The Aerotrain

The year 1956 was the most momentous in the history of passenger trains since the original Zephyr and M-10000 were introduced in 1933. Not two, not three, but a total of five new kinds of trains were introduced to the American public in 1956, with two more in early 1957. The first and most famous of these was the General Motors Aerotrain.


Click image to download a 3.3-MB PDF of this brochure.

With five new trains (seven including the two in early 1957), 1956 could have been even more momentous than 1933, except for the fact that four of the seven trains were such miserable failures that they remained in service for less than two years. Two others were only partial successes: one operated for about a decade, while the other stayed in service, but in heavily modified form, for more than two decades.

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ACF’s 1949 Talgo Train

Remember when the United States was such an industrial powerhouse that corporations in other countries outsourced their work to us? Neither do I, but apparently that was the case after World War II, when many American factories had a surplus capacity while Europe and Asia were still rebuilding.

This 10.5-minute video shows the Talgo train under construction at ACF’s Berwick, Pennsylvania factory.

In 1949–the same year Budd introduced the RDC–American Car & Foundry (ACF) fulfilled a contract to build three Talgo trains, including three locomotives and 32 cars, for the Spanish government-owned railroad. Talgo stands for “Tren Articulado Ligero Goicoechea Oriol” which means “lightweight, articulated train by Goicoechea and Oriol,” the latter two being the company founders.

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The Car You Were Once Going to Ride In

Budd took the rail industry by surprise when it introduced the Rail Diesel Car, or RDC, in 1949. Though not really streamlined, RDCs had fluted, stainless steel bodies and could carry up to 90 passengers–more than the Pioneer Zephyr or M-10000. Other configurations could carry 70 passengers and a baggage area or 49 passengers and a baggage/railway post office.

Budd had already sold several RDCs by the time this ad was published in the March 1950 National Geographic, but apparently not by the time the ad was prepared as no specific railroads are mentioned in the ad. Click any image for a larger view; most of the larger images are around 2 MB.

It was a testament to improvements in Diesel technology that an RDC could be powered by two 275-horsepower Diesel engines that were compact enough to fit in the undercarriage of the car. By comparison, the 600-hp engines required to move the M-10000 and Pioneer Zephyr were huge, taking up most of the first car of each of the three-car trains.

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Northern Pacific Corporate Stationery

At first glance, this appears to be an ordinary sheet of corporate letterhead. But it turns out to be four pages long (11″x17″ folded in half), with pages 2 through 4 devoted to photos advertising the vista-dome North Coast Limited.

Click image to download a 4.2-MB PDF of this four-page letterhead/brochure.

The interior photos include familiar scenes of dome cars, the Traveller’s Rest, the diner, coaches, and sleeping rooms. But the back page features photos of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington–cities not served by the North Coast Limited. Railroads never hesitated to recommend their own trains to prospective travelers even if those trains didn’t go where the travelers wanted to go.

Of course, travelers from Seattle to the East Coast had a choice of routes, and if they didn’t want to fly the North Coast Limited was an attractive option. However, this is an unusual switch as most Northern Pacific advertising was directed to travelers from the East and Midwest who wanted to visit the Northwest.

Great Northern Bridge Score Pad

This score pad for bridge doesn’t have a date on it, but it was designed if not printed in the early 1950s. It lists four streamlined trains including the Empire Builder without mentioning dome cars. It also lists the Winnipeg Limited, which was streamlined in 1956, as an “other” (i.e., non-streamlined) train.

Click image to download a PDF of the front and back of this score sheet.

The railroad offered these score pads to passengers in any of the on-board lounges on its trains. It also sold decks of cards featuring Winold Reiss Indian paintings for about $1 per deck.

No Newer, No Finer

Here’s a ticket envelope from that four-year period between introduction of the Mid-Century Empire Builder and the addition of Great Domes to that train. The date on the envelope is 1953.

Click image to download a PDF of the envelope.

The beautiful illustration of green-and-orange trains in front of brownish mountains and purple skies required four print colors, which always makes me wonder why they didn’t just go for a four-color process that would effectively allow the use of far more colors. Perhaps the need to be restrained to just four colors was somehow considered elegant in the world of illustration.

The Chief Way Ticket Envelope

In this age of political correctness, when colleges aren’t allowed to use Native American terms for team names, it is amazing to think that the Santa Fe Railroad based its train fleet on the “chief” name and the war bonnet logo. No one apparently ever complained that the war bonnets were probably first used by Sioux Indians, who lived far from Santa Fe territory. While other Plains Indians, some of whom lived in Santa Fe territory in Oklahoma and Texas, also adopted war bonnets, the Southwest Indians who the Santa Fe emphasized in its advertising wore very different headgear.

In any case, here is a ticket envelope featuring an image of an Indian wearing a war bonnet and a photo of a Santa Fe locomotive in war bonnet colors (though the photo is black-and-white, which seems strange since the rest of the printing uses four colors). Click the image to download a PDF of the inside and outside of the envelope.