San Francisco Zephyr

Endpoints: Chicago-Oakland, California

Numbers: 5/6

Host Railroads: Burlington Northern, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific

Amtrak Operated: June 11, 1972 to April 24, 1983

Named for: The city where the train terminated in California 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, which many argue had the most scenic passage through the American West between Chicago and San Francisco. The Zephyr name was derived from Zephyrus, the Roman god of the West Wind. The CZ was the first western streamliner to get dome cars and was a well-patronized service.

However, mounting financial losses prompted Western Pacific to pull out of the CZ alliance and the train made began its final trips on March 20, 1970, its 21st anniversary. CB&Q and the Rio Grande continued to operate in cooperation with SP a tri-weekly train called “California Service” that connected with the City of San Francisco in Ogden. By then, the City of San Francisco was also a tri-weekly train that operated in combination with the City of Los Angeles/Challenger between Chicago and Ogden. The “California Service” did not offer through cars between Chicago and Oakland, but UP had Chicago-Oakland coaches and sleepers.

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 at the time that Amtrak was formed 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 operating, 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 ultimately decided to combine BN’s Denver Zephyr with portions of UP’s City of Francisco (Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Ogden) and City of Kansas City (Denver and Cheyenne). No pre-Amtrak train had followed this route between Chicago and Oakland. However, UP’s Overland Limited had used this route between Denver and Oakland.

The initial schedule had the train operating daily as the Denver Zephyr between Chicago and Denver and as the California Zephyr west of Denver on a tri-weekly schedule.

In mid 1971, Amtrak began operating separate Denver and Oakland sections on the days when the train was scheduled to run west of Denver. This ended in the fall. Amtrak for a time also published separate on-time performance and ridership reports for the Denver and Oakland sections.

The California Zephyr name was dropped from Amtrak’s timetable of July 12, 1971. The train operated without a name until the timetable change of Nov. 14, 1971, when the Chicago-Oakland train was named City of San Francisco.

The San Francisco Zephyr name surfaced with the June 11, 1972, timetable change when Nos. 5 and 6 began operating daily for the summer. It was compromise name that reflected the train’s western destination and the Zephyr train name tradition.

The  SFZ reverted to tri-weekly operation on Sept. 10, 1971, and went daily again on June 10, 1973. Strong patronage convinced Amtrak to keep the train operating daily all year.

During its early years, the San Francisco Zephyr was plagued with late running and equipment breakdowns. Amtrak wanted to assign dome cars to the train, but SP refused to handle them, saying they were too tall for the tunnels, snow sheds and curves of its Donner Pass route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

For a while, regular dome cars operated on the SFZ east of Denver and SP-built dome cars ran the length of the route. The SP domes were single-level cars with an 11-foot ceiling of glass over a lounge. There were not enough SP domes, though, to cover all of the trains sets needed for a daily SFZ.

SP eventually agreed to allow Amtrak to use former Chesapeake & Ohio dome cars that were four inches shorter than a standard Budd dome. In the late 1970s, the Amtrak-SP dome fight ended with the railroad agreeing to allow any Amtrak dome cars to operate west of Ogden. By then the SFZ was the last Chicago-based western long distance train still carrying dome cars.

Ogden would become a crucial connection point for the San Francisco Zephyr, starting with the June 7, 1977, launch of the Seattle-Portland-Salt Lake City Pioneer, which was scheduled to connect with the SFZ in Ogden.

The San Francisco Zephyr got another Ogden connection on Oct. 28, 1979, when the Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Ogden Desert Wind began service. The first step in the eventual merger of the two trains occurred on Oct. 26, 1980, when a Chicago-Los Angeles through coach began being interchanged between Nos. 5/6 and 35/36. A Chicago-Los Angeles sleeper began April 25, 1982.

A similar arrangement began with the Pioneer with the launch of a Chicago-Seattle through coach on April 26, 1981. A Chicago-Seattle sleeper followed on Oct. 31, 1982.

The through cars were made possible by the assignment of Superliner equipment to the San Francisco Zephyr, which began on July 7, 1980.

The San Francisco Zephyr played a role in the eventual downfall of the SDP40F locomotives. After No. 6 derailed on Dec. 16, 1976, on a curve near Ralton, Nebraska, BN banned the SDP40F, saying they had spread the rails.  BN would later relent, but Amtrak chose to keep SDP40F locomotives off trains using the BN.

Until the coming of Superliner equipment, the SFZ typically operated with E units and P30CHs between Chicago and Denver and SDP40Fs between Denver and Oakland.

In the late 1970s, UP assigned one of its own E units to Nos. 5/6 between Denver and Ogden to provide more motive power, which in turn enabled the train to have a better chance to meet its schedule on the UP. The railroad’s motivation was collecting incentive payments for on-time performance.

The Rio Grande continued to operate its tri-weekly Rio Grande Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City with a charter bus to Ogden through 1975. 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

The San Francisco Zephyr was often criticized due to late running and motley mix of equipment. But it also served as bridge between the streamliner era and the Amtrak Superliner era that would come to define western train travel. The SFZ was a favorite of California railroad photographers in the 1970s and many fine photographs of it exist as a result.

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