I Saw Even More Incredible Trains And Rode In A Gorgeous Stainless Steel Art Deco Streamliner


Last weekend, I found myself back in one of my now favorite places, America’s largest train museum. The Illinois Railway Museum was running an event where visitors got to see and ride aboard the museum’s less frequently run trains. I got to ride like a titan of industry in a private observation car and took a trip back to the 1930s on this, the gorgeous stainless steel Nebraska Zephyr, the only train of its kind still operating today.

Ever since I went to the Illinois Railway Museum for the first time last month, I’ve been watching the museum’s calendar for interesting train events. Pretty much all of them sound awesome, but with my wedding only a few weeks away I don’t have nearly enough time to go to all of them. So Sheryl and I chose two events of interest, the Museum Showcase Weekend and Bus Day.

As I said before, the Museum Showcase Weekend is an all-weekend event where the museum pulls out the equipment that isn’t as frequently seen or available to be ridden in.

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It’s also a celebration of the volunteers that make the museum possible in the first place. Those alone sold us on visiting, but the museum was also operating its most popular train during the weekend, too, the Nebraska Zephyr.

I’ll get to our ride on that beauty in a moment. First, I want to show you some of the other epic equipment that we saw that we didn’t have the time to check out last time.

Classic Passenger Locomotive

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In 1949, the General Motors Electro-Motive Division built this Diesel-Electric F-7A locomotive cab unit for the Chicago & North Western. It started its life as a freight locomotive before getting rebuilt and regeared for passenger service in 1961. The prime mover under the metal is an EMD 16-567C, a 16-cylinder roots-blown diesel making 1,500 horsepower. To put the size of the thing into perspective, this engine is 148.8-liters, or 9.3-liters per cylinder. A 480 VAC Cummins diesel generator was added to provide electrical power to the passenger cars.

In 1977, the unit entered the Illinois Regional Transportation Authority fleet, where it would eventually join the Metropolitan Rail (Metra) roster. IRM notes that it ended its career hauling ballast for Metra. It remained on the roster until 1999 when it was donated to IRM. Despite its appearance, this locomotive still runs today!

How do I follow this up? Take a look!

The Biggest And Most Powerful Diesel-Electric Locomotive

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Throughout much of the Union Pacific Railroad’s over century-long history, it was on a quest to run the most powerful locomotives it could get on its rails. This quest led to the incredible gas turbine-electric locomotives, Big Boy and Challenger steamers, and diesels like the EMD DDA40X Centennial.

As Classic Trains writes, in 1968 UP tried to fulfill its power needs with 50 EMD SD45s. These locomotives featured EMD 20-645E3A V20 engines generating 3,600 HP. And in keeping with size comparisons, they had 211.4-liter displacements, or 10.6-liter per cylinder. While plenty awesome, the SD45 didn’t meet UP’s expectations, so it reached out to EMD and commissioned a locomotive with even more impressive stats.

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The result is the behemoth EMD DDA40X. Often cited as both the largest and most powerful diesel-electric locomotive ever built, the 98-foot, 5-inch, 475,830-pound machine is staggering. The prime movers are a pair of EMD 16-645E3A diesels. These 169.6-liter V16s made 3,300 HP each, for a combined total of 6,600 HP. And those engines are fed from a massive 8,000-gallon diesel tank integrated with the locomotive’s frame. 

The first DDA40X built, No. 6900, was built in 1969 just in time for Union Pacific to celebrate 100 years since the Golden Spike was driven in Utah, completing the Transcontinental Railroad. Thus, these locos earned the name “Centennials.”

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By the mid 1970s, Classic Trains writes, each DDA40X had racked up over a million miles each. However, as railroad history site Utah Rails notes, these high-mileage locomotives incurred high maintenance costs, and some of them racked up over two million miles. Utah Rails also notes that the frames started showing signs of stress cracks at full fuel loads. UP had 47 units built, and some began to be retired just 11 years into service. Some units would return to service after a small boom in rail traffic, only to retire again in 1984. Thirteen of them survive to today, with just one in operating condition. IRM got its DDA40X in 1991, and it’s a candidate for restoration.

Now for the train that we went to IRM for and that you’re probably reading for, the majestic Nebraska Zephyr.

Stainless Steel Elegance

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The Nebraska Zephyr is a streamliner that was operated by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, otherwise known as just “Burlington.” Originally built in 1936, it’s the only one of its kind still in operation today. It was built by the Budd Company of Philadelphia and joined a sister train to become trainsets known as the Twin Zephyrs. The Illinois Railway Museum calls this its most popular train, and it’s one of the few units that actually leaves IRM’s property and mainline from time to time. IRM has detailed its history:

Following the introduction of the highly successful “Pioneer Zephyr” in 1934, the first diesel-powered streamlined train, the CB&Q took delivery of this train and an identical sister train in 1936 for use in the then highly-lucrative and fiercely competitive Chicago-Minneapolis passenger market. They became known as the “Trains of the Gods and Goddesses,” because the cars were named for Greek and Roman deities.

Like the Pioneer Zephyr and other early streamlined trains, this train and its sister were complete articulated units which could not be uncoupled except by the repair shops. Unlike the earlier streamliners, however, the locomotives of the 1936 Zephyrs were not integral parts of the trains. This prevented engine breakdown from requiring an entire train to be removed from service. Articulated trains such as this one fell into disfavor soon after the 1936 Zephyrs were built because of the impossibility of varying train lengths.

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The 1936 Zephyrs were replaced on the Twin Cities route by newer streamlined equipment in 1947. This train and its sister both then received the name “Nebraska Zephyr” and were used between Chicago, Omaha, and Lincoln. Our train was built with six cars; had a seventh car added shortly after construction; and then had two cars removed from its consist in the mid-1960s.

When it was built, the Nebraska Zephyr was pulled by a two-unit set of “shovel nose” diesels. In later years it was commonly hauled by stainless steel E5 passenger diesels, and today the train is still hauled by the last surviving E5, CB&Q 9911A “Silver Pilot.” The train set itself consists of the following five cars:

960 “Venus” – power car and coach
4626 “Vesta” – coach
4627 “Minerva” – coach
150 “Ceres” – diner
25 “Juno” – observation-lounge

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The Nebraska Zephyr was retired in 1968, purchased by IRM member Herb Hanson, and donated to the Illinois Railway Museum. The following year it was joined by locomotive 9911A. The Zephyr has been in service at IRM for nearly the entire period since and has embarked on numerous trips off-site.

IRM calls the CB&Q 9911A Silver Pilot its most popular diesel-electric locomotive. It was built in 1940 for the purpose of pulling the Zephyr trains. And like those beautiful cars, its body is clad entirely in shiny stainless steel. A product of the  Electro-Motive Corporation and later, GM’s Electro-Motive Division, the E5 was powered by two 12-567A 111.6-liter V12 diesels making a total output of 2,000 HP. Top speed is 115 mph and an IRM volunteer tells me that back in the day, Zephyr trains powered by E5s regularly hit 100 mph. Just 16 of them were built for the Burlington Route and just one survives today; the one at IRM. 

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Pictures don’t quite capture the vibrance of these cars and its Silver Pilot locomotive. They shine like nothing else and no matter where this train was, all eyes were on it. People riding in other trains on that day pulled out their cameras to snap a photo of the passing Nebraska Zephyr. This train makes a greater entrance than any movie star and better than just about any car.

Riding The Zephyr

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Stepping aboard the Nebraska Zephyr is like cracking open a well-preserved time capsule. That just goes to show the work that IRM’s volunteers do to keep these trains as original and as pristine as possible. The diner car was closed for the day and while the coaches were open, I chose to go for the observation car at the rear. The observation car is supposed to be the highlight of a train like this, and unsurprisingly, is the most popular part of the Nebraska Zephyr. 

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The Illinois Railway Museum property and equipment have been featured in a bunch of movies from Groundhog Day to Unstoppable to even Transformers: Age of Extinction. The Nebraska Zephyr played a part in the baseball flick A League of Their Own (I definitely recommend a watch) where the main characters chase down the “Oregon Zephyr” and board its observation car.

Sitting in that very same car was incredible. Remembering the movie, the scenes basically played out in front of me from the comfy chair that I sat in. Inside of the car, most passengers got to plop down into recliners softer than you’d find anywhere this side of a private jet. My chair didn’t recline, but I got to sit right next to the car’s fantastic curved windows.

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IRM’s demonstration of the Nebraska Zephyr was roughly 50 minutes long. The museum owns and operates five miles of mainline track and on a busy day will operate a number of trains at the same time on it. It’s awesome to watch the tight coordination between conductors, engineers, and the control tower to keep everything moving. In the case of the Nebraska Zephyr, it left IRM’s depot after the slow Shay 5 steamer freight train, two electric trains, and a special configuration of IRM’s Frisco 1630 steamer cleared a path. Departure was smooth, and Sheryl and I were cupped in our vintage chairs as working air-conditioning kept the stainless steel beauty cool.

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The trip was slow, but glorious. Watching the trees and the scenery pass by was unlike any other train ride that I’ve ever taken. And the art deco look of the interior honestly made me feel under-dressed for the occasion. I still love the speed of flying, but a ride like this makes going slow so fun and relaxing.

Towards the front of the car, a volunteer explained how Zephyr trains tried to compete as commercial aviation gained popularity. The trains had attendants dressed like flight attendants of the era. These women had to fit a very strict set of rules. They had to have a college degree, they had to be in a certain weight range, in a certain height range, and in a certain age range. The IRM volunteer explained that the attendant would sometimes have to tend to the needs of everyone on the entire train by herself. The museum says that this was a coveted job, even if you aged out at just 28 years old.

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You may wonder how IRM does a 50-minute trip on just five miles of track, and it’s actually pretty neat. Trains will run to the east end of IRM’s trackage before the locomotives then shunt its consist to the west end of the trackage. Then, they’ll return to the depot. IRM has sidings and switches throughout so multiple trains can run all at the same time. When the Nebraska Zephyr pulled back into the depot, I was even more in love. Riding this train through the night must have been a wonderful experience and even the engineer’s position looks rather fantastic.

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And perhaps the most incredible thing about all of this is that this train continues to run several decades past its retirement thanks to donations and volunteers. Its sister train doesn’t appear to have been as lucky. The Train of the Gods was shipped off to Saudi Arabia for a new career, then it eventually disappeared and railfans are unsure if it even still exists.

If you want to let your inner railfan ride the rails, the Illinois Railway Museum is still operating! This weekend is the museum’s Bus Day and the museum will have holiday events running deep into December.

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[Editor’s Note: That quarter vent window is so automotive-looking! Incredible. – JT] 

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21 Responses

  1. I’m jealous. I’ve ridden the Shinkansen, which was cool, but that pales in comparison to an Art Deco Zephyr. Thanks for sharing the experience, and especially for all the pictures.

  2. Great photos and that Zephyr is an amazing train – super that it’s still in action! A client of mine would go train-watching out in the Chicago area and would share some amazing photos and stories with me. I still remember the coal train that stretched for MILES he talked about. It’s just a shame here on the west coast, the passenger trains are so….damn…..slowwww.

  3. Mercedes, have you ever been out New England way? In New Hampshire we have a cog railway that goes right up to the summit of Mt Washington, the highest peak for 1,000 miles around. It even operates two steam locomotives that were built around the turn of the 20th century! They’re pretty unusual-looking, with their boilers mounted at an angle so that they are more level when climbing up the side of the mountain. I’ve never ridden it (although I’ve hiked to the top more than once) but it sounds like it’d be right up your alley!

  4. Love your train pieces. As I mentioned on your last article my dad was an engineer at EMD in the 60s-70s and I got to experience these magnificent diesels first hand growing up. They use to have open house days at EMD when employee families were allowed to tour the facilities. Seeing these diesels go down an assembly line is a site to behold.

    I showed your last article to my 95 year old dad and he began to rattle off stats and stories of all the EMD diesel engines. I’ll have to show him this one now. Thanks 🙂

  5. Illinois Railway Museum is a customer of ours. One of the guys who does their paint and bodywork will sometimes buy paint and supplies from us. It’s been way too long since I’ve been out there.

    It’s truly amazing there are people out there not only preserving these things but somehow keeping them running as well.

  6. Amazing. Trains were my first love (cars came like, 5 minutes after) and I spent countless hours visiting various train museums when I was a child but it’s been years since I’ve been back to one. Mercedes, if you can make your way to Duluth, MN, I recommend checking out their museum, it’s amazeballs. Admittedly, it’s been 20 years since I last visited but back then they let guests climb into the static displays to experience the driving position and controls.

  7. This brings back a memory from childhood of riding an overnight train from Indiana to some other state. I eventually slept, rocking along in the softly lit, warm car on what to me was an epic journey.

  8. My preschool aged son pretty much lives for trains, so I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the local train rides/museums + on any trips we go on (the Strasburg in PA is great!)…gonna have to put this one on the calendar!

  9. Such a cool place! I need to make it over there sooner rather than later. Riding that Streamliner would be something – what a great looking train. Luckily I’m scheduled to ride a dinner train over in Boone, IA (B&SVRR) with my wife in about a month. That one is pulled by a nicely-restored GMD FP9A, but its looks are no match for polished stainless.

    I’ll always have a soft spot for those DD40X locomotives. At age eight, my first HO scale train set featured one of those. Still have it (the locomotive anyway) – I’m pretty sure it still works! Getting that marked one of the best birthdays on record as the parents had it set up and running on a ping-pong table in the basement that morning. That first set grew into a fairly nice permanent layout I spent nearly every dime of my odd-job money on over the next 7 years before we moved and it all had to be torn down. Hope to set one up again some day.

    1. I lucked out big time when UP ran the Big Boy through my area. They refueled it roughly 20 miles from where I live. That was cool to see, but not half as cool as when it literally stopped in front of my house the next morning!

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