California Zephyr - A History
To celebrate San Francisco’s two newly built bridges The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and some other local accomplishments, the Golden Gate International Exposition opened February 18, 1939. Held on San Francisco's man-made, in the bay, Treasure Island, the exposition was effectively a World's Fair.
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW), and Western Pacific (WP) railroads decided to operate a temporary train that would take passengers to/from the event between Chicago and Oakland, CA. They called the train the Exposition Flyer. Its first run started in Chicago June 10, 1939.
The Exposition Flyer turned out to be quite popular, and became a significant rival to the City of San Francisco, a Chicago-Oakland train operated jointly since 1936 by the Chicago & Northwestern, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads on a different route.
Initially the Exposition Flyer the train used steam locomotives and standard heavyweight Pullman cars. Diesel locomotives were then used and several years later the Exposition Flyer used lighter weight and more streamlined passenger cars.
The CB&Q, D&RGW, and WP replaced the Exposition flyer with the all streamlined California Zephyr, using the same route. Dubbed "the most talked about train in America" the California Zephyr first departed Chicago March 20, 1949. There were car hostesses known as "Zephyrettes". The cars that made up the train ‘consist’ were owned by the 3 different railroads. Cars cycled in and out for service, repairs, and as passenger loads varied with the seasons.
In the summer of 1954 the California Zephyr was scheduled to complete the 2354 mile route in 50 hours and 50 minutes. From the middle of the 19th century, many American railroads earned substantial revenues through contracts with the U.S. Post Office Department (USPOD) to carry mail aboard intercity passenger trains. The US Post Office began abandoning intercity passenger train routes in the 1950s.
Like all intercity passenger railroad service the California Zephyr was not immune to falling passenger travel in the 1960s caused by the completion of the interstate highway system and federal government support to grow the commercial airline industry. Indeed, in the 1960s the California Zephyr was just one of many passenger routes that began to lose money even when sold out. The final straw for the railroads occurred in1967 when the US Postal Service cancelled all the remaining contracts it had to transport mail on intercity passenger trains. Until then many intercity passenger routes were at least able to break even with income they got from the Postal Service contracts.
The largest railroad in the Northeast United States, Penn Central, was teetering on bankruptcy. On March 5, 1970 Penn Central filed to discontinue 34 of its passenger trains. Other passenger railroads were also in dire financial trouble and had also petitioned the federal Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue intercity passenger rail service. The Penn Central filing brought the issue to a head.
In October 1970, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the Rail Passenger Service Act. Government funding was used to ensure the continuation of intercity passenger trains in the US. It was decided a private entity, the National Passenger Railroad Corporation, would receive federal funding and assume operation of intercity passenger trains.
The NPRC’s original brand name is slated to be RailPax, pax being railroader shorthand for ‘passenger’. With the shorthand pax not commonly known, it is decided to change the brand name to AMTRAK.
The original California Zephyr ended operations on March 22, 1970, when the Western Pacific discontinued its portion of the route after they got approval from the ICC to do so.
The D&RGW continued passenger service between Denver and Salt Lake City as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 1983 using the California Zephyr equipment.
Amtrak takes over intercity passenger rail operations nationwide on May 1, 1971. On May 1, many intercity passenger rail routes were discontinued. Only 20 of the 26 surviving intercity passenger railroads joined Amtrak. One of those not joining was the D&RGW. That killed Amtrak’s intention of reviving the California Zephyr.
Instead, between the spring of 1971 and the summer of 1972, passengers traveling between Chicago and Oakland had to travel on two different trains: the Denver Zephyr, which operated daily between Chicago and Denver, and Amtrak appropriated the name of the discontinued, daily City of San Francisco for service which operated only three times a week, between Denver and Oakland by the Union Pacific’s (UP) Overland Route through southern Wyoming to Ogden, UT.
After several false starts, Amtrak consolidated the two trains into one they dubbed the San Francisco Zephyr.
Amtrak’s San Francisco Zephyr gets the new, bi-level Superliner railcars, one of the last western trains to receive the new cars. Amtrak also added service from Chicago to Seattle and Los Angeles by including the Pioneer and Desert Wind route cars with the San Francisco Zephyr. The Pioneer cars left for/returned from Seattle at Salt Lake City. The Desert Wind cars left for/returned from Los Angeles at Ogden.
• 1983 to Today
Citing increasing passenger train financial losses D&RGW joins Amtrak. That allowed Amtrak to return to using the D&RGW route over the Rocky Mountains, through the Moffat tunnel to Salt Lake City. Amtrak again named the train the California Zephyr. In Nevada near Winnemucca back then, the California Zephyr used UP tracks that bypassed Reno and took the train through the Feather River Canyon to Oroville, CA and then to Sacramento and Emeryville. The UP route used today out of Winnemucca goes through Reno, over Donner Pass to Sacramento and to Emeryville.