FreightWaves Classics: Burlington Zephyr revolutionized rail travel in 1934

Photo of Scott Mall

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the second year of his first term. His New Deal attacked the Great Depression on several fronts, but the economy was still in disarray. Due to unemployment, declining wages, and the near disappearance of leisure travel for the vast majority of Americans, passenger rail traffic had also declined.

A new train to ignite the imagination

However, the railway industry was about to have a new train to ignite the imagination of the industry, its passengers and the general public. At its Philadelphia manufacturing facility, the Budd Company completed construction of a streamliner (a bullet train). To learn more about the Budd Company, follow these links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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

The Burlington Zephyr.  (Picture:
The Burlington Zephyr. (Picture:

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

Christened the Burlington Zephyr

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

According to Cincinnati Applicant, CB&Q passenger traffic manager Albert Cotsworth, Jr. called the Burlington Zephyr the new “speed king of the rails.” The newspaper also noted, “The train is the last word in comfort, beauty, tranquility and economy.” The Associated Press reported that the train “seats 72 passengers in deluxe style and is capable of over 100 miles per hour”.

When it began service, the Burlington Zephyr was also only the second internal combustion faired that had been built for regular service in the United States. Additionally, it was the first streamliner in the country to be specifically powered by a diesel engine and used for commercial service.

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

Speed ​​records and new name

Within two months of its debut, the Burlington Zephyr set a speed record for the trip from Denver to Chicago (May 26, 1934). The train traveled 1,015.4 miles nonstop between these cities in 13 hours and five minutes. During this trip, the Burlington Zephyr reached 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 fairings to their fleet. The original Burlington Zephyr/Pioneer Zephyr ran for 26 years; it was later donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in 1960. During its years of service, the train has traveled over 3.2 million miles. The Pioneer Zephyr is still on public display in this museum today.

Two of Burlington's Zephyrs.  (Photo:
Two of the Burlington Zephyrs; these have rounded facades. (Photo:

fbq(‘init’, ‘1517309048360836’, {}, {agent: ‘plsquarespace’});
fbq(‘track’, ‘PageView’);