05 September 2020

Burlington Zephyr Breaks Speed Record, April 17, 1934

In 1933, as cheap intercity bus routes chipped away at railroad revenues, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad commissioned a new kind of train to compete against the bus companies. The Zephyr was the first streamlined stainless steel diesel-electric train and ushered in a new era of high-speed railway travel.

The three-car 72-passenger train made its debut speed run on April 17, 1934, in central New Jersey, clocking in at 104 mph on a straight stretch of road between Hopewell and Skillman. Passengers commented that the ride was so smooth - even in 90 mph curves - that they couldn't tell the difference between 70 and 100.

How did they do it? A 600 horsepower diesel-electric plant, reduced weight, and fewer than half of the wheels of a similar-sized locomotive all contributed to the increased speed. The train was so light that it could be easily pulled by ten men!

The newspaper photo above appeared in the April 20, 1934 edition of the Paducah Sun Democrat and pictures the Zephyr at Weston Station on April 17, 1934, after its record-breaking run. The train toured up and down the east coast before heading out west where it proceeded to break the Denver to Chicago speed record.

The video below includes scenes from the week of the Zephyr's debut, including fascinating footage of the record-breaking run through Somerset County - officially clocked at 104mph. Unfortunately, these scenes are outtakes, the original newsreel footage apparently being lost.

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