Amtrak fire sale is a tribute to Budd

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, December 13, 2018

A vision in Budd stainless steel, the California Zephyr rides the Rio Grande into the Rockies in June 1949. Some of its cars served Amtrak well into their seventh decade. R. H. Kindig
The car, Amtrak 8502, sits forlornly behind the old erecting halls at the Beech Grove Maintenance Facility outside Indianapolis. It’s a proud old diner, with a royal lineage. Once upon a time, it was part of a mighty fleet that momentarily transformed the fortunes of the American passenger train. The car carries its original name: Silver Cuisine.

That word, silver! It conjures images of the original California Zephyr of 1949, the ultimate cruise train, a gleaming vision of civilized travel, punctuated by dome cars, proclaiming the stainless-steel gospel of the Budd Company of Philadelphia. 

How many thousands of passengers felt a rush as they stepped inside its elegant, glassy interior, or responded to the crisp instructions of its white-jacketed wait staff, or waited expectantly for their New York strip or Rocky Mountain trout to arrive at the table? Silent for the moment, now, Silver Cuisine can’t say.

But better times might be coming for this 66-year-old car, once Amtrak’s latest fire sale is over in early January. By then, the fate of as many as 99 examples of Amtrak’s Heritage Fleet should be known as the company either accepts bids for cars or, in some cases, makes donations to museums or preservation organizations. The Silver Cuisine and its sister car Silver Restaurant, both built for the Burlington, are among 19 diners available “as is, where is,” as Amtrak’s announcement states. 

This isn’t the sexiest lineup of cars Amtrak has ever sold — no lounge cars or revenue sleepers. The offerings include 51 baggage cars, 7 refrigerated express cars formerly in ExpressTrak service, and 18 crew dormitory cars converted from ex-Union Pacific sleepers. But there are those 19 dining cars, plus four ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level coaches. Although most of the cars are at Beech Grove, a few are stored in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

Some of this equipment could be a boon for some excursion operators or museums, depending on their needs and on Amtrak’s willingness to be generous. 

It’s a very positive step to see these being sold,” says W. Roger Fuehring, president of the Railroad Passenger Car Alliance (RPCA) and whose day job is operations manager of the Madison Railroad in Madison, Ind. “This brings back memories of the large sales in the ’70s and ’80s. Recent history had these cars being cut up instead of being sold. I’m glad we have the opportunity to save some of the last of a bygone era.”

Part of the group of postwar cars Amtrak has put up for disposition, three baggage cars stand outside the carrier's Beech Grove shop. Bob Johnston
As Fuehring indicates, Amtrak has been through this before as it transitioned over four decades from its original pool of cast-off cars from 1971 through the arrival of its Amfleet, Superliner, Viewliner, Horizon, and other fleets. Now, with the liquidation of this last vestige of the Heritage cars, the railroad will have pretty much cut its last ties with the postwar era.

It’s no surprise that the greatest name from those postwar years — Budd — is written all over this equipment. Approximately 85 percent of the items on the block came from the carbuilder. From the moment Amtrak acquired approximately 1,200 hand-me-down cars to launch service on May 1, 1971, the railroad figured the Budd stainless-steel cars would be the cream of the fleet, and that has proved to be true. 

By 1971, the properties of stainless steel were well established. In a comprehensive story on Amtrak’s car acquisitions in January 1975 Trains, author and consultant Michael R. Weinman made the case for stainless: “It possesses qualities of corrosion resistance, strength with light weight, and inherent cosmetic appeal. Aside from the more exotic and expensive materials utilized in aircraft construction, no alloy has the same properties to the same degree and lends itself so readily to railway passenger car construction.”

Other builders eventually would adopt stainless, but Budd was the pioneer, thanks largely to an engineering breakthrough that dates back to Burlington’s Pioneer Zephyr streamliner of 1934. That train proved the viability of Shotwelding, a technique developed by Budd’s chief engineer, Col. Earl James Wilson Ragsdale. 

Patented by Budd, the Shotweld method used a split-second application of electrical adhesion to produce remarkably strong welds without perceptible joints, and without requiring additional metal or grinding. The welds were stronger than the surrounding metal. Suddenly the exterior of a car could be a rolling billboard for another advantage of stainless: a corrosion-free surface, always shining, never requiring paint. 

'I'll have the trout, please.' A brand-new California Zephyr dining car is ready for customers in 1949. New lives on tourist lines may await some of Amtrak's former Zephyr diners. Classic Trains coll. 
Budd’s stainless-steel prowess put it in position to be the technological leader in the postwar streamliner boom, and although its sales figures didn’t always match those of its competitors, its cars are touchstones of the era. Examples include the Vista-Dome car, the Rail Diesel Car, the all-room economy Slumbercoach sleeper, and the double-deck Santa Fe Hi-Levels, mimicked so successfully by Pullman-Standard’s original Superliners.

Amtrak is accepting bids on the cars until January 4, 2019, after which decisions on who gets what will be forthcoming. Although Amtrak makes no guarantees or warranties on the condition of any of the equipment, the Budd name should carry the day in most cases. RPCA’s Fuehring thinks many of them have a bright future.

“The cars in this sale do have many miles on them but it does give the opportunity for tourist operations as well as museums to add to their collections. I’m sure several will return to operation along a short line or a tourist operation,” says Fuehring. “The longevity of these products is a testament to the Budd design.”

Meanwhile, I hope Silver Cuisine and Silver Restaurant find good homes. The odds are they will. I’d love a chance to climb aboard for dinner and experience even a faint wisp of that Zephyr magic. “I’ll have the trout, please.”

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.


Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!


Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter