FreightWaves Classics: Burlington Zephyr revolutionized train travel in 1934

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the second year of his first term. His New Deal was attacking the Great Depression on a number of fronts, but the economy was still in disarray. Because of unemployment, depressed wages and the virtual disappearance of travel for pleasure for the vast majority of Americans, rail passenger traffic had also dwindled.

A new train to fire the imagination

However, the railroad industry was about to have a new train to fire the imagination of the industry, its passengers and the public in general. At its Philadelphia manufacturing facility, the Budd Company finished building a streamliner (a high-speed train set). To read more about the Budd Company, follow these links for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The Budd Company manufactured the streamliner for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. That railroad operated in the midwestern United States from 1855 to 1970, and was also known as both the CB&Q and the Burlington Route. It is one of the predecessor railroads to today’s BNSF. To read about Ralph Budd (no relation), who was the CEO of the Burlington Route at the time, follow this link.

The Burlington Zephyr.  (Photo:
The Burlington Zephyr. (Photo:

The exterior of the new train was built using welded stainless steel. This “unibody” construction helped lower the train’s overall weight, which meant that it could travel faster than other trains of the era. The train’s front had a fluted design and consisted of only three cars; collectively they measured under 200 feet. The lead vehicle contained the train’s power supply and a railway post office; the second railcar’s function was as a baggage / buffet / coach car; and the final railcar was a coach / observation car.

Christened the Burlington Zephyr

Ten days after the train rolled out of the Budd Company’s manufacturing facility, it was formally christened at Philadelphia’s Broad Street Station. As part of that ceremony, the train was named the Burlington Zephyr.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, CB&Q passenger traffic manager Albert Cotsworth, Jr. termed the Burlington Zephyr the new “speed king of the rails.” The newspaper also noted, “The train is the last word in comfort, beauty, quietness and economy.” The Associated Press reported that the train “accommodates 72 passengers in deluxe style and is capable of more than 100 miles an hour.”

When it began service the Burlington Zephyr also was only the second internal combustion-powered streamliner that had been built for regular service in the United States. Also, it was the nation’s first streamliner to be specifically powered by a diesel engine and used for revenue service.

The Burlington Zephyr at night.  (Photo:
The Burlington Zephyr at night. (Photo:

Speed ​​records and a new name

Within two months of its debut, the Burlington Zephyr set a speed record for travel from Denver to Chicago (on May 26, 1934). The train made the nonstop run of 1,015.4 miles between those cities in 13 hours and five minutes. During that trip, the Burlington Zephyr attained a top speed of 112.5 miles per hour.

In 1936 the Burlington Zephyr was renamed the Pioneer Zephyr because the CB&Q was adding similar streamliners to its fleet. The original Burlington Zephyr / Pioneer Zephyr operated for 26 years; it was then donated to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in 1960. During its years of service, the train traveled more than 3.2 million miles. The Pioneer Zephyr is still on public display at that museum today.

Two of Burlington's Zephyrs.  (Photo:
Two of Burlington’s Zephyrs; these have rounded fronts. (Photo:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button