The Santa Fe Railroad And Its Famous Passenger Trains

By Joelyn Pullano 


The Santa Fe was possibly America’s most famous railroad and definitely one of the most successful. Freight and passengers rode over the Santa Fe rails form the 1860s until 1995 when the AT & SF merged with Burlington Northern to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.


The Santa Fe became one of the strongest rail carriers in North America, it served as a distribution system for imports, exports, food products and manufactured goods produced in the United States. For all it’s successes as a freight carrier, the Santa Fe was most remembered for its fleet of stylish passenger trains, several of which ran until 1971. The railroads first passenger train was the 1892 inauguration of the California Limited, which was the premier train on the road’s Chicago-Los Angeles route. This was followed by the 1911 debut of the extra-fare De Luxe between Chicago and Los Angeles, then, on November 14, 1926, a legend was born, the Chief, another extra-fare Chicago-Los Angeles Train. All three of these lines were pulled by steam locomotives.


Santa Fe was intrigued by the prospect of dieselization and thought diesel-electric power was a good way to cut costs on its desert operations, where water for steam locomotives was at a premium. On May 12, 1936, the railroad introduced the all-sleeping-car Super Chief, yet another entry in the Chicago-Los Angeles market, and the first to be non-steam-powered, being pulled by a pair of diesel locomotives built by General Motors-owned Electro-Motive Corporation (EMC). Santa Fe’s EMC boxcabs, where popularly known as The Twins and are generally considered the first commercially built high-speed passenger diesels. With diesel power the train was able to make the 2,000 mile trip in just 39 hours and 45 minutes, 15 hours faster than the best steam-powered run.


A year later in May of 1937, the Super Chief received all new equipment, emerging as Santa Fe’s first lightweight streamliner. Its new streamlined EMC diesels debuted what was destined to become one of the most famous railroad paint schemes in the world, the red, silver, black and yellow, “war bonnet”. This scheme was designed by EMC designer Leland A. knickerbocker, and was specifically intended for the stylish streamlined E1 locomotive. It was applied to numerous other locomotives over the years and remains among the most recognizable of railroad paint schemes. For the next 40 plus years, these colors would appear on all locomotives regularly assigned to Santa Fe passenger trains.


In 1938, the all-coach streamliner El Capitan was launched as the Super Chief’s companion train – the two ran only a few minutes apart- serving economy travelers who wanted a fast trip over the main line. As the years went by, more Chiefs joined the fleet. 1948 saw the addition of the Texas Chief that ran on the Chicago-fort Worth-Houston line, and 1954’s San Francisco Chief that ran on the Chicago-Kansas City-Amarillo-San Francisco line. During this period the Super Chief was upgraded and now sported new sleeping cars, diner car, and its famous Pleasure Dome Lounge.


The Pleasure Dome car featured a classy lounge on its main level, while the upstairs dome section contained a raft of individual, fully rotating seats for viewing. Unique to the Pleasure Dome car was the Turquoise Room dining area beneath the dome section, which was a private dining room that could be reserved for groups and served from the adjacent diner’s kitchen.


Through consistent service and periodic upgrading and innovation, the Santa Fe gained a reputation of operating the finest passenger trains in North America. This was a reputation held until Amtrak assumed operation of selected Santa Fe passenger trains on May 01, 1971. Throughout history, Santa Fe’s Super Chief was often cited as the world’s best and most famous passenger train.


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