The era of passenger streamliners reached a highpoint in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The entire era itself was part of the Art Deco Age, and trains quickly became a big part of this art movement. In the early 1930s The Budd Company, a major metal fabricator and passenger car builder, partnered with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (“The Burlington” for short) to create a new locomotive that was equal parts speed and performance as it was eye catching and stylish.
Unveiled in 1934, the Burlington “Zephyr” was something no railroad had ever really ordered before. The Zephyrs were powered by a 600 horsepower Winton inline-eight diesel-electric engine shrouded in a welded stainless steel shell. Almost all locomotives at this time were constructed using riveting, however welding (though new to industrial America, especially in railroading) helped save weight over this practice. The Zephyrs were built as a permanent trainset that consisted of three (later four) train cars all connected by Jacob’s wheelsets. This design helped save weight since two cars shared a wheelset rather than the use of two conventionally separate wheelsets and couplers. A typical 3-car set weighed in at around 195,000 pounds and was just shy of 200 feet long. The locomotive was also streamlined in a way (known as a shovelnose) to give a commanding, full-faced and clean look to the front. Over top of the cab, the Zephyrs were equipped with both a steady headlight and a Mars light, which oscillate to draw attention to hazards.
The Zephyrs were lightweight and very fast by design. Upon its release, the Zephyr was set to do a promotional cross-country sprint between both ends of the Burlington’s mainline of Denver and Chicago. The Zephyr travelled the 1000 miles at an average speed of almost 80 miles per hour the entire way and at some points reached 113 miles per hour. The run was highly publicized and showcased a new era for passenger travel on the Burlington. Form, functionality and economy were all brought together and now, the right amount of passengers could be carried at a cheaper cost than before.
Almost immediately after its first trip, more Zephyrs were built and put in service. The Zephyrs served as power for almost 20 different named trains on the Burlington such as the “Twin Cities Zephyr” between Chicago – Minneapolis and the “Nebraska Zephyr” between Chicago – Lincoln, NE. They were known to be fast, capable and comfortable trains that held very tight schedules and got people where they needed to go. These engines helped to dramatically boost train ridership on the Burlington during the Great Depression.
In a normal three-car setup, the locomotive acted as both the powerplant and contained a Railroad Post Office (RPO) in the rear. Since the Zephyrs were designed as regional trains, the second car usually had a small baggage area and either a small restaurant and coach section or just a coach section. The last car was a coach/observation car. This set could hold 72 passengers total. As demand increased, a fourth car was added to this consist for more coach seating. The second car then became a full-baggage car and the third became a buffet/coach.
The Zephyrs were a huge success in most cases. There were problems in the beginning with the engine’s inline-eight motor, as it was not built to handle a railroading environment. The motor was swapped out in 1939 for EMD’s then-new 567 V16. This motor would go on to be one of the most popular prime movers in railroading. After this swap, the Zephyrs ran with relatively few problems. They were more economical to run over traditional trainsets (and especially steam locomotives). However after World War II the railroad passenger industry in America was on a sure, steady decline. Highways and airplanes quickly took over as the primary means of transportation. Despite this, the Zephyrs were continually used in regular service for their economy and it wasn’t until 1960 that they were retired; almost 30 years after their introduction into service.