The Pioneer Zephyr is a diesel-powered railroad train formed of railroad cars permanently articulated together with Jacobs bogies, built by the Budd Company in 1934 for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), commonly known as the Burlington. The train featured extensive use of stainless steel, was originally named the Zephyr, and was meant as a promotional tool to advertise passenger rail service in the United States. The construction included innovations such as shotwelding (a specialized type of spot welding) to join the stainless steel, and articulation to reduce its weight.
On May 26, 1934, it set a speed record for travel between Denver, Colorado, and Chicago, Illinois, when it made a 1,015-mile (1,633 km) non-stop "Dawn-to-Dusk" dash in 13 hours 5 minutes at an average speed of 77 mph (124 km/h). For one section of the run it reached a speed of 112.5 mph (181 km/h), just short of the then US land speed record of 115 mph (185 km/h). The historic dash inspired two films and the train's nickname, "Silver Streak".
The train entered regular revenue service on November 11, 1934, between Kansas City, Missouri, Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. It operated this and other routes until its retirement in 1960, when it was donated to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, where it remains on public display. The train is generally regarded as the first successful streamliner on American railroads.
One of the railroad presidents who faced this challenge was Ralph Budd, formerly of the Great Northern Railway and now president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (Burlington), who needed a new train to get the public interested in traveling again. Naming the train was task that was very seriously taken by Budd. He wanted a name that started with the letter Z because this train was intended to be the "last word" in passenger service; Budd and his coworkers looked up the last words in their dictionaries, but neither zymurgy nor zyzzle conveyed the meanings that Budd was looking for. The name of the new train came from The Canterbury Tales, which Budd had been reading. The story begins with pilgrims setting out on a journey, inspired by the budding springtime and by Zephyrus, the gentle and nurturing west wind. Budd thought that would be an excellent name for a sleek new traveling machine—Zephyr.
In 1932 Ralph Budd met Edward G. Budd (no relation), an automotive steel pioneer who was founder and president of the Budd Company. Edward Budd was demonstrating his new carbody construction in a prototype rail motorcar built of stainless steel. Stainless steel provided many benefits over traditional wood and hardened steel for railroad carbodies; it was a lighter and stronger material, and its natural silver appearance and resistance to corrosion meant that it would not have to be painted to protect it from the weather. Since the carbody was much lighter than similar cars, it would be able to carry a higher revenue load for the same cost.
The problem with building stainless steel cars was that nobody could find an adequate way to hold the body together, until the Budd Company patented the shotwelding technique. On August 20, 1932, Earl J. Ragsdale, an engineer at the Budd Company, filed for a patent on "Method and product of electric welding"; on January 16, 1934, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted US patent 1,944,106 to the Budd Company to cover the technique. Basically, because of the nature of stainless steel, traditional welding methods would unacceptably weaken the metal at the joint. In a spotweld, the two pieces of metal that are to be joined are pressed together at the joint with an electrode on each side of the joint. A very high electric current is passed through the joint, which fuses the two pieces of metal together.
Another factor in making the Zephyr lighter than conventional trains was that the individual carbodies in the train share their trucks with adjacent cars. In this design by Budd engineer Walter B. Dean, the train was three articulated compartments. On conventional passenger cars, each carbody rode upon a pair of trucks (wheel/axle assembly), with one truck at each end. The articulation not only reduced the number of trucks under the train, but it also dispensed with the need for couplers between each of the carbodies, further reducing the train's weight.
The exterior design of the train was left to aeronautical engineer Albert Gardner Dean (Walter Dean's younger brother) who designed the sloping nose shape, with architect John Harbeson and industrial designer Paul Philippe Cret devising a way to strengthen and beautify the sides with the train's horizontal fluting. On April 15, 1936, Col. Ragsdale, Walter Dean and Albert Dean, filed for patents on "Rail Car Front End Construction." The United States Patent and Trademark Office assigned US patents 2,256,493 and 2,256,494 to the Budd Company to cover the technique.
The first Zephyr was completed by Budd Company on April 9, 1934, powered by an 8-cylinder, 600-horsepower (447 kW), 8-201-A model Winton Motor Company engine. Like the diesel-electric locomotives that soon displaced the steam locomotive on American railroads, this engine powered an electrical generator; the electricity it generated was then fed to electric traction motors connected to the axles in the train's front truck.
The train's engineer sat in a small compartment in the nose of the train, directly in front of the prime mover. Behind the engine in the first carbody was a long railway post office section. The second carbody consisted of a small baggage section and a short buffet and 20-passenger coach section. The third and final carbody in the train, as originally built, was configured as half coach (40-passenger seats) and half observation car (12 passenger seats). As built, the train had 72 seats and could carry 50,000 pounds (22.7 tonnes) of baggage and express freight. This train's official christening occurred on April 18, 1934, at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Budd Company used the experience learned in building the Zephyr to build similar trains (such as the Flying Yankee) for other railroads, as well as a number of other Zephyrs for the Burlington.
The train left Denver at 7:04 AM Central Daylight Time and arrived in Chicago at 8:09 PM, 13 hours 5 minutes later, at an average speed of 77 mph (124 km/h). For one section of the run, the train reached a speed of 112.5 mph (181 km/h), close to the world land speed record of 130.6 mph (210.2 km/h) of 1903, which had been achieved in repeated runs on dedicated test track. The non-stop 1,015 mile (1,633 km) trip exceeded the railroad's expectations in being 1 hour 55 minutes faster than was scheduled. Reporters along the route told of the "silver streak" that ran by faster than any other train that normally rode American rails at the time. The Burlington's contemporary passenger trains plied the same distance in around 25 hours.
Riding the train were Ralph Budd, Edward G. Budd, president H. L. Hamilton of the Winton Motor Company (at that time a part of the new General Motors Electro-Motive Division), a number of reporters, some Burlington employees, lucky members of the public, and Zeph, a burro that was contributed by a Colorado newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, as a mascot for the train. The newspaper had described Zeph to the railroad as a "Rocky Mountain Canary" so the train's crew had originally planned only enough space for a birdcage; when they found out it wasn't a bird, the railroad hastily built a pen in the baggage section and bought some hay for it. When asked about the burro, Ralph Budd replied "Why not? One more jackass on this trip won't make a difference."
After the train arrived in Chicago, it traveled a little farther to the 1934 Century of Progress fair (noted in some press articles about the dash as the "Chicago World's Fair") where it was put on public display on opening day. After its display on the Wings of a Century stage, the train was taken on a 31-state, 222-city publicity tour. More than 2 million people saw the train before it entered revenue service.
Part of the tour included a test run between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul a full five hours faster than the Burlington's fastest steam-powered train. Due to the Zephyr's success on this test run, the Burlington immediately ordered two more Zephyr trainsets that would be dubbed the Twin Zephyrs; the new trains debuted in April 1935 on this route.
The Zephyr's power (leading) car was numbered 9900, the baggage-coach combine car 505, and the coach-observation 570. The train was placed in regular service between Kansas City, Missouri, Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, on November 11, 1934, replacing a pair of steam locomotives and six heavyweight passenger cars, weighing up to eight times as much as the Zephyr. By June 1935, it proved popular enough to add a fourth car, providing additional coach seating. The fourth car was originally a 40-seat coach number 525, but the following June it was switched to Twin Cities service, then back to the Pioneer Zephyr in December. Car 525 remained on the train until June 1938. Just over five years after it was introduced, the Pioneer Zephyr crossed the one million mile mark in regular service on December 29, 1939, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Ralph Budd and the Burlington capitalized on the Zephyr's success. However, most passenger trains needed larger capacity. Thus, as the Burlington made a transition to larger diesel-electric locomotives pulling individual passenger cars, new streamlined cars of standard-size were ordered, which quickly became the standard of many railroads. However, Burlington was determined to be the leader, and ordered its large "E" series passenger diesels to also be equipped with matching stainless-steel fluting. Many of the Burlington's long distance named passenger trains began operating under the Zephyr banner, including the Nebraska Zephyr, Twin Cities Zephyr, and perhaps the most famous of the namesake, the California Zephyr.
On the second anniversary of the train's famous dash, the original Zephyr was rechristened the Pioneer Zephyr to distinguish it as the first of the Burlington's growing Zephyr fleet. In 1938, car 525 was replaced by car number 500, a 40-seat buffet/lounge car, to provide light meals. Car number 505, the baggage-coach combine, was rebuilt at this time into a full baggage car, but it kept its original windows.
In regular service, the Pioneer Zephyr had its share of accidents. In 1939 it was involved in a head-on collision with a freight train that completely destroyed the cab. The train was rebuilt and re-entered revenue service soon afterward, but the accident strengthened the desire of locomotive designers to move the cab back from the front of the locomotive to above a large nose, as on EMD F-unit and EMD E-unit locomotives.
Since the Pioneer Zephyr was built of stainless steel, which is not as recyclable as aluminum, the train was spared from the metal recycling drives of World War II. By contrast, Union Pacific's M-10000, built of aluminum, was scrapped in 1942 for the war effort, among other reasons.
In 1948 and 1949, the Pioneer Zephyr was temporarily removed from service to participate in the Chicago Railroad Fair's "Wheels A-Rolling" pageant. The fair's purpose was to celebrate 100 years of railroad history west of Chicago, and Pioneer Zephyr's role in the pageant was to highlight the latest strides in railroad technology. It resumed regular passenger operations when the fair ended on October 2, 1949. By 1955 the Pioneer Zephyr's route had been updated to run between Galesburg, Illinois, and Saint Joseph, Missouri; the trainset had been in continual service since 1934, operating over nearly 3 million miles (4.8 million kilometres). The Pioneer Zephyr's last revenue run was a trip from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kansas City, Missouri, (along the train's regular revenue route) that then continued to Chicago on March 20, 1960. When Amtrak took over passenger rail services in 1971, the legendary Zephyr name was preserved, and the California Zephyr is an Amtrak route in the 21st century.
Press publicity had apparently first coined the term "Silver Streak". The Pioneer Zephyr's famous Denver-Chicago dash served as the inspiration for the 1934 film Silver Streak starring Charles Starrett. In that story, the crew was racing to the Boulder Dam construction site with an iron lung, with only moments to spare. The original Zephyr trainset was used for the exterior shots in the film, while interior scenes were filmed on a soundstage in Hollywood. For the film, the "Burlington Route" nameplate on the train's nose was replaced with one that read "Silver Streak".
More than 40 years later, that classic film—or at least the name "Silver Streak"—served as the inspiration for a newer film of the same name. Silver Streak (1976) starred Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor; rather than using the Pioneer Zephyr, the combination murder-mystery and comedy was set in the era in which it was filmed, with the train being patterned more after then modern long-distance trains.
The Chicago museum displayed the Pioneer Zephyr outside the museum, with no protection from the weather, until 1994. At that time, the steam locomotive that shared the display space with the Zephyr, Santa Fe #2903, was donated to the Illinois Railway Museum, while the Chicago museum prepared a new display location for the Zephyr.
The Chicago museum dug a pit in front of the building and built a new display area for the Zephyr, where it could be displayed year-round. In 1998, after the train received a cosmetic restoration by Northern Rail Car, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the pit was finally ready to receive the train. The Pioneer Zephyr train is still on display at the museum just outside the main entrance from the underground parking area for the museum, where it is one of the more popular exhibits.
In addition to the Pioneer Zephyr, two other legacies remain. An operable Nebraska Zephyr train was donated to the large Illinois Railway Museum at Union, west of Chicago. There, powered by one of the large "E" series passenger diesels (an EMD E5) with the distinctive and durable stainless-steel fluting, it is still operated on short runs on the Museum's substantial trackage, providing train enthusiasts and tourists with an experience reminiscent of the heyday of the Burlington's Zephyr service.
Also utilizing the famous name, the Minnesota Zephyr is an elegant dining train located in the historic city of Stillwater, Minnesota, although it is not directly associated with the historic Burlington Zephyr fleet.