Times Past

‘Most beautiful train’ chugs over ‘most beautiful route’

The debate over California’s high-speed train project continues to rage. If the project is adopted, San Luis Obispo will be outside the loop. The rugged terrain of coastal California continues to defy high-speed rail.

We may have to rely on a 75-year-old solution for rail transit.

It took a Great Depression, massive highway building programs, the automobile and price competition with the new inter-city bus systems to create what many liked to call the “Most Beautiful Railroad in the World.”

Seventy-five years ago, the Southern Pacific Railroad was in a squeeze. The national highway programs of the federal and some state governments had made interstate and intercity travel by automobile relatively comfortable, cheaper and often much faster than passenger rail travel.

By the mid-1930s, the new three-lane Highway 99 carried automobile and bus travelers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in little more than nine hours. The Southern Pacific’s daytime train required 14 hours and 20 minutes. The Greyhound Bus Company was running an average of 21 buses a day over the San Joaquin route.

In 1936, Highway 101 over the eastside of the Cuesta Grade greatly sped up automobile and bus travel. The Coast Route became both a scenic and reasonably fast alternative to Highway 99. Soon 17 buses a day were running through San Luis Obispo.

During the Depression, the Southern Pacific recognized the threats from the bus companies. By 1936, it controlled 39 percent of Pacific Greyhound’s stock. But the SP had to confront the reality of the public’s unwillingness to pay traditionally high fares for poor rail service. In 1933, the Interstate Commerce Commission had cut the basic one-way fare in the Western United States from 3.6 cents to 2 cents a passenger mile. There was no reasonable expectation that the fares would increase for years.

The answer seemed to be threefold. Give the public faster, more comfortable trains and some scenery to boot.

In 1936, the railroad cut the time on its 484-mile Coast Route trains from 12 and some half hours to 11 hours.

Southern Pacific decided to capitalize on the scenic coastal route. In March 1937, the railroad created the new Daylight train employing the swift 4400 class “streamlined” steam locomotives. The Coast Line became an icon in railroad history.

The Southern Pacific, unlike its transcontinental and California rival, the Santa Fe, had shown no interest in moving from steam to diesel locomotion.

Two earlier American streamliners were the Union Pacific M-10000 (“Little Zip,” renamed “The City of Salina”), powered by a kerosenelike distillate, and the Burlington Zephyr, operated on a diesel-electric power system. These trains were much lighter than the steam engines and passenger cars of that time, constructed with strong but light stainless steel. Both trains were great hits at the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair, subtitled “A Century of Progress.”

Lima Locomotive Works had taken piston-driven steam locomotion to the limit with its experimental locomotives which were combined with Pullman’s new light-weight cars and painted in a distinctive red, orange and black scheme to create a luxury train. The powerful Northern locomotive could cruise at 70 miles per hour and haul a 14-car train unassisted up a 2.2 percent grade through the mountains. It employed unique twin headlights, one of which oscillated back and forth, making the train easily recognizable from a distance.

The passenger cars, restrooms and dressing rooms were spacious and comfortable compared to earlier Southern Pacific trains.

And in its advertising, the SP proclaimed the “most beautiful train” over the “most beautiful route.” The public agreed and flocked for tickets to ride the once dangerous Santa Barbara Coast and up over the Horseshoe Grade into the Cuesta tunnels.

The SP earned significant revenues from the new train, which became an America icon, attracting thousands of tourists to the beauty of the Central Coast, even during a great Depression.

I am indebted to Gregory Lee Thompson’s “The Passenger Train in the Motor Age” (Ohio State Press, 1993).

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.