Serving Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Emeryville, and intermediate points

Amtrak train numbers: 5 and 6

Predecessor railroads train numbers: Burlington 17 and 18; Rio Grande 17 and 18; Western Pacific 17 and 18

The California Zephyr began operation March 20, 1949, as an upgrade to the Exposition Flyer, a joint venture of three railroads which had been running between Chicago and Oakland since 1939. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad ran the train from Chicago to Denver; it then ran through the territory of the Denver and Rio Grande Western between Denver and Salt Lake City; from there, it was handled by the Western Pacific to Oakland.

The Burlington used various combinations of the name Zephyr, for the west wind, for all of their trains using their new stainless steel streamlined passenger equipment, so the name California Zephyr seemed appropriate for a train to California. At times, the train included as many as five dome cars, all the better for passengers to view the scenery on the second and third days of the trip: the trip through the Moffat Tunnel and then Glenwood Canyon in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and then the trip through the Feather River Canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.

However, even the breathtaking scenery couldn't keep the railroads operating the California Zephyr, especially the Western Pacific, from losing money beginning in the early 1960s. After petitioning the Interstate Commerce Commission for years, the discontinuance was finally allowed in 1970, with the last run arriving in Oakland on March 22.

The replacement, running three days a week, was a Chicago-Denver train on the Burlington with the prosaic name California Service, connecting with the Rio Grande's Rio Grande Zephyr to Salt Lake City, which connected with a bus to Ogden that connected with the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific's City of San Francisco for service to the West Coast.

When Amtrak took over most passenger train service in 1971, they had planned to operate their Chicago-Oakland train over most of the former California Zephyr route, via the Burlington, Rio Grande, and then the Southern Pacific. However, at the last minute, after Amtrak had printed their first timetables, the Rio Grande opted out of joining the Amtrak system and continued to operate the Rio Grande Zephyr.

The Rio Grande finally decided to join Amtrak in 1983, and Amtrak promptly rerouted what was then called the San Francisco Zephyr over the Rio Grande's more scenic route and restored the California Zephyr name as of April 24, 1983. However, due to a landslide that had washed out the Rio Grande main line at Thistle, Utah, it was several months before the California Zephyr actually returned to that part of its original route.

A minor change was made to the train's western terminus in the 1990s, partially as a result of the [1989 Loma Prieta earthquake causing damage to the Oakland train station. Amtrak built a new station in Emeryville, on the other side of the yards from the replacement Oakland station at Jack London Square, and eventually decided it took too much time and effort to back the train up from the yards to Oakland every day, so service was cut back to Emeryville.

Condensed historical timetables:

      READ DOWN                                READ UP
(1956)  (1987)  (2002)                      (2002)  (1987)  (1956) 
 3:30P   3:15P   2:45P Dp Chicago        Ar  3:55P   4:05P   1:00P
11:55P  11:30P  11:59P    Omaha              6:15A   6:55A   4:45A
 8:40A   8:50A   9:00A    Denver             7:50P   9:15P   7:15P
10:15P  11:32P   1:12A    Salt Lake City     3:55A   6:48A   5:40A
11:50A   1:51P   4:15P    Sacramento        11:35A   1:47P   1:30P
 -----   -----   6:10P Ar Emeryville     Dp  9:35A   -----   -----
 3:15P   4:05P   ----- Ar Oakland        Dp  -----  11:40A  10:28A

The Amtrak Train Names Project

The California Zephyr is a long distance Amtrak route that goes from Chicago to Emeryville, California. Along the way, it passes through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada before reaching California at Donner Pass.

As the route and schedule currently stand, The California Zephyr is the best scenic route in the Amtrak line. Most of this is based on the six to eight hours between when it leaves Denver and reaches Grand Junction, Colorado. The train is scheduled so that it goes through the most scenic part of Colorado during daylight. This includes the spectacular Glenwood Canyon. Later on in its route, it also crosses the Sierra Nevada into California, which is also great scenery. (These times are for going from east to west: the west to east travel is not quite as well scheduled, but still affords the traveler many day time views of the most scenic parts).

As a mode of practical transportation, the California Zephyr presents some problems. As with many Amtrak long distance routes across the West, it faces the inherent problem that the area is sparsely populated. The four major population centers it connects, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City and the San Francisco Bay area, are separated by somewhere between 600 and 1000 miles each. And many of the areas it goes across are very sparsely populated with almost no local traffic: Northern Nevada being a prime example. Outside of touring, the 48 hour long journey from Chicago to San Francisco is not a practical decision for many travelers.

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