The Pioneer Zephyr

Shotweld sample

The Pioneer Zephyr is my favorite train of all time. It is the reason I returned to model railroading, and developing the N scale model kit in conjunction with Fine N-Scale Products was the seed for my "garage business", ProtoTrains.


Burlington's Pioneer Zephyr was rolled out of the Budd plant in Philadelphia on 9 April 1934, delivered to the Burlington on 10 April, and christened as the Zephyr at PRR's Broad Street Station on 18 April. It was conceived as an economical day train, to revive ridership on the Kansas City-Omaha-Lincoln run. It replaced two conventional steam locomotives and six heavyweight cars, which together weighed eight times as much as the Zephyr.

In its original form, it was a three-car articulated train, riding on four Timken roller-bearing trucks. It was 197 feet long, and weighed 195,000 pounds. It had seats for 72 passengers, could carry 50,000 pounds of baggage and express, and contained a 30-foot mail compartment. It was built entirely of welded stainless steel. The disctinctive fluted sides and corrugated roof and floorpan introduced with this train served to stiffen the thin sheet metal used in its construction. The only rivets in the entire structure were those attaching the articulation castings to the car ends. The finest materials and furnishings were used throughout, and each passenger compartment was individually air-conditioned. It was powered by a 600-horsepower Winton diesel-electric powerplant.

On 26 May 1934, the Zephyr made a 1015-mile speed record run from Denver to Chicago, covering the distance in 785 minutes for an average speed of 77.6 miles per hour. It proceeded to the Century of Progress Exposition, where it was a star attraction along with Union Pacific's City of Salina. Before entering service, the Zephyr toured 222 cities in 31 states, covering 30,437 miles and being visited by over 2 million people.

The Zephyr entered regular service on 11 November 1934. On its second service anniversary, it was re-christened Pioneer Zephyr in honor of its position as the first of the growing fleet of fluted stainless-steel streamlined trains in Burlington service.

The train was so popular that within its first year of service, a fourth car was added to its consist to handle the passenger bookings. Several cars were used temporarily, but in June 1938, 40-seat buffet/coach Car 500 was added as a permanent part of the Pioneer Zephyr's consist. At the same time, the 20-seat smoking section was removed from Car 505, which became a full-length baggage car. The Pioneer Zephyr's capacity in this form was 92 passengers. The Pioneer Zephyr remained a four-car train until late in its service life, when Car 500 was removed and placed in storage.

On 29 December 1939, the Pioneer Zephyr passed the one million mile mark, bursting through a paper barrier for the occasion.

Besides the Kansas City-Omaha-Lincoln run, the Pioneer Zephyr was used on different routes through the Midwest, and it pioneered the Chicago-Denver run later handled by the Denver Zephyrs. The Pioneer Zephyr's final run took place on 20 March 1960, from Lincoln to Galesburg. On 26 May 1960, the Pioneer Zephyr was presented to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, having completed 3,222,898 miles in service.

A Small Bibliography

"The Burlington Zephyr" by Ralph Budd, The Traffic World, 14 April 1934
"High-Speed Stainless-Steel Train Built for the Burlington", Railway Mechanical Engineer, May 1934
"Wind from the West - Pioneer!" by Marshall Thayer, Railroad Model Craftsman, Feb and March 1971
"Zephyr 9900 at Fifty" by Zenon Hanson, Passenger Train Journal, May 1984

A Word on Terminology

There has been some dissention on the terminology used in accordance with stainless-steel passenger cars, namely "fluted" versus "corrugated". Since I'm a Burlington fan, and considering that the Pioneer Zephyr was the first stainless-steel streamlined train, I turn to it as the source for my usage of "fluted".

In the article "Burlington 'Zephyr' Completed at Budd Plant", printed in Railway Age in the April 14, 1934 issue, Ralph Budd (president of the CB&Q and the man who commissioned the Pioneer Zephyr) said:

The floor structure is made up of a corrugated sheet of stainless steel, the bottoms of the rectangular corrugations of which are welded to a flat sheet...

The roof constitues a primary structural member assuming the entire compression load. It is built-up of longitudinal corrugated sheets welded to roof carlines...

Unlike the stainless-steel cars previously built by the Budd company, the sheathing on the Burlington train is not all of the fluted type adopted to prevent the formation of shear lines and other weaves which would develop in the 0.020-in. sheets. Uncorrugated sheets of stainless steel are used around the curved surfaces at the front and rear ends of the train, on the curved roof at the rear end, and on the roof over the engine room...

The deadlight panels are also finished with smooth surfaces... Below the window rail are mounted the customary fluted side sheets.

By Ralph Budd's usage, "corrugated" meant a single sheet of material with corrugations pressed into it. "Fluted" meant a surface built up of individually-curved pieces. In the article "The Burlington Zephyr", published in Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (paper RR-56-3, 1934) E.C. Anderson (Mechanical Engineer, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad) said:
The fluted side panels are 0.030-in. thick in the first car and 0.020-in. thick in the other two cars; they carry no load. The corrugated roof, belly, and floor materials are 0.020-in thick, this being the minimum thickness for load-carrying members.

Again, "fluted" refers to a surface built up of individually-curved pieces, while "corrugated" refers to panels with pressed-in ribbing.

If there are other authorities some use for their terminology, that's fine. I'm confident in using the term "fluted" when describing my favorite trains.


Spotting features that can help you make an accurate model for your time period. UPDATED 12 Nov 2011

               Truck    Mars   Cabroof  Fourth   Rear

     Date     Shrouds  Lights   Vents    Car    Coupler    Horn(s)      Ref.

 April 1934      Yes     No      No      None     No      1 Internal
 June 1935                               525                            4:20
 May 1936                                None                           4:25
 Nov 1936                                Becky Thatcher                 4:20
 Dec 1936                                None                           4:20
 Jan 1937                                525                            4:25
 May 1938        Yes     No      Yes     525              2 External    4:25
 June 1938                               500                            4:25
 April 1944      Yes     No      Yes     500              2 External    5
 1947            Yes     No      Yes     500              2 External    3:161
 Oct 1949        Yes     Yes     Yes     500              ? External    1:65
 Oct 1950 to                             None                           7:36
  winter 1952-3                          None                           8 
 May 1954        No      Yes     Yes     500              1 External    6:45
 Dec 1957        No      Yes     Yes     500      Yes     1 External    2:107
 July 1958       No      Yes     Yes     None             1 External    3:144
 Nov 1959        No      Yes     Yes     None             1 External    1:66


  1. Burlington Route Color Pictoral Volume 1 by Alfred J. J. Holck
  2. Chicago, Burlinton & Quincy in Color Volume 1 by Michael J. Spoor
  3. The Hub of Burlington Lines West by Alfred J. J. Holck
  4. "Pioneer", Railroad Model Craftsman, March 1971 by Marshall Thayer
  5. Nebraska State Historical Society Photo 8190-5
  6. "Forty Years Ago the Pioneer Zephyr Made History", Railroad, June, 1974
  7. "Zephyr 9900 at Fifty", Passenger Train Journal, May 1984 by Zenon Hanson
  8. Email to CBQ Yahoo list, 1/10/2009 by Philip Weibler

Layout Drawings

UPDATED 2 Oct 2008

Layout Drawing

These layout drawings are accurate to the extent of my current knowledge of PZ, based on company strip drawings (thank you, Charlie!), vintage photographs, film footage, measurements of PZ I took at Grainger's in 1997, and observing car 500 at Gateway Rail Services in 2008. As always, when modeling a train that existed over a number of years, consult photographs taken in the time frame you're representing for exact details. Also see the timeline above. The original three cars of PZ have tapered ends and elliptical underbody. Car 500 has tapered ends, but its underbody is flat with radiused side panels.

Drawings in Z, N, and HO scales are presented as Adobe PDF files. You can view/print them using Adobe Acrobat Reader or similar program.

Larger scale drawings are too large to laser-print without taping many small sheets together, and really need to be printed on a large-format raster plotter (such as an HP DesignJet.) For those of you with access to such a plotter, here are 1:48 and 1:32 drawings in PDF format:


Here is a PDF (full size) of the PZ's "builder's plate", of which I took a rubbing at the open house in Skokie. It is engraved/etched in stainless steel, and welded on a side sheathing panel at the floor level. My photos of the plate didn't turn out, so I don't remember which car it is mounted on, but I think it is the middle car.

Here are copies of the instruction sheet (31k PDF file) and illustration sheet (190k PDF file) for the Fine N-Scale kit. (Please note that the contact information for Fine N-Scale Products is not current. Check the FNS website for the current information.)

For those of you with the Fine N-Scale kit, here is a dimensioned drawing (19k PDF file) of the engineroom roof vents added in the late 1930's. They can be made of styrene and superglued to the roof--or use your own favorite technique!

Richmond Controls sells several lighting kits for the PZ.

A Visit to the Pioneer Zephyr in Skokie

Pioneer Zephyr in Skokie

When the Pioneer Zephyr was retired in 1960 (after a 26-year service life!), the Burlington Route donated the train to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The train was in its original three-car configuration, although many interior and exterior details were left as they had been changed over the years.

Between 1994 and 1997, PZ was restored to its original configuration by Northern Railcar in Milwaukee, largely with money donated by the Grainger Foundation. Before PZ was installed in its new display at MST, W. W. Grainger Company hosted an open house at their corprate headquarters in Skokie, IL on October 12 and 13, 1997. I was able to go to the open house, which was my first time to see PZ in person. I had made the master models for the kit solely from vintage photographs, film footage and published drawings.

There was a long line of people waiting to see PZ.

The three cars of the train were mounted on lowboy trailers and housed under a large tent.

The cars were polished to a mirror finish, as the PZ was when it was originally introduced to the public.

The restored mailroom was stunning in its fresh varnish and paint. In the baggage room, metal that had originally been galvanized appears to be painted silver.

All of the upholstery, carpets and linoleum are reproduced in their original colors.

The ceiling with the polished-zinc indirect lighting fixtures.

Pioneer Zephyr Links

Links verified and updated 7 June 2009.


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This article is ©2000-10 Randy Gordon-Gilmore. Last updated: 11 Nov 2011.