Written by: Gary Dolzall
The “Silver Lady” – and its successor, The Rio Grande Zephyr – will soon be ready for Train Simulator service
When the luxurious California Zephyr debuted in March 1949, the middle leg of its 2,532-mile odyssey between Chicago, Illinois and California’s Bay Area rested in the hands of the Denver & Rio Grande Western. D&RGW’s leg of the journey extended from Denver, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah, a distance of 570 route miles that were, in crossing the heart of the Rocky Mountains, among the most scenic and majestic in all of North American railroading.
Like the “Silver Lady’s” other two operators – the Burlington Route east of Denver and the Western Pacific westward from Salt Lake City — the Rio Grande contributed to the California Zephyr’s equipment pool, supplying 16 cars of various configurations. Initially, both CB&Q and WP opted to power the California Zephyr with Electro-Motive F3 diesels, but D&RGW instead opted for Alco’s long-nosed and stylish PA1. That Rio Grande choose the PA was rather surprising, and all the more so given that the D&RGW was already a devotee to the EMD F-unit, having acquired 48 FT diesels, which it used in both freight and passenger duties, beginning in 1942. D&RGW was, apparently, intrigued by the 2,000-horsepower PA’s ability to provide 6,000-horsepower in three-unit sets (as compared to four units in a set of F-units) and that the PA was available with dynamic brakes (which EMD’s competitive E-units were not at that time).
Flashy the Alcos may have been, but it soon became apparent the PAs, with A1A-A1A wheel arrangements, were ill-matched to the steep climbs up the Rockies’ Front Range and over Soldier Summit in the Wasatch Range. D&RGW accordingly, turned back to the EMD F-unit as a solution and EMD F3s, which had in fact been purchased in 1946 for other passenger duties, began supplementing, then fully replaced the PA diesels on the California Zephyr. By about 1952, the era of the PA’s on the Silver Lady was over (although the Alcos would continue to serve on D&RGW secondary passenger trains until 1967) and it would be Rio Grande F-units of various model designations that would power the Zephyr for the remainder of its tenure.
Into the early to 1960s, the D&RGW’s veteran F3s were most commonly found on the point of the famed silver domeliner, but as they F3s aged they were often supplemented with F7s from D&RGW’s large fleet (Rio Grande owned a total of 82 F7s), and in 1955 D&RGW had also purchased six Electro-Motive F9s (two cabs and four boosters) which became regulars in the Zephyr’s power pool. The F9 was the last of EMD’s standardized first-generation F-unit models, and offered 1,750-horsepower per unit as compared to the F7’s 1,500 horses. For all railroads, a total of 241 F9s were constructed by EMD between 1954 and 1957.
While the motive power D&RGW employed on the point of the California Zephyr changed over the years, the magnificent train itself changed little, with its consist (see the earlier Train-Simulator.com article Silver Splendor) evolved only slightly over the train’s two decades of life between 1949 and 1970. When profound change did occur – in March 1970 when the “Silver Lady” made its last transcontinental runs – the utterly remarkable occurred, with Rio Grande electing to continue the Denver-Salt Lake City leg of the train’s schedule, with the train renamed the “Rio Grande Zephyr.” By 1970, Amtrak was on the horizon to take over all U. S. intercity rail services the following year, and D&RGW (like a handful of other railroads, including the Southern Railway and the Rock Island) did not wish to join Amtrak.
To power the Rio Grande Zephyr, which operated triweekly westbound from Denver on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays and returned eastbound on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, D&RGW called almost exclusively on a three-unit (A-B-B) set of its youngest F-units, F9A 5771 and F9Bs 5762 and 5763. Given the daytime scheduling of the Rio Grande Zephyr (which departed Denver in the early morning and arrived Salt Lake City late in the evening, and vice versa), the California Zephyr’s sleeping cars were not employed and the standard consist of the “RGZ” came to be four D&RGW-owned dome-coaches (Silver Bronco, Silver Colt, Silver Mustang, and Silver Pony), two standard coaches (Silver Aspen and Silver Pine), dome-lounge-buffet Silver Shop, diner Silver Banquet, and iconic dome-lounge-observation Silver Sky. Although Rio Grande owned one baggage car (Silver Antelope) from the California Zephyr equipment sets, its place at the front of the train came to be taken instead by Rio Grande combines (baggage/coach) previously used on D&RGW’s discontinued Prospector trains.
As a captivating, almost spectral survivor of the Silver Lady operating through the remarkable scenery of the Rockies, and being one of the few non-Amtrak intercity trains operating in the U. S. after 1971, the Rio Grande Zephyr became nearly as famous as its grand dame predecessor. The Rio Grande Zephyr operated for 13 years until, in 1983, the D&RGW did belatedly join Amtrak and the silver streamliner was discontinued, soon to be replaced by Amtrak’s Chicago-Bay Area, Superliner edition of a reborn California Zephyr.
Train Simulator’s remarkable California Zephyr is coming soon, and, in reality, this highly authentic and comprehensive DLC pack will represent not only the complete equipment set of the famed and iconic Silver Lady, but also represent the Rio Grande Zephyr. The upcoming California Zephyr DLC pack also will include Western Pacific FP7 and F7B motive power for use on the Feather River Canyon route with the Silver Lady and include D&RGW F9A and F9B diesels to perfect to power either the California Zephyr or an edition of the Rio Grande Zephyr on Train Simulator’s highly acclaimed Soldier Summit route! – Gary Dolzall ■