San Francisco train. The California Zephyr operates on the former Western Pacific's Central Corridor from Salt Lake City west until central Nevada, changing to the former Southern Pacific's Overland Route by Winnemucca. As the two lines operate directional running across central Nevada, the spot the train switches lines depends on the direction of travel.[15]

California Zephyr 60th Anniversary Special, 2009. Rear car is the Budd #377 "Silver Solarium," built 1948-49.

A small note in the July 2010 Trains said that this train is listed not only for route improvement, but to host a second route, the discontinued Desert Wind route.[16] The following is what is listed for the Zephyr route:

The westbound Zephyr was in a collision with a semi truck on June 24, 2011, 70 miles (113 km) miles east of Reno, Nevada along US 95 near Interstate 80. Six died, including the truck driver and an Amtrak conductor, and dozens were injured. Fire destroyed two rail cars.[17] Witnesses said the crossing gates were functioning and that the driver tried to stop.[18]

Route description[edit]

A pre-Amtrak California Zephyr in the Feather River Canyon.

The west-bound train is Amtrak number 5 (eastbound, it is number 6). Upon leaving Chicago's Union Station in the mid-afternoon, the Willis Tower can be glimpsed as the train passes urban industrial zones, rail yards and bricked residential streets, and through the 25 commuter stations used by Metra's BNSF Railway route. The Chicago suburbs are expansive but traversed within the first hour of the train's journey, stopping once in Naperville, Illinois.

After passing through Aurora, Illinois, the train passes through the seemingly endless corn, soybean fields and small farming towns of Illinois and Iowa. The Burlington Rail Bridge across the Mississippi River affords a view of Burlington, Iowa and marks the state line between Illinois and Iowa. Overnight, and into the early morning, the train traverses the great plains of Nebraska and eastern Colorado, before making a morning arrival into Denver.

At Denver the California Zephyr departs BNSF Railway-owned track. From Denver west, the train runs along the Union Pacific Railroad's Central Corridor. The scenery changes dramatically departing Denver as the train climbs the Rocky Mountains. After going through the Tunnel District then crossing the Continental Divide via the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel under James Peak, the tracks follow the Colorado River for several hours. Passengers can see the transition from a narrow, whitewater river (popular with rafters, who habitually moon the train as it passes) to a much wider stream past Glenwood Canyon and Interstate 70 toward Grand Junction. The train finally departs the now much larger Colorado River after exiting Ruby Canyon which is also where the train enters Utah.

In Utah the train follows the southern rim of the Book Cliffs to their end near Helper. The train then crosses the Wasatch Mountains, cresting at Soldier Summit. After passing the Wasatch the train arrives at the Wasatch Front where most of the population of Utah is located.

Once the train reaches Salt Lake City the train loosely follows Interstate 80 until the terminus of the train in California. Both the freeway and railroad pass along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake and across the Bonneville Salt Flats towards Nevada. After crossing the Utah/Nevada state line at Wendover, Utah/West Wendover, Nevada, the route passes the Toano Range, via Silver Zone Pass, across the Goshute Valley, tunnels under the Pequop Mountains and then skirts the northern edge of the Ruby Mountains.

The train first reaches the Humboldt River near Wells, which the train loosely follows until the river's end in the Humboldt Sink near Lovelock. The tracks cross the center of the Forty Mile Desert, on the other side of this desert valley is the Truckee River which provides the train's path to Reno and up the Sierra Nevada in California.

In California, the train crests the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass and, after rounding Donner Lake, descends following a high ridge between the American and Yuba Rivers, through Emigrant Gap. Eventually, the California Zephyr reaches the lowland areas of the California Central Valley, and then along the San Pablo Bay, with stops in Sacramento and Davis. It crosses the Benicia Bridge and has stops in Martinez and Richmond. Then, the trip ends in Emeryville, a suburb of Oakland. From Emeryville the free Emery Go Round shuttle connects passengers to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, or a Thruway Motorcoach provides connecting service to San Francisco's Embarcadero (with sweeping city views from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge along the way).

The original California Zephyr used the Feather River Route as its path through the Sierra Nevada. The rails are still in use for freight; however, anyone wishing to see this portion of the original route must now use State Route 70 which runs parallel to the old Western Pacific track.


Inaugural 1949 consist
  • Baggage
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome chair car
  • Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge car
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Diner (48 seats)
  • Sleeper (16 sections)
  • Sleeper (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Vista-Dome dormitory-buffet-lounge-observation (1 drawing room, 3 double bedrooms)

The Budd Company manufactured six ten-car trainsets; three went to the Burlington, two to the Western Pacific and one to the Rio Grande. In line with the train's sightseeing schedule, each set included five of the new "Vista-Domes" (three coaches, a dormitory-lounge, and a dormitory-observation car). The California Zephyr was the first long-distance train to carry domes in regular service.[3]:68 The Pennsylvania Railroad owned a single 10-roomette 6-double bedroom sleeping car, the Silver Rapids, which was used for through service to New York City.[20]:220

The forward section of the first Vista-Dome car was partitioned off and reserved for women and children. There was a door in the corridor under the dome just behind the women's restroom to the reserved section. Early on, this reserved section was opened up to all passengers and the door and partitions were removed. Ownership of the cars was split between the three railroads almost evenly across all car types. Each car was owned by one railroad, but the ownership of the cars in any one day's train depended more on what was available at the terminals than whose railroad the train was operating over.

Generally positioned as the second Vista Dome coach was the car referred to as the "Conductor's Car". This car was like the other Vista Dome coaches, except in the B end, was a small booth with a bench seat and desk for the Conductor.

In 1952 another Pullman sleeper (6 double bedrooms - 5 compartments) was added to each consist. With the new cars delivered that year, cars arriving in Chicago on the California Zephyr were made available for use on the Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr for an overnight round trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. When the cars returned from Lincoln the next day they were placed back in the westbound California Zephyr's consist for the next train out of Chicago that afternoon.[20]:221; 225[21]:140


The high quality Budd-built cars of the California Zephyr have proven to be popular with private car owners. Several operate in private charter service on Amtrak, including dome-observation car Silver Solarium,[21]:155 dome-coach Silver Lariat, sleepers Silver Rapid and Silver Quail and a dome lounge now known as the Sierra Hotel.

Seven museums currently hold equipment once used on the California Zephyr:

  • the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, Calera, AL owns[22] the Silver Maple (ex-CB&Q 400 [sleeper], rebuilt 1963 to chair car configuration, CB&Q 4742) now numbered 4741. The Silver Maple is used in regular excursion service.
  • the Illinois Railway Museum owns several Burlington locomotives that were used to pull the train on occasion, and Rio Grande dome coach Silver Pony.
  • the Colorado Railroad Museum has two Rio Grande locomotives that also saw California Zephyr and later Rio Grande Zephyr service.
  • the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Florida owns two former Western Pacific Railroad California Zephyr cars: baggage car Silver Stag and dome-observation car Silver Crescent.
  • the Avon Park Depot Museum in Florida owns one former Western Pacific California Zephyr car: the "Silver Palm;" originally a sleeper car, it is now a buffet dining car that the museum uses for dinner parties. The car was converted to its buffet car state by the Auto-Train Corporation when they bought the car.[23]
  • the Austin Steam Train Association, which operates the Austin & Texas Central Railroad in the Hill Country between Cedar Park and Burnet, has completed its restoration of the Silver Pine. Originally a 16-section sleeper manufactured in 1948 by the Budd Company, the coach car re-entered revenue service in 2011 - for the first time since its Denver & Rio Grande Western days.
  • the largest collection of preserved equipment can be found in Portola, California at the Western Pacific Railroad Museum. One locomotive and four cars are currently preserved there as part of the museum's "Zephyr Project" restoration program. Western Pacific 805-A is the last intact locomotive built specifically for the California Zephyr. The cars include dome-lounge Silver Hostel, dome coaches Silver Lodge and Silver Rifle (on long term loan from the Golden Gate Railroad Museum) and the diner Silver Plate.

Additionally, three of the diners are presently still in revenue service with Amtrak as of 2015.


A non-functional replica of the California Zephyr was at Disney California Adventure Park theme park in Anaheim, California. It was Baker's Field Bakery and Bur-r-r Bank ice cream counter cafes at the Sunshine Plaza main entrance. The exhibit closed on July 31, 2011, as part of the park's $1.1 billion overhaul. Disney gave it to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California.[24]

See also[edit]


Route map: Bing / Google

  • Kisor, Henry (1995). Zephyr: Tracking A Dream Across America. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. ISBN 978-1-55850-477-6. 
  • "The Zephyrettes". California Zephyr Virtual Museum. Retrieved May 28, 2006. 
  1. ^ a b "Amtrak sets new ridership record" (PDF). Amtrak. October 10, 2012. Retrieved April 8, 2013. 
  2. ^ Amtrak. "California Zephyr". Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Schafer, Mike; Joe Welsh (1997). Classic American Streamliners. Osceola, WI: MotorBooks International. ISBN 0-7603-0377-0. OCLC 37281634. 
  4. ^ a b Radecki, Alan; Wilson, John. "The Zephyrettes...a History". California Zephyr Virtual Museum. Retrieved January 31, 2015. 
  5. ^ Lyman, Julie Ann (January 20, 1963). "Life of Zephyrette Is Wacky, Wonderful". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved February 1, 2015. 
  6. ^ "New Amtrak train christened Zephyr". Gadsden Times. July 17, 1983. Retrieved February 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ Humbert, James E. "Railroading in the Feather River Canyon: Past, Present, and Future". Prototype Modeler: 21–27; 44. 
  8. ^ Brehm, Frank. "The Zephyrette's - Trains 1 & 2: Page 3". Western Pacific Railroad History Online. Retrieved February 1, 2015. 
  9. ^ Ingles, J. David (December 1965). "Christine and the Mongeese" (PDF). Trains: 37. Retrieved February 1, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Rock Island 1957 Timetable". Streamliner Memories. October 12, 2014. Retrieved February 1, 2015. 
  11. ^ McCann, Gary Garth. "Budd RDC car in National Geographic ad and the Zephyrette and Choctaw Rocket in photos". Streamliner Memories. WordPress. Retrieved February 1, 2015. 
  12. ^ Sanders, Craig (2006). Amtrak in the Heartland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-34705-X. OCLC 61499942. 
  13. ^ "Scenic route to be taken by Amtrak". Eugene Register-Guard. March 17, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Last passenger trains rolling across Wyoming". Spokesman-Review. July 13, 1983. Retrieved September 12, 2010. 
  15. ^ Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas (Map) (2003 ed.). 1:250000. Benchmark Maps. 2003. pp. 41–44. ISBN 0-929591-81-X. 
  16. ^ "Amtrak Trains Under the Microscope in 2010", Trains, July 2010, 20.
  17. ^ Sonner, Scott (June 26, 2011). "Officials confirm 6 dead in Nevada Amtrak crash". Associated Press. Retrieved June 26, 2011. 
  18. ^ Stark, Lisa and Lauren Vance (June 26, 2011). "Amtrak Crash Death Toll Rises; Truck Driver Investigated". ABC News. Retrieved June 26, 2011. 
  19. ^ Brehm, Frank. "California Zephyr Consists". Western Pacific Online. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  20. ^ a b Wayner, Robert J., ed. (1972). Car Names, Numbers and Consists. New York: Wayner Publications. OCLC 8848690. 
  21. ^ a b Zimmermann, Karl (2004). Burlington's Zephyrs. Saint Paul, MN: MBI. ISBN 0760318565. OCLC 55676175. 
  22. ^ [1] Archived April 7, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ [2] Archived July 14, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Weiss, Werner (May 8, 2012). "Golden Gate Bridge at Yesterland". Yesterland. Retrieved February 6, 2013. 

External links[edit]