The Rio Grande Zephyr

The D&RGW’s famous little train carried on the tradition of the California Zephyr… sort of.

Jump to:

The Rio Grande Zephyr was born upon the demise of that famous train, the California Zephyr. The CZ operated between Chicago and Oakland from 1949 through 1970, as a collaborative effort between three railroads–the Western Pacific (WP), the Rio Grande (D&RGW), and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q, or Burlington). As passenger traffic declined, first one and then the other of Rio Grande’s partners pulled out of the CZ, leaving only the middle segment. Rio Grande, however, decided to keep operating its portion of the route. The D&RGW also chose not to participate in Amtrak (upon its formation in 1971), so it continued operating the newly-renamed Rio Grande Zephyr independently. Its schedule changed to a thrice-weekly run between Denver and Salt Lake, using a single trainset. One day it traveled west, the next day it returned east.

Having begun as a remnant of the CZ, the RGZ quickly took on a personality of its own. Whereas the CZ had been a cross-country experience, the RGZ became primarily a local tourist vehicle, with most of its ridership traveling between Denver and Glenwood Springs. Not being an overnight train, no sleeping cars were included in the consist, but a first-class dining car and lounge service were maintained. And the vista-dome cars which made the CZ famous were still there too.

The definitive book on the Rio Grande Zephyr is “Never on Wednesday”, by Mel Patrick and Richard Loveman (Passenger Train Journal Publishing, 1980). The full story of the train is told in wonderful photographs and text. The three weekly trips of the train dictated one day of rest for maintenance, which was Wednesday– hence the title.
The Rio Grande Zephyr plied the rails for a dozen years after the discontinuance of the California Zephyr, until the economics of the operation finally persuaded Rio Grande management to accept Amtrak’s continued offers for the sale of the route. On April 23-24, 1983, the RGZ made its last run, foreshortened to a Denver-Grand Junction round trip by the disastrous mudslide in Thistle, Utah. After the Thistle bypass was completed, Amtrak rerouted its San Francisco Zephyr and re-christened it as the California Zephyr. Since that time the new CZ has operated the route on a daily schedule, using newer Superliner equipment. Domes are a thing of the past now. We’re not likely to see another train equal to the Rio Grande Zephyr.

My introduction to the Rio Grande Zephyr came on November 7/8, 1981, via a ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs and back with my parents. Frequently thereafter, I could be found trackside with camera in hand, listening for the distinctive sound of the three F9 locomotives as they powered their way westward or whined downgrade coming into Denver. My wife and I rode the train on August 14, 1982 as part of our honeymoon. But that was the last time; before our first anniversary came, the train had been discontinued.

A Note About the Photographs: During the time the train was still running, I did not yet own a decent camera (being a broke newly-married college student in 1983). Most of my own photographs which appear here were taken either on a 110 or a disk camera (with only a couple of exceptions), so the resolution isn’t that great. But, Little is better than Nothing! Fortunately, I have had several people kind enough to loan me their high-quality photos, which greatly enhance the experience.