Aboard the Vista-Dome Twin Zephyr

Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

The Burlington gave passengers this and similar postcards to mail to their friends. “Morning and afternoon in each direction the new Diesel-powered, stainless steel, TWIN ZEPHYRS featuring the unique VISTA DOME cars, flash along the scenic Mississippi River route between Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis,” says the back of the card.

Click image to download a PDF of this letterhead. Click here to download a PDF of the matching envelope.

First-class passengers in the parlor-observation car also had access to this stationery, which was similar to stationery on the Burlington’s many other Zephyrs.

The Vista-Dome Twin Zephyrs

As an indication of its enthusiasm for dome cars, in 1947 the Burlington completely re-equipped the Twin Cities Zephyrs with a new dome-car train. Each train consisted of a baggage-club-lounge car, four dome coaches, a diner, and a dome-parlor-observation car that included a private drawing room with five seats. For some reason, the Burlington was never interested in dome diners or dome sleepers (not that the Twin Zephyrs needed sleeping cars).

Click image to download a 2.0-MB PDF of this brochure.

The dome coaches seated 54 people on the main level, plus of course 24 in the dome. The bulkheads in front of the domes featured murals of historical scenes by Philadelphia artist Kathryn Fligg who, among other things, also illustrated books. The dome-parlor car was for first-class passengers and was sometimes supplemented by a flat-topped parlor car that ran between the diner and the observation car. The flat-glass domes (sometimes called pattern domes) Silver Dome and Silver Castle also sometimes were used on the Twin Zephyrs.

The new train entered service in December 1947, while the old Twin Zephyrs were bumped into duty as the Nebraska Zephyr (now often powered by an E5 locomotive instead of the original shovel-nosed locomotive) between Chicago and Omaha/Lincoln. One of these Nebraska Zephyr‘s still exists in the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Illinois.

Advertising the Train of Tomorrow

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Even though it never sold a single ticket to ride the train, General Motors advertised the Train of Tomorrow in numerous magazines. The above ad was on the back cover of the September, 1947, issue of Boys Life magazine. Slightly different ads appeared in other magazines. They all urged readers to watch their newspapers for when the Train of Tomorrow would be on display in their city.

General Motors also distributed this newsreel footage of the train. The advertising must have worked: nearly 6 million people walked through the train on the tour, which lasted nearly two-and-one-half years and only ended on October 30, 1949.

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Touring with the Train of Tomorrow

After taking delivery of the Train of Tomorrow from Pullman, General Motors sent the train on a 65,000-mile tour of the continent. Starting in Chicago, the train first took a shake-down and publicity cruise to French Lick, Indiana, where reporters, General Motors and Pullman executives, and other guests spent the night at the French Lick Springs Hotel before returning to Chicago the next day.

Train of Tomorrow in French Lick, Indiana.

On May 28, the train was officially christened with a bottle of champagne at Soldier Field by Jane Kettering, granddaughter of retiring General Motors research head C. F. Kettering.

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The General Motors Train of Tomorrow

To promote its new E7 passenger locomotive, General Motors took the unusual–for a locomotive manufacturer–step of ordering four dome cars from Pullman: a dome coach, dome diner, dome sleeper, and dome lounge. Completed in May, 1947, the cars and matching locomotive were painted an unusual shade of blue, with stainless steel fluted panels bolted on to give the train an added taste of modernity. General Motors called it the Train of Tomorrow and sent it on a tour throughout the nation.

General Motors staged this photo of the Train of Tomorrow near Lake Orion, Michigan.

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Publicizing the First Dome Car

In addition to the brochure presented yesterday, the Burlington distributed thousands of copies of this postcard showing the new Silver Dome car. “In this new type of car,” says the back of the card, “24 passengers are seated in the Vista Dome, a laminated, heat and ray-resisting glass penthouse.”

Click image to download a PDF of the front and back of this postcard advertising the Silver Dome.

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The First Dome Car

In 1944, Cyrus Osborn, a General Motors vice president in charge of its Electro-Motive Division that built Diesel locomotives, rode in the cab of a Rio Grande Diesel through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. “If the traveling public only knew what they could see from the operating cab of a Diesel locomotive or caboose of a freight train,” he remarked afterwards, “the railroads could sell seats in these two places at $500 apiece and always keep them full.” That night, on stationery from the Hotel Utah, he sketched an idea for the first modern dome car that would offer a view even better than from a locomotive cab: a car with a bubble on top giving passengers 360-degree views of the landscape.

“A monument to an idea.” The Rio Grande Railroad erected this memorial in Glenwood Canyon, where Osborn first conceived the modern dome car, in 1950. When Interstate 70 was expanded in this location, the monument was moved to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, where it can still be seen today. Click image for a larger view of this postcard, which shows the Alco PA-powered California Zephyr, with its five dome cars, in the background.

Osborn shared his idea with other railway executives, and Ralph Budd of the Burlington immediately told his mechanical chief to cut a hole in the top of the next Budd-built coach to go through the railroad’s shops and put a dome in it. The car happened to be called “Silver Alchemy,” but after the dome was installed, it was renamed “Silver Dome.” The railroad introduced it to the public in 1945.

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The Feds Put the Brakes on High-Speed Trains

Streamlining meant several things to railroad passengers. It meant newer, flashier trains, either stainless steel or painted in bright colors, inside and out. It meant more comfortable trains, with Heywood-Wakefield seats, air conditioning, and large windows for viewing scenery. And, perhaps most important of all, it meant higher speeds, because railroads pushed top speeds to more than 100 mph and/or because Diesel locomotives did not need to make frequent stops for water.

Despite the fact that railroads rapidly introduced new streamlined trains after World War II, revenue passenger miles declined in every year but one between 1944 and 1972. (The one exception, 1951, was probably due to wage and price controls imposed during the Korean War.)

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The 1950 Report on Streamline Trains

I recently scanned a library copy of of the 1950 update to the 1938 Report on Streamline Trains. The report is something of a disappointment, mainly because most railroads had stopped keeping track of (or at least releasing) data for individual trains, so the report only includes data for 66 of the 260 streamlined trains operating in 1949.

Click image to download an 8.6-MB PDF of this 89-page report.

We can no longer compare, for example, the Denver Zephyr with the City of Denver, as neither train is in the report. While the Twin Zephyrs and Twin Cities Hiawathas are both in the report, the C&NW 400 is not.

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Advertising Santa Fe Streamliners

From 1948 through 1954, the Santa Fe offered an incredible five daily trains between Chicago and Los Angeles, compared with just two each on the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific routes. The Super Chief and El Capitan, of course, were streamliners, and the Chief was mostly streamlined as well (only its baggage cars were sometimes heavyweights). The Grand Canyon Limited was a mix of streamlined and heavyweight equipment, while the California Limited was entirely heavyweight.

Click any image for a larger view.

These 1947 and 1948 ads from the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers show that the railroad used a variety of approaches to promote these trains after the war. The above ad, for example, focuses on the Heywood-Wakefield seats and other comforts in the railroad’s streamlined coaches.

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