El Capitan (train)

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The train circa 1938.
The combined Super Chief / El Capitan, led by locomotive #44C (an EMD F7 sporting Santa Fe's classic Warbonnet paint scheme) pulls into Track 10 at Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) on September 24, 1966.
The high level cars.

El Capitan was one of the named passenger trains of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. It was the only coach, or chair car (non-Pullman sleeper) train to operate the Santa Fe main line from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California on the same fast schedule as the road's premier Pullman Super Chief.

This all-coach, streamlined train (assigned Nos. 21 & 22) began operations in February 1938. Not unlike the Pennsylvania Railroad's Trail Blazer, it offered "low-cost passage with high-speed convenience." Originally conceived as the Economy Chief, the name El Capitan was ultimately chosen to honor the Spanish conquistadors and their influence on Southwestern culture, though it didn't hurt that the name seemed to outrank the Union Pacific's Challenger train, with which it was designed to compete. Unique in charging an extra-fare despite being a coach train, it pioneered such features as "RideMaster" seating optimized for sleeping.

The original consists were two new Budd Company-built trains of five cars each made of lightweight stainless steel. Each of the two luxury trains were capable of accommodating 188 passengers; fare Chicago to Los Angeles was $5.00 above the $39.50 regular coach fare (in 1938). The 80-foot cars had 52 seats on 41½-inch centers; postwar 85-foot coaches had 44 seats on 52-inch centers.

El Capitan was the first of Santa Fe's trains to utilize the "Big Dome"-Lounge cars, though these were soon given to the Chief in favor of new double-decker "Hi-Level" chair cars (coaches) developed by Budd and the railroad in 1955. These experimental units featured a quieter ride, increased seating capacities, and boasted better views of the Southwestern terrain El Cap passed through and made this train unique and revolutionary. Amtrak's Superliner equipment, which was placed in service along many of Amtrak's long distance routes, were based on the Santa Fe Hi-Level design. The Superliners were designed to be operated along with older Hi-Level cars.

As was common among most "named" long haul trains of the era, a lighted "Drumhead" sign was affixed to the rear of the observation car to identify the service.[1] These signs included the name of the service in a distinctive logotype as well as the railroad's logo and sometimes a colorful illustration relating to the train's name.[2][3]

In 1958 the train was combined with the Super Chief and operated under train numbers 17 and 18 through the end of Santa Fe passenger operations. Today the route formerly covered by El Capitan is served by Amtrak's Southwest Chief. Many of Amtrak's trains consisted of a combination of refurbished former Santa Fe Hi-Level cars along with newer Superliner railcar designs until the early 2000s.

In the late 1990s, six "mothballed" El Capitan lounge cars were removed from storage and placed into service on Amtrak's Coast Starlight as "Pacific Parlour" first-class lounge cars. One of the 6 (39971) was eventually sold off, and the remaining cars were refurbished and feature a service bar, booths, and chairs on the upper level, and a theater on the lower level.



"Drumhead" logos such as these three often adorned the ends of observation cars on El Capitan.

Equipment used

El Capitan diner.

The initial equipment roster (two separate "pocket streamliner" consists) was as follows:

A typical El Capitan consist in the late 1940s:

The Big Dome car, 1954.

Between 1954 and 1956, El Cap ran with virtually the same consist as is shown immediately above, save for the "Big Dome"-Lounge that replaced the mid-train club-lounge car.

On July 15, 1956 a new, "Hi-Level" streamliner consist debuted:

Santa Fe purchased enough "Hi-Level" equipment to create six complete, nine-car consists. Additionally, six of the railroad's older baggage-dormitory cars had a cosmetic fairing applied to the rear roofline in order to create the distinctive "transition" cars and maintain a streamlined appearance on El Capitan. The real transition cars were the 68-seat step down chair cars, which had a regular-height diaphragm at one end, and a high-level at the other. The dining cars rode on special six-wheel trucks due to their massive weight (all other cars rode on conventional four-wheel trucks). The "Big Domes" were transferred to the Chief pool.

A typical El Capitan consist from the late 1960s (combined with the Super Chief):

See also


  1. ^ "ABC's of Railroading: Terms of the trade". Trains (Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach Publishing): p 22. June 1991.
  2. ^ Glischinski, Steve. "Santa Fe Railway" St. Paul. MN: MBI Publishing Company, 1997 p. 89
  3. ^ Cooper, Bruce Clement. "The Classic Western American Railroad Routes". New York: Chartwell Books/Worth Press, 2010. p. 175
  4. ^ a b c d Anon. (January 1960). The Official Register of Passenger Train Equipment. New York, New York: The Railway Equipment and Publication Company. p. 1.
  • Duke, Donald (1997). Santa Fe...The Railroad Gateway to the American West, Volume 2. San Marino, CA: Golden West Books. ISBN 0-87095-110-6.
  • Frailey, Fred W. (1974). A Quarter Century of Santa Fe Consists. Godfrey, IL: RPC Publications.
  • Schafer, Mike & Joe Welsh (2002). Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company. ISBN 0-7603-1371-7.
  • Strein, Robert, et al. (2001). Santa Fe: The Chief Way. New Mexico Magazine. ISBN 0-937206-71-7.
  • Wayner, Robert J., ed. (1972). Car Names, Numbers and Consists. New York, NY: Wayner Publications.
  • Zimmerman, Karl (1987). Santa Fe Streamliners: The Chiefs and Their Tribesman. Quadrant Press, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-915276-41-0.

External links

A map depicting the "Grand Canyon Route" of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway circa 1901.