Santa Fe Hi-Level El Capitan

In the post card below, the train is seen in Cajon Pass. I’m guessing that it’s eastbound and this shot was taken when the all-coach El Cap left LA at 1:45 in the afternoon. Soon it would be put on the same schedule as the all-Pullman Super Chief, so the trains could be combined when the loads were light. Both trains then left LA at 8:00 in the evening.



Santa Fe didn’t offer the lavish train brochures that Union Pacific did. To my knowledge, in the fifties El Capitan was the only train to get its own promotional folder, produced below.


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The other side of the brochure is a schematic, of which I’ve produced only one panel. The cars would be familiar to anyone who has travel Amtrak Superliner, which sprung from Santa Fe’s Hi-Level equipment. Note that in El Capitan lounge car, the windows didn’t reach lower than ordinary train windows, unlike those in Amtrak’s sightseer lounges. If you’ve been in the Pacific Parlour Car on the Coast Starlight, you’ve been in El Capitan’s lounge car, literally. Ironic that a car that lived its pre-Amtrak life as the lounge on an all-coach train should end its life as a sleeping-car passengers only diner-lounge.

The back of the brochure lists agents, a feature of a pre-Internet world.

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Santa Fe did produce “welcome aboard” informational flyers for most of its trains. Below I reproduce one for El Capitan and the cover of a revised El Capitan “welcome aboard” brochure. Note that the latter, dated 1967, says that El Capitan has been re-equipped, something few railroads would have done at that time. The re-equipping allowed for the addition of Hi-Level coaches to the San Francisco Chief. Eventually  Hi-Level coaches would also be assigned to the Texas Chief.

Santa Fe was the public’s favorite railroad between Chicago and LA, as evidenced by the fact that on the busiest nights during the sixties, 3 trains left LA at 8:00 pm: an 8-sleeper Super Chief, an 8-coach Super Chief “Chair Car section” for those who booked after El Capitan was full, and an 8-Hi-Level coach El Capitan. Since El Capitan coaches carried 68 or 72 seats, this meant El Cap carried 560 passengers. The Super Chief “Chair Car section”–8 legrest coaches, 2 lunch counter diners, and a lounge car–was, in fact, identical to the pre-Hi-Level El Cap with one exception: the Super Chief “Chair Car section” didn’t carry the observation coach that the old El Cap had. But on El Capitan that car had been mostly a coach (40 seats instead of 44 in the other seven coaches), so this difference wasn’t as great as it might seem.

To give you an idea of Santa Fe’s share of the Chicago-LA market, while Union Pacific’s City of LA matched the Super Chief’s 8 sleepers in high season, UP’s all-coach Challenger left LA with 10 coaches, 3 of which would be dropped in Omaha. And remember, Santa Fe also ran the coach-and-Pullman Chief, leaving LA at midday. I saw it depart with as many as 7 coaches and 4 sleepers.





Below, a baggage claim tag and a drawing of El Capitan in a Budd ad in National Geographic.


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2 Responses to Santa Fe Hi-Level El Capitan

  1. Janel Hutchinson says:

    Thank you for writing this excellent article! I traveled on the El Capitan August 1970, from Los Angeles to Chicago. I was only 5 years old, so, unfortunately, I don’t remember may details of my trip. I have vague memories of riding in the train, and I remember that I got scared when we went through tunnels. My baggage claim ticket is #758095. My parents paid a total of $544.50 for tickets for 2 adults and 4 children (rail fare was $514.50 and the chair car seat fare was $30). Per the Itinerary, we left Los Angeles on Aug 14, at 7:30 pm; arrived in Chicago on Aug 16, at 1:30 pm. Then we left Chicago on Aug 16, at 6:30 pm to travel to Lima, OH. I totally remember my grandfather waiting for us at the Lima station when we arrived.

  2. David Grisez says:

    Back in the days before Amtrak twice my family traveled from Los Angeles to Cleveland Ohio by train. From Los Angeles to Chicago we road the Santa Fe El Capitan in the Hi Level cars. This was in the early nineteen sixties. It still remember those early days when the toilets in the rail road cars flushed directly on to the rail road tracks.

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