Today, when we travel a great distance within the United States, we hop on a plane and get to our destination in a few hours. There was a time, however, when air travel was considered less safe than ground travel, so we usually took the train.
Beginning in the 1930s, American railroads were suffering from poor revenues because of the great depression. A few farsighted rail presidents decided to take the giant step of investing in new streamlined equipment as a method of capturing additional ridership and bettering their financial bottom line.
Pullman Standard and the Budd Company were the two leading rail car manufacturers who were developing new lightweight equipment they called streamlining, while at the same time several locomotive companies were beginning to perfect diesel engines for the railroads. The lighter weight passenger cars and diesel engines allowed the railroads to move passengers over the rails at faster speeds and in greater comfort with less cost.
In the later 1930s, several railroads introduced their new streamliners to the public and they were at once a great success. In 1937, Southern Pacific introduced the Daylight between Los Angeles and San Francisco and in the first year of operation, moved over a million passengers on these deluxe streamliners. In the same year, Santa Fe introduced their new all-Pullman streamliner, the Super Chief, between Chicago and Los Angeles. Other railroads proudly placed their pride and joys on the rails by 1940. The New York Central began their streamlined edition of the all-room Twentieth Century Limited between New York and Chicago, as did the Pennsylvania Railroad with the Broadway Limited on the same route. In 1941, World War II commenced and that stopped the introduction of new trains. American railroads were to be pushed to the limit moving civilians and military until after the war in 1945.
In the later 40s and 50s, many new, beautiful streamliners began moving passengers to various destinations. Several railroads were now featuring luxury trains from New York and Washington, D.C. to Florida, and Illinois Central was running their Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans.
Union Pacific was one of the first railroads to streamline in the 1930s and their yellow-painted trains were called City trains. There was the City of Denver running between Chicago and Denver, the City of Los Angeles between Chicago and Los Angeles, the City of San Francisco from Chicago and City of Portland to the Northwest. Their City trains expanded to several other markets after the War.
Santa Fe became the largest operator of streamliners, even before the War, running between Chicago and Los Angeles, and up and down the West Coast from Los Angeles to San Diego with the San Diegans and up the central valley of California to Oakland with their Golden Gate.
Santa Fe rapidly expanded their streamliner fleet to introduce many other fine trains around the central and western portions of the country.
Out of Chicago ran great trains to various parts of the Middle West and Pacific Northwest. The best known on the northern run were the Empire Builder, North Coast Limited and Hiawatha.
Service on these trains was usually very fine, with a porter assigned to each Pullman and coach car, as well as a large staff of servers in the diner. Crisp, clean, white tablecloths, silver services everywhere and a real flower on each table. It was class on rails. The food was all prepared to order and some railroads featured special entrees for which they became famous.
Business travelers particularly enjoyed the lounge cars for reading, playing cards, smoking, visiting and imbibing while interesting scenery passed by.
In the later 1940s, vista dome cars came into service, which allowed passengers to climb the stairs to the glass domed upper section of the car to enjoy the scenery with a 190 degree unobstructed view.
Streamliners came in various color schemes. The Budd Company produced their rail cars using stainless steel and they were outstanding in their corrugated attire. The Pullman Standard Company built rail cars in various colors as ordered by the railroads.
The greatest achievement in streamlining was probably the California Zephyr. This was a creation of the Burlington, Rio Grande and Western Pacific railroads. Introduced in the late 1940s, it was, from the beginning, planned as a train for not only moving passengers between Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area, but also as a train with which to enjoy the fantastic scenery between these points. The journey of 2,532 miles encompassed the Great Plains of the Midwest, Denver, the Rockies, Feather River Canyon and into Oakland, Calif. The train featured five vista dome cars as well as lounges, diners, coaches and private room Pullmans.
Into the 1960s, American trains became somewhat second-rate as revenues began to slide and were no longer profitable for the railroads.
By this time, the jet aircraft was quickly coming into service for the airlines and people were opting for speed rather than comfort and scenery. Streamliners were very special for their time and will be remembered for their color, speed, comfort and service. Perhaps their time will come again. We'll see.