In the earlier part of the 20th century, the railroads moved the public between the major cities and towns in America. During the Depression the railroads suffered financial problems as did almost every sector of the American economy but they stayed on track and slowly modernized their fleets so that in the later part of the 1930s they began introducing new streamliners across the nation.
The passenger cars were constructed of new materials, some with stainless steel, and interiors to match the gleaming outward appearance. These new trains were given faster running times with diesel engines that could speed across the countryside. The public immediately fell in love with the new, modern comfort, convenience and speed.
The railroads quickly realized that modernized train fleets were the answer to sinking profits and quickly ordered additional streamlined trains. The public could now ride “name” streamlined trains to many regions of our nation. Between New York and Chicago the two major streamliner trains of the 1930s and 1940s was New York Central’s “20th Century Limited” and Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Broadway Limited”. Both trains were all private-room with the finest accommodations, food service and lounge cars.
From New York rail lines provided new streamliner fleets to the south and Florida. Name trains such as the Silver Comet, Silver Meteor, and The Champion gave speed, luxury and fine service to the traveling public.
In the Midwest, several railroads introduced their slick new streamliners to dash across the plains out of Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City. There were such name trains as: The Spirit of St. Louis, The Rocky Mountain Rocket, the Peoria Rocket, The City of Denver, The Capital Limited, The Twin Cities “400”, the Hiawatha’s, The Twin City Zephyrs and many more.
Chicago was the major rail hub of our nation. From there trains crisscrossed the country, and from this hub major new streamliners spread west to California. Union Pacific introduced their City of Los Angeles, City of San Francisco and City of Portland with all new equipment painted in yellow, grey and black. These trains were stunning.
Santa Fe proudly introduced their Super Chief, an all private-room speedster, the Chief and all-coach El Capitan. Southern Pacific and Rock Island gave the public the Golden State Limited between Chicago and Los Angeles.
From Chicago to New Orleans the most famous name streamliner was the all private-room Illinois Central Panama Limited. An all-night train of great service and speed.
On the northern corridor, from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, a traveler could use the Empire Builder, the North Coast Limited or Hiawatha’s.
Up and down the west coast Southern Pacific provided their new Daylights between Los Angeles and San Francisco painted red, yellow and black. The overnight all-room streamliner was the Lark. Santa Fe gave the traveler the silver San Diegans between Los Angeles and San Diego.
During World War II all train car construction was halted because of the war effort, but after the war fleets upon fleets of new streamliners came into service with new and modern equipment. Probably the most notable were the Vista Dome trains that found their way on many new trains.
The most famous of these was the California Zephyr plying between the San Francisco Bay area and Chicago over mountains and plains with no less than four Vista Dome cars per train. These fine cars were equipped with a dome on top to allow 360 degree viewing for some 24 lucky passengers able to gain the seats in this section. Santa Fe and Union Pacific were to follow with dome cars, as were other transcontinental trains of the period. Domes were found on many other trains in the late 1940s and 1950s and the public loved them.
In those same post-war years, the government began a massive highway-building program and as Detroit began producing more reliable automobiles for longer distance travel, the railroads’ profits began falling and falling big.
In the later 1950s the streamlined trains began showing neglect and the railroads spent little to keep these once great fleets in good condition. There were exceptions, but most trains were beginning to look unkempt and interiors were not what they once were. Service had declined and some trains no longer provided proper dining and lounges. The attitude of the railroad workers who dealt with the public was in many cases poor and the public finally said, “Enough is enough”.
The country was using the highways, airlines and busses. The railroads cut service where they could and a skeleton of service was left for the public.
In 1971 the government stepped in to “save” rail service and formed AMTRAK. This relieved passenger service for most railroads and the government took over providing basic services to major cities in America. The equipment was basically the same as it had been, but on occasion there was a new coat of paint in spots and new upholstery on the seats. Since this time AMTRAK has been underfunded by the Congress and struggles to keep rail passenger service alive in parts of the United States.
Recently, Congress provided additional funds for new equipment and up-dating older cars so that on some trains today, the fleets are rather nice and the public is coming back to rail travel.
With the improvements that have been made in recent years, AMTRAK provides services worth trying. What can be nicer than boarding a modern train in Los Angeles and traveling along the Pacific Coast for many scenic miles to the Bay area, with stops at the main points of interest. The Coast Starlight does this daily with luxury, fine service and food prepared to order in the diner. The full-view lounge cars are a perfect place to enjoy the many sights of the region and the service personnel excel in pleasing the travelers. I have heard several reports from travelers who have taken AMTRAK since the first of the year and all report a wonderful experience in on-board attitude, food and accommodations.
Where to travel by train? Not only up the Pacific Coast to the Bay Area and Portland and Seattle, but across the country through the majestic mountains to the Midwest and even further to Boston and New York. If you want to do a circle, you can travel from New York to Washington, D.C., then on to Florida. Perhaps take a cruise, and then fly home.
Many years ago I boarded Canadian Pacific’s all-steel streamlined “Canadian” in Vancouver and traveled through British Columbia, the Canadian Rockies and through the plains to Toronto. This was one of the better trains I have traveled on and I am pleased to report that all the equipment as been restored to almost new with comfortable interiors, full service meals, lounge and parlor cars offering some of the best scenery in North America.
Train travel using private rooms with full facilities, including private showers, is not cheap, just as first class air travel is not cheap. AMTRAK offers travel plans within certain sectors of the country as well as discounts for seniors. Using coach service is much less expensive and still quite nice. I like to think of train travel these days as a land cruise. That’s what it is. You can relax, see the country, dine in the diner, have drinks in the lounge cars and meet other travelers enjoying the same lifestyle you are. It’s a great experience.
In the future, we will probably see some new high-speed service between points in Florida, Southern California and Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco as well as through the Midwest and Eastern corridors. We’re talking speeds of 175 MPH and more!
Europe, some time ago, moved ahead with high-speed rail with great success. You can travel London through the Chunnel to Paris in two hours. How about getting from Los Angeles to San Francisco in three-and-a-half hours? It’s coming. And that’s downtown to downtown. It will be faster than flying what with the extended time to get through an airport to a plane and in the air these days.
Many train travelers use a travel professional to make their reservations and others use AMTRAK direct. Have a wonderful time; you’ll be glad you took the train again!
If you are train lover like me and I forgot to mention your favorite streamliner of the past, please forgive. There were many great trains during those years, too many to name here.