Route: Chicago-Denver-Salt Lake City-Sacramento-Emeryville, California
Host Railroads: BNSF, Union Pacific
Amtrak Operated: April 24, 1983 to present
Named for: The route’s destination and the Zephyr passenger train tradition of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad
Pre-Amtrak History: A combination of railroads collaborated on offering two routes between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay. Union Pacific teamed up with Chicago & North Western and Southern Pacific to create the City of San Francisco, which took UP’s Overland Route across Nebraska and Wyoming. The C&NW handled the train between Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska, while the SP operated it between Ogden, Utah, and Oakland, California.
The CB&Q formed an alliance with the Denver & Rio Grande Western and the Western Pacific to launch the California Zephyr on March 20, 1949. The CZ was the first western train to operate with dome cars and its 51-hour journey was scheduled to maximize daylight viewing of the Rocky and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The Zephyr name was derived from Zephyrus, the Roman god of the West Wind and a harbinger of rebirth.
Efforts to end the train, led by Western Pacific, began in 1965, but the Burlington resisted. WP tried in 1967 and 1968 to end its segment of the CZ, only to be ordered by the Interstate Commerce Commission to continue operating the train between Ogden, Utah, and Oakland.
The WP’s third effort in 1969 was joined by the Rio Grande. The two railroads said they had collectively lost $2.2 million on the CZ. The ICC allowed WP to end its segment of the CZ, but the Rio Grande had to continue its leg between Ogden and Denver.
The California Zephyr left for the final time on March 20, 1970. The Rio Grande continued to operate a tri-weekly train between Denver and Ogden while the Burlington still ran a Chicago-Denver train it called “California Service.” This train had Chicago-Ogden through cars and connected with the City of San Francisco. The “California Service” operated tri-weekly as did the City of San Francisco.
Amtrak History: Amtrak’s planners created a Chicago-Oakland route that would use Burlington Northern (ex-CB&Q) between Chicago and Denver, the Rio Grande between Denver and Ogden, and Southern Pacific between Ogden and Oakland. Western Pacific was no longer in the intercity passenger train business and WP President Alfred E. Perlman ordered his staff not to cooperate with Amtrak in planning the Chicago-Oakland route.
Five days before Amtrak was to begin, the Rio Grande said it would not join Amtrak because it could not agree to a contract that did not limit the frequency of passenger train operation on D&RGW rails. Rio Grande President G.B. “Gus” Aydelott feared that Amtrak operations would hinder his company’s freight operations. The Rio Grande had a mountainous route that competed with the relatively flat UP route across Wyoming.
Amtrak’s first timetable, issued on May 1, 1971, showed the Chicago-Oakland route via the Rio Grande along with the California Zephyr name. Both were gone from the second timetable, which was issued on July 12, 1971.
The Rio Grande continued to operate its tri-weekly Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City with a charter bus to Ogden. It was the last train in the United State still operating with streamliner era train sets after Amtrak re-equipped its trains with Heritage Fleet cars and Superliner equipment in the early 1980s.
After the losses of the Rio Grande Zephyr reached $3 million by 1983, the Rio Grande was ready to get out of the passenger business. Initially, the D&RGW wanted to end the Rio Grande Zephyr west of Grand Junction, Colorado, but the Interstate Commerce Commission suggested instead conveying it to Amtrak.
Amtrak coveted the Rio Grande’s scenic route through Rockies and a contract was worked out. To promote the new route of its Chicago-Oakland train, Amtrak brought back the California Zephyr name on April 24, 1993
However, a mudslide at Thistle, Utah, on April 14 kept the CZ operating over the UP’s Overland Route through Wyoming.
In the meantime, Wyoming officials were angry that Amtrak planned to reroute the California Zephyr. A federal judge temporarily prohibited the reroute although with the D&RGW route still closed it was a moot issue.
A federal appeals court ruled against the Wyoming interests on July 1, 1983. The Rio Grande route re-opened three days later and the CZ began using it with the departures from Chicago and Oakland of July 15.
Amtrak offered to keep service in Wyoming if the state helped pay for it, but that did not occur. In the meantime, Amtrak had closed its Wyoming stations although it continue to stop at then to serve passengers.
The CZ used the Southern Pacific’s Lucin Cutoff over the Great Salt Lake. Rising waters forced the CZ to detour over the Western Pacific route between Salt Lake City and Alazon, Nevada, for a short time in May 1983. SP had battled water and the elements on the causeway for four decades.
On Oct. 30, 1983, the CZ began permanently using the WP route west of Salt Lake City, meaning that Amtrak now used 2,000 of the original CZ’s 2,252-mile route.
By the time that Amtrak restored the California Zephyr name, the train had begun carrying through coaches and sleepers between Chicago and Los Angeles that were conveyed west of Ogden by the Desert Wind, and through coaches and sleepers between Chicago and Seattle that were conveyed by the Pioneer.
After the CZ was rerouted via over the Rio Grande, the three trains merged and separated in Salt Lake City. The eastbound sections of the three trains were scheduled to arrive in Salt Lake City during a 40-minute window. If one of them was late, then No. 6 wound up being late out of Salt Lake, often resulting in missed connections in Chicago.
East of Salt Lake City, the CZ was nearly at capacity and on some days needed four F40PH locomotives to make it through the Rockies. In 1990, Amtrak studied separating the three trains and one idea was to have one of them operate over the Chicago & North Western route between Chicago and Omaha.
The C&NW had long resisted hosting Amtrak. It had joined Amtrak in 1971, but had never hosted a scheduled Amtrak train. The San Francisco Zephyr and California Zephyr both have detoured over the C&NW numerous times and the CZ continues to take the now former C&NW route on occasion if the regular route via BNSF through southern Iowa is blocked.
During the 1980s, Amtrak twice studied rerouting the CZ over the C&NW, but Amtrak was reluctant to move the train.
The separate the trains study was released in early 1991 and acknowledged that splitting the CZ, Desert Wind and Pioneer would enable each to expand in size and generate additional revenue. But the report said Amtrak lacked enough Superliner equipment to do that or the money to purchase new passenger cars.
The report favored having the CZ operate separately, but combining the Desert Wind and Pioneer. The report studied yet again using the the C&NW across Iowa and having one of the trains run across Wyoming on the Overland Route that Amtrak had used until July 1983.
The split described in the 1991 report was never implemented although Amtrak did on June 17, 1991, begin operating the Pioneer through Wyoming, connecting it with the California Zephyr in Denver.
Increased mail revenue in the early 1990s spared the California Zephyr from service cutbacks that were implemented to the Pioneer and Desert Wind whereby they began operating tri-weekly.
However, on June 11, 1995, the CZ began operating quad-weekly the length of its route. The Desert Wind operated between Chicago and Salt Lake City on the days that the CZ did not operate.
The California Zephyr returned to daily operation on May 10, 1997, following the discontinuance of the Pioneer and Desert Wind. This change occurred during an era when Amtrak was activity seeking to increase its haulage of mail and express shipments. Extra running time was added to the California Zephyr schedule to compensate for the adding and uncoupling of head-end cars, although many of them actually were placed on the rear of the train.
After the Loma Prieta earthquake heavily damaged the Amtrak station in Oakland, the CZ began using a nearby temporary facility.
The western terminus was shifted on August 21, 1994, to a new station in Emeryville, which was closer to San Francisco. Between May 22, 1995, and October 27, 1997, The CZ terminated at Oakland’s Jack London Square. But that required a backup move and the western terminus moved back to Emeryville.