Last call for Santa Fe’s celebrated Hi-Level cars

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The lounge cars, with their extra row of windows, were the standouts in the Santa Fe's Hi-Level fleet. For more than 20 years, a handful of modified versions have served as 'Pacific Parlour Cars' on Amtrak's Coast Starlight — but not for much longer. Santa Fe illustration 
What was the greatest product of the late, great Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Co.? The Burlington Zephyr of 1934, the first successful lightweight, diesel-powered passenger train? The Vista-Dome of 1945, which forever changed the notion of what it meant to view scenery from a train? The Rail Diesel Car of 1949, the tonic (temporarily) for money-losing local and branchline service? 

This week, given the recent news from Amtrak, I’d be inclined to give the honor to the revolutionary double-deck El Capitan cars of 1956, the so-called Hi-Level cars, built to re-equip the Santa Fe Railway’s onetime wildly popular Chicago–Los Angeles coach train.

Amtrak has decided to retire its Pacific Parlour cars, five former AT&SF Hi-Level lounges used since the mid-1990s on the Coast Starlight to offer extra amenities to sleeping-car passengers. The last Parlours in revenue service are scheduled to be in the consist of train 11 departing Seattle’s King Street Station on February 4 and train 14 out of Los Angeles Union Station on February 2.

The announcement has caused consternation among Amtrak’s constituencies, especially in the West. To be sure, the Pacific Parlours have been a nice calling card for the Coast Starlight. With their dedicated attendants, special lunch and dinner menus, and afternoon wine and cheese offerings, the cars have given the Starlight a caché other long-distance trains can’t claim. 

Coast Starlight passengers enjoy one of the Pacific Parlour Cars. Bob Johnston photo
But their retirement shouldn’t be a surprise. Amtrak cites rising maintenance and repair costs, understandable considering these are 60-year-old railroad cars peeling off thousands of miles a month. 

It’s almost a miracle of engineering and design that the Hi-Level cars have lasted this long (as well as that other Budd streamliner, VIA’s Canadian). I say “almost” because Budd’s products were nothing if not durable, thanks to its mastery of stainless steel via its patented Shotweld process of welding with electrical adhesion.

The unveiling of the El Capitan in July 1956 was in many ways a last but magnificent gasp in the history of the privately operated, pre-Amtrak passenger train. It was also a shot in the arm for Budd in an era of declining orders. The $13 million deal yielded 73 cars, including 2 prototypes in 1954, followed by 22 68-seat “step-down” coaches that could mate with single-level cars, 37 72-seat coaches, 6 diners, and 6 lounges. A further 24 coaches followed in 1964. Never built was a set of sleeping cars Budd designed in 1957.

Bi-level passenger cars were not new in 1956 — the Long Island had introduced its first “double-deckers” (something of a misnomer) cars before World War II, and Burlington unveiled its “gallery” commuter cars in Chicago in 1950 — but the Hi-Level cars took those concepts one huge step further by employing them on an overnight train running off 2,224 miles per trip.

The Santa Fe already had a winner in the El Capitan, introduced in 1938, but by the mid-1950s the railroad needed to add capacity and lower costs if it was to sustain the train’s strong financial performance. Budd’s answer was a car that gave passengers more room on the upper level by combining most of the utility functions — restrooms, baggage storage, kitchens, generators — on the lower level.

Santa Fe got what it wanted. The old El Capitan carried 350 passengers, and up to 438 in larger summer and holiday consists; the new Hi-Level train could accommodate 496 revenue riders. The two old diners had a combined capacity of 74, including some at a lunch counter; the single Hi-Level diner could serve 80, all at tables. And compare train weights: the conventional 14-car El Cap weighed 935 tons. The typical 12-car Hi-Level train tipped the scales at 899.7 tons.

Amtrak's Superliner cars, like these on the westbound Empire Builder in Milwaukee, are direct descendants of the Santa Fe Hi-Levels. For more than 35 years they have served all of Amtrak's long-haul western trains. Robert S. McGonigal photo
If your budget required you to travel coach, then the El Capitan was the way to go. The cars boasted leg-rest reclining seats on generous 50-inch centers, carpeted floors, individual spot reading lights, overhead parcel racks, and (loathesome, I’m sure) tape-recorded Muzak.

The new El Cap was definitely a gutsy move by the Santa Fe, which was years away from giving up on its fabled passenger service. It was also typical of AT&SF’s much-admired postwar president, Fred Gurley. In his book Twilight of the Great Trains, writer Fred Frailey called the Hi-Levels Gurley’s “boldest act.”

In an October 1956 field report, Trains Editor David P. Morgan liked the new train, but didn’t gush over it. “Frankly, I regard Hi-Level as a happy compromise between a good ride and the economic facts of life,” Morgan wrote. “Excluding the second-floor view, it offers substantially the smoothness, sound level, seat comfort, and appointments of the single-level equipment it replaces, yet sharpens the railway’s ability to turn a profit on passengers. I do not think Hi-Level is a drastic improvement, comfortwise, but it is comparable with the best — which is the point.”

The Hi-Level fleet outlived Santa Fe, most of it moving into Amtrak service in 1971 with numerous coaches assigned to western long-distance trains. Some of the cars lasted into the 2000s on the Oklahoma City–Dallas Heartland Flyer. Several Hi-Level cars survive in various private hands and at a couple of tourist railroads. Presumably Amtrak will have the wisdom to find good homes for the Pacific Parlours.

Meanwhile, the Hi-Levels’ legacy lives on every night across the Amtrak system in similar cars built decades later by Pullman-Standard and Bombardier. As Frailey concluded, “Today every passenger aboard an Amtrak Superliner car, which is descended directly from those Hi-Levels, owes a prayer of thanks for Fred Gurley.” And for Budd, as well. 


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