Streamlined Steam

Out of the 120,000 or so steam locomotives built and used in the United States, only about 220 were streamlined–or, as the Chicago & North Western called it, steamlined–for passenger service. Railroads went to the trouble to streamline steam locomotives for three reasons.

First, some railroads, such as the Burlington, wanted steam locomotives as a back up in case the Diesels that were powering most of their streamliners broke down.

Second, many railroads, such as the Milwaukee Road, didn’t believe Diesels were powerful enough to reliably pull a full-sized train, and travel demand in their markets required more than the little three- and four-car streamliners pioneered by Union Pacific and Burlington. The Santa Fe proved Diesels could pull a full-sized train in 1937, but some railroads stuck with tried-and-true steam technology for as much as a decade after that.

Third, some railroads decided it would far less expensive to put a shroud on an old steamer, making it look fast and new, than to buy new, expensive, and uncertain Diesels. Even the Union Pacific operated a supposedly streamlined (but actually mostly heavyweight) train with shrouded steam locomotives, counting the train among its fleet of streamliners.

Warning: This is a long post with more than two dozen pictures and may take some time to load. Clicking on most images will bring up a larger version–in some cases, particularly the posters, much larger. It is also unusual for this blog in that it doesn’t include any scans from my memorabilia collection.

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The Rebels

In hindsight, Budd-built stainless steel cars hauled by General Motors Diesel engines–such as the Burlington Zephyrs or Santa Fe Super Chief–seem to be the epitome of streamlined trains. But in the mid-1930s, Budd and General Motors were both upstarts in the railroad world. Few “real” railroaders believed that Diesels could ever do more than work as switch engines or move tiny trains of the Zephyr-variety.

At that time, the “General Motors of rail locomotives” was the American Locomotive Company, or Alco. Like General Motors, Alco was a merger of several different locomotive manufacturers–eight, in fact–in 1901. While Baldwin (which, arguably, was the Ford of locomotive manufacturers) was a stiff competitor, few would bet against the quality and quantity of Alco steam locomotives.

So when Alco teamed up with Pullman rival American Car and Foundry (ACF) to build streamlined passenger trains, many in the rail industry might assume that the trains produced by this partnership would easily dominate over those new-fangled Budd-built trains. Yet the only major trains to result from this partnership were the Rebels, several trainsets owned by the relatively minor Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad.

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Chicago-St. Louis Pre-War Streamliners

Four railroads competed for business in the Chicago-to-St. Louis corridor: the Illinois Central; Alton; Chicago & Eastern Illinois; and Wabash. At least two of them acquired streamliners before the war. I’ve already mentioned the Illinois Central Green Diamond, which was built by Pullman and somewhat resembled the later M-1000x trains except for being coach-only and painted green.

The Green Diamond was a five-car articulated train with a 1,200-HP Diesel in the first car. The remaining cars were a mail-baggage car; a 56-seat coach; a coach-diner with 44 coach seats and 16 diner seats; and a diner-lounge with 22 parlor seats and 8 diner seats. Like the second-generation City trains which it resembles, the Green Diamond was built by Pullman, but was made of Corten steel rather than aluminum.

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The Rock Island Rockets

The 1938 Report on Streamline Trains discusses several streamlined trains that I haven’t mentioned in previous posts, and while I don’t have a lot of memorabilia for these trains they are worth presenting for the sake of completeness. The first are the Rock Island Rockets, which were transitional trains between the early Burlington Zephyrs and later full-sized streamliners such as the Santa Fe Super Chief.

Inaugurated in 1937, the Rockets consisted of three- and four-car Budd-built articulated trains, similar to the original Zephyr, but without an articulated power car. Instead, the Rockets were powered by a unique (in the sense that no other railroad had one) General Motors Diesel called the TA. The TAs–the T stood for twelve as in 1,200 horsepower–were 60 feet long, compared with General Motors’ E units, which were 70 feet long. While the Es each had two 900-HP, V-12 Diesel engines, the TAs had one 1,200-HP, V-16 engine, the same engine used in some of the Zephyr and City trains. The last, observation car was also non-articulated.

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Report on Streamline Passenger Trains

A consulting firm named Coverdale and Colpitts (now part of URS) once did a variety of economic analyses for the rail industry. In 1935, the firm published a report on the Burlington Zephyrs, followed by reports in 1938, 1939, 1941, and 1950 on “Streamline, Light-Weight, High-Speed Passenger Trains.”

Click to download a 6.1-MB PDF of the full 1938 report.

I found out about these reports when I saw the 1939 and 1950 reports for sale on ebay. No one else had bid on them, so I put in a bid . . . only to have someone snipe them away from me. I found the 1938 report on and bought it. It has a wealth of fascinating information on all of the trains I’ve discussed so far.

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The Daylights

On March 21, 1937, the Southern Pacific inaugurated the Daylight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Like the Milwaukee Hiawatha, the SP elected to go with steam power, in this case a semi-streamlined 4-8-4 locomotive manufactured by Lima, the smallest of the nation’s three major steam locomotive makers. The cars were built by Pullman and included several articulated coaches, an articulated diner/lunch counter car, a parlor car, and a parlor-observation car, with a total capacity of 444 revenue passengers.

Click the image to see a larger version of this postcard. Click here to download a PDF of the front and back of this postcard.

At an average speed of 48 mph, the Daylight was not a speed demon like the Hiawathas. But it was probably competitive with California roads at the time.

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Aboard the Early City Trains

Like the overnight Chicago-Denver trains, the two-night Chicago-Pacific Coast City trains were timed to minimize the loss of business hours. This worked especially well westbound, the direction in which time zones work in the traveler’s favor. During the late 1930s, both the City of Portland and the City of Los Angeles left Chicago at 6:15 pm and arrived at their namesake cities at 8:00 am of the second day.

Click to download a 4.1-MB PDF of this 20-page brochure about the City of Los Angeles.

This brochure describes the amenities travelers could expect to find aboard the City of Los Angeles. The brochure dates from about 1937, after the completion of the new Los Angeles train station. The statement that, “on some units of the ‘City of Los Angeles’ there is an observation-lounge on the rear of the train” tells us that the brochures was printed when the M-10002 was likely to be working the Los Angeles route, as this train, unlike the later ones, did not have an observation-lounge.

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Competing with the Twin Zephyrs

The Burlington not only had to compete with the Union Pacific in the Chicago-Denver market, it had two other entrenched rivals in the Chicago-Twin Cities corridor. The routes of both of the other railroads, the Chicago & North Western and Milwaukee Road, were shorter than the Burlington’s and also served Milwaukee, while the largest city on the Burlington route was LaCrosse. While the Zephyr was still on display at the Chicago fair, the other two roads introduced 90-minute, non-step service on the 85 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee on July 15, 1934 using conventional steam locomotives and heavyweight cars.

Tests by the Burlington showed that Zephyr streamliners could cut the time required for a Chicago-to-Twin Cities trip from 10-1/2 to around six hours. Both the Milwaukee and the C&NW elected to compete with the Twin Zephyrs using equally fast trains powered by steam locomotives. Achieving that time reduction with steam locomotives, which require frequent replenishments of water and fuel, required careful planning and advance preparation.

The C&NW was the first to speed its Chicago-Twin Cities service, starting on January 2, 1935. Reflecting the fact that Chicago and the Twin Cities were about 400 miles apart and the accelerated trip would take about 400 minutes, the railroad called its new train the 400. This was also a cultural reference to the fabled 400 families that supposedly made up New York high society. In fact, the train initially required seven hours–420 minutes–to go the 409 miles between Chicago and St. Paul.

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Aboard the Denver Zephyr

The overnight Denver Zephyr left Chicago at 5:30 pm and arrived in Denver at 8:30 am, in time for a full business day. The City of Denver left Chicago at, perhaps, a slightly more convenient 6:20 pm but arrived in Denver at 9:20 am, causing business travelers to lose about an hour of the business day. The Zephyr served Lincoln, Nebraska, while the City served Cedar Rapids and Ames, Iowa.

On board the Zephyr, you might want to use a postcard to dash off a note to a friend. The postcards, naturally, advertised the train and were likely to mention the 1936 record run made from Chicago to Denver in 12 hours and 12 minutes for an average speed of 83.3 mph. Both the Zephyr and the City were scheduled to take exactly 16 hours westbound and 16 hours and 38 minutes eastbound (why does downhill take longer than uphill?), for an average speed of about 65 mph–the City was slightly faster because of a slightly longer route.

Click to download a PDF of the front and back of this postcard.

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1936 Denver Zephyrs

When, in June 1936, the Union Pacific put the M-10005 and M-10006 in daily service between Chicago and Denver, the Burlington’s own sleeping-car equipped Denver Zephyr was still five months away. To steal the Union Pacific’s thunder (and protect its mail contract), Burlington pulled the original Zephyr and the Mark Twain Zephyr from their assigned routes and used them as Advanced Denver Zephyrs, starting 18 days before the City of Denver entered service.

The real Denver Zephyrs, Zephyrs 9906 and 9907, began working in November. Though their numbers were higher than the 1936 Twin Cities Zephyrs (9904 and 9905), the streamlined Denver Zephyrs actually entered service first. The Denver Zephyrs were also much longer trains, with ten (and later twelve) cars pulled by two locomotives.

Poster advertising the Denver Zephyr emphasizes the mirror-like finish of stainless steel. Actually, the woman’s face would be highly distorted in the curved front of the locomotive. Click to download a 4.7-MB version of this poster.

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