El Capitan (passenger train)

From TrainSpottingWorld, for Rail fans everywhere
A 1948 print advertisement touts the many benefits of riding El Capitan.
"Drumhead" logos such as these often adorned the ends of observation cars on El Capitan.

El Capitan was one of the named passenger trains of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and second only to the Super Chief in terms of popularity and level of service provided. Its route ran from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California.

This all-coach, streamlined train (assigned Nos. 21 & 22) began operations in February, 1938 in response to the Pennsylvania Railroad's Trail Blazer, which 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. Santa Fe's extra-fare all-day coach train operated on Super Chief schedules and required the acquisition of two new Budd Company-built trains of five cars each out of lightweight stainless steel. Each of the two luxury trains were capable of accommodating 188 passengers for a mere $5.00 upcharge over the price of a ticket on the Chief.

El Capitan was the first of Santa Fe's trains to utilize the "Big Dome"-Lounge cars and double-decker "Hi-Level" coaches developed by Budd in the early 1950s. These experimental units featured a quieter ride, increased seating capacities, and boasted better views of the Southwestern terrain El Cap passed through; it eventually became an all Hi-Level train.

Today the route formerly covered by El Capitan is served by Amtrak's Southwest Chief. Many of Amtrak's trains (especially those in California) consist of a combination of refurbished former Santa Fe Hi-Level cars along with newer Superliner railcar designs. In recent years, four "mothballed" El Capitan lounge cars were removed from storage, refurbished, and placed into service on Amtrak's Coast Starlight as "Pacific Parlour" first-class lounge cars. These refurbished cars feature a service bar, booths, and chairs on the upper level, and a theater on the lower level.



  • 1937: El Capitan is conceived to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad's low-cost, high-speed train the Trail Blazer.
  • February 20, 1938: Operations commence with weekly excursions based on the same "over-the-road" time as the Super Chief.
  • 1942: Consist size expands to 12 cars, and each logs 636 daily miles.
  • October 12, 1947: El Capitan trains begin operating on an every-other-day basis.
  • February 29, 1948: El Capitan begins its daily schedule between Chicago and Los Angeles.
  • 1949: The Union Pacific Railroad reintroduces its popular all-coach Challenger train, set to run on a 39-and-a-half hour schedule in order to compete directly with El Capitan. The UP also announces that there will be no added fare for this train.
  • October 30, 1949: Train No. 22 travels over a broken section of rail in Kincaid, California. Locomotives #19L/A/B/C derail and burst into flames, causing seven cars (including #2865 and #2878) to leave the tracks.
  • July 6, 1950: Train No. 22 derails while traveling at 90 miles-per-hour through Monica, Illinois, and is subsequently struck by train No. 10 (the Kansas City Chief), traveling at 55 miles-per-hour. A general derailment ensues.
  • 1952: The Budd Company unveils concepts for a double-decked coach based on similar commuter cars manufactured for the Chicago and North Western Railway and Burlington railroads. The Santa Fe plans to upgrade the cars on the Chief with the new design.
  • December 14, 1953: The extra-fare charges are dropped from both El Capitan and the Chief.
  • March 1954: Six full-length dome-lounge cars (called "Big Domes" by Santa Fe's employees) are delivered for use on El Capitan by the Budd Company.
  • July 1954: Two experimental "Hi-Level" intercity coaches arrive and are placed directly on El Capitan instead of the Chief. The railroad trial tests the units for over a year.
  • March 25, 1955: The Santa Fe orders 47 Hi-Level cars (35 chair cars, 6 domed diners, and 6 full-length domes) from Budd, enough rolling stock to equip El Capitan on a daily basis with a few cars as spares, making it the first widespread use of such cars to over-the-road streamliners.
  • Summer 1956: El Capitan makes three demonstration runs to San Diego, California along the "Surf Line Route" to promote its new "Hi-Level" cars.
  • July 8, 1956: Hi-Level trains commence running, simultaneously, from both ends of the line. Ticket stubs bear the verbiage "I traveled the HI-LEVEL Santa Fe way" and "Every seat is on the scenic HI-LEVEL."
  • January 12, 1957: The Super Chief and El Capitan are combined into one train during the off-peak travel season on a 39½-hour schedule.
  • June 18, 1957: Train No. 21 crosses over a loose tie plate while traveling at 79 miles-per-hour, causing the 8th and 9th cars to decouple; the rear section of the train then collides with the front section.
  • February 1963: Santa Fe orders an additional 24 Hi-Level chair cars, bringing the total inventory to 71 units (enough for a 12-unit consist per train).
  • May 1 1971: Amtrak is formed and takes over operation of the nation's passenger service, thus ending the reign of El Capitan. Amtrak retains the use of the Super Chief / El Cap names, with the Santa Fe's concurrence. Amtrak subsequently acquires a number of Santa Fe passenger cars, including the Hi-Level coaches; the revolutionary cars serve as the inspiration for Amtrak's Superliner fleet of coaches, sleepers, diners, and lounge cars in the late 1970s.
  • 1973: Amtrak drops the El Capitan designation.

Equipment used

A rear view of El Capitan and its Budd-built observation car as it approaches the Raton Tunnel (Colorado side) on June 26, 1938.

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

  • EMD E1A Locomotives #5 – #6
  • Baggage-Dormitory-"Chair" car / Coach (32 seats) #3480 – #3481
  • "Chair" car / Coach (52 seats) #3103 – #3104
  • Lunch Counter-Diner #3105 – #3106
  • "Chair" car / Coach (52 seats for women and children) #3105 – #3106
  • Round-end "Chair" car / Observation (50 seats) #3198 – #3199

A typical El Capitan consist in the late 1940s:

  • EMD F3A Locomotive #23L
  • EMD F3B Locomotive #23A
  • EMD F3B Locomotive #23B
  • EMD F3A Locomotive #23C
  • Baggage-Mail #3405
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2891
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2864
  • Lunch Counter-Diner #1599
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2911
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2888
  • Club-Lounge #1347
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2865
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2905
  • Lunch Counter-Diner #1553
  • "Chair" car / Coach (44 seats) #2876
  • Round-end "Chair" car / Observation (38 seats) #3197
One of Santa Fe's "Big Dome"-Lounge cars originally built by the Budd Company for El Capitan; eventually, these cars would find their way into consists on nearly every main line. Unit #506 (shown above) was the only unit retained by the Santa Fe after 1971 (its designation changed to #60); all the rest have been sold to Auto-Train. The car "lives" today as a member of the BNSF Railway roster as BNSF31, the Bay View.

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:

  • EMD F7A Locomotive #327L
  • EMD F7B Locomotive #327A
  • EMD F7B Locomotive #327B
  • EMD F7B Locomotive #44A
  • EMD F7A Locomotive #44L
  • Baggage #3521
  • Baggage-Dormitory "Transition Car" 3480
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (68 Seats) #536
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (72 Seats) #714
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (72 Seats) #722
  • Hi-Level Diner (80 seats) #653
  • Hi-Level "Top Of The Cap" Lounge (88 seats) #577
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (72 Seats) #700
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (72 Seats) #709
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (72 Seats) #717
  • Hi-Level "Chair" car (68 Seats) #529

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 largely-cosmetic fairing applied to the rear roofline in order to create the distinctive "transition" cars and maintain a streamlined appearance on El Capitan. 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):

  • EMD FP45 Locomotive #104
  • EMD FP45 Locomotive #101
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.
  • Baggage #3671
  • Baggage #3553
  • Baggage-Dormitory "Transition Car" #3478
  • Hi-Level "Chair car" / Coach (68 Seats) #549
  • Hi-Level "Chair car" / Coach (72 Seats) #731
  • Hi-Level Diner (80 seats) #654
  • Hi-Level Lounge (88 seats) #575
  • Hi-Level "Chair car" / Coach (72 Seats) #725
  • Hi-Level "Chair car" / Coach (68 Seats) #542
  • Sleeper Pine Cove (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)
  • Sleeper Indian Mesa (11 double bedrooms)
  • "Turquoise Room"-"Pleasure Dome"-Lounge #504
  • Fred Harvey Company Diner #600 (48 seats)
  • Sleeper Indian Flute (11 double bedrooms)
  • Sleeper Palm Leaf (10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms)


  • Duke, Donald (1997). Santa Fe...The Railroad Gateway to the American West, Volume 2. Golden West Books, San Marino, CA. ISBN 0-87095-110-6. 
  • Frailey, Fred W. (1974). A Quarter Century of Santa Fe Consists. RPC Publications, Godfrey, IL. 
  • Schafer, Mike & Joe Welsh (2002). Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon. MBI Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN. 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. Wayner Publications, New York, NY. 
  • Zimmerman, Karl (1987). Santa Fe Streamliners: The Chiefs and Their Tribesman. Quadrant Press, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-915276-41-0. 

See also

External links

A map depicting the "Grand Canyon Route" of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway circa 1901.
April 26, 1950: Train #21, El Capitan, rolls down the Raton Pass near Lynn, New Mexico. Four EMD F3 units, led by engine #20, power the 11-car consist. The debut of the line's signature "Big Dome" and "Hi-Level" passenger cars is still four years off.