Postcard photo of the Santa Fe train El Capitan as it passes through Shoemaker Canyon, New Mexico.

(Postcard photo by Fred Harvey, Public Domain, W. Lenheim Collection)


El Capitan's drumheads.


The El Capitan was a streamlined passenger train operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway ("Santa Fe") between Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California. It operated from 1938 to 1971; Amtrak retained the name until 1973. The El Capitan was the only all-coach or "chair car" (non-Pullman sleeper) to operate on the Santa Fe main line between Chicago and Los Angeles on the same fast schedule as the railroad's premier all-Pullman Super Chief. It was also the first train to receive the pioneering Hi-Level equipment with which it would become synonymous.


Climbing towards the crest of Raton Pass, Santa Fe's "El Capitan", a high-level consist, affords passengers an opportunity to enjoy the

mountain scenery of southern Colorado near the famous Wootton Ranch, 1959. Click to enlarge.

(["El Capitan" climbs towards Raton Pass]photograph1959~; ( March 26, 2023), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Museum of the American Railroad.



The El Capitan debuted on February 22, 1938, on a twice-weekly schedule, using two five-car sets of streamlined equipment built by the Budd Company. Like the Pennsylvania Railroad's Trail Blazer, it offered "low-cost passage with high-speed convenience". The fare from Chicago to Los Angeles was $5.00 above the $39.50 regular coach fare in 1938.

Originally conceived as the Economy Chief, the name 'El Capitan' was chosen to commemorate the Spanish conquistadors; it competed for passenger traffic with Union Pacific's Challenger. Unique in charging an extra fare despite being a coach train, it pioneered such features as "RideMaster" seats optimized for sleeping.

On its inaugural run the El Capitan left the main line at Williams and traveled up the Grand Canyon Railway to Grand Canyon Depot. In regular operation passengers bound for the Grand Canyon would connect at Williams.

In its first year and a half the El Capitan ran at 80% capacity, superior to similar services. Reservations had to be made weeks in advance. In 1942 the consist expanded to 12 cars. Heavy traffic during World War II forced the Santa Fe to lengthen the train's schedule by two hours in July 1942; it restored the old schedule on June 2, 1946. On September 29, 1946, the El Capitan began running every other day, departing Los Angeles and Chicago on odd-numbered days (except the 31st). Together with the Super Chief on even-numbered days, the two trains formed what the Santa Fe billed as "the first and only daily 39 and 3/4 hour service between Chicago and California". On January 25, 1948, one of the locomotives assigned to the El Capitan crashed through a steel bumper post and concrete wall at Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal, ending with the locomotive dangling about 20 feet above Aliso Street. In 1948 the Santa Fe received additional equipment which permitted the Super Chief and El Capitan to start operating daily; the new schedules went into effect on February 29. The extra-fare charges were dropped from both El Capitan and the Chief on December 14, 1953.

El Capitan was one of the first Santa Fe trains to use the Budd-built "Big Dome"-Lounge cars. These were soon given to the Chief (another AT&SF Chicago-to-Los Angeles special), and replaced by new double-decker "Hi-Level" chair cars (coaches) developed by Budd and the railroad in 1954–1956. These experimental cars had a quieter ride, increased seating capacities, and better views.

The Santa Fe combined the Super Chief and El Capitan on January 12, 1958. The combined train used the Super Chief's numbers, 17 and 18, but the Santa Fe continued to use both names. On its formation Amtrak continued the combined Super Chief/El Capitan designation until April 29, 1973, when it dropped the El Capitan portion. Today the route of the El Capitan is served by Amtrak's Southwest Chief. Many Amtrak trains used a combination of refurbished former Santa Fe Hi-Level cars with newer Superliner railcars until the early 2000s.


Equipment - Sample consists

February 1938 Train Original consists
Locomotive: EMC E1 Locomotive No. 5 / No. 6
Baggage-Dormitory-Chair car (32 seats) No. 3480 / No. 3481
Chair car (52 seats) No. 3103 / No. 3104
Lunch Counter-Diner No. 1505 / No. 1506
Chair car (52 seats) No. 3105 / No. 3106
Round-end Chair car / Observation (50 seats) No. 3198 / No. 3199 
Summer 1956 Train Westbound No. 21
Locomotives: 4 x EMD F3/EMD F7
Baggage (storage mail)
Baggage-Dormitory (transition car)
Hi-Level Step Down Chair Car (68 seats)
Hi-Level Chair Car (72 seats)
Hi-Level Chair Car (72 seats)
Hi-Level Diner
Hi-Level Lounge
Hi-Level Chair Car (72 seats)
Hi-Level Chair Car (72 seats)
Hi-Level Chair Car (72 seats)
Hi-Level Step Down Chair Car (68 seats)


The El Capitan debuted in February 1938 with two all-lightweight consists manufactured by the Budd Company. Each included a baggage-dormitory-coach, two coaches, a lunch counter-dining car, and coach-observation car. The baggage-dormitory-coach had a small baggage area forward, followed by bunks for the train's crew and 32 coach seats. Both coaches seated 52 and featured men's and women's restrooms at opposite ends. In the observation car the restrooms were located forward, followed by 50 coach seats. During periods of high demand additional cars were added from the Scout's pool. The Santa Fe also employed its experimental pendulum car.

Between 1946 and 1948 the Santa Fe increased the length of the El Capitan and added new cars built during and after World War II. The new El Capitan included a storage mail car, baggage-dormitory, eight 44-seat "leg-rest" coaches, two lunch counter-dining cars, a club-lounge, and a coach-observation car. Most of the coaches were built by Pullman-Standard. The reduced seating in the coaches was given over to improved leg room for passengers.

Between 1954 and 1956 the El Capitan's consist included the "Big Dome"-Lounge that replaced the mid-train club-lounge car. On July 15, 1956, the new, "Hi-Level" streamliner consist debuted. Santa Fe purchased enough "Hi-Level" equipment for five nine-car consists. Six of the railroad's older baggage-dormitory cars had a cosmetic fairing applied to the rear roofline to create the distinctive "transition" cars and maintain a streamlined appearance on El Capitan. The real transition cars were the 68-seat step down chair cars, which had a regular-height diaphragm at one end and a high-level at the other. The dining cars rode on six-wheel trucks due to their massive weight (all other cars rode on four-wheel trucks). The "Big Domes" were transferred to the Chief pool.

As on many "named" long haul trains of the era, the rear of the observation car bore a lighted "Drumhead". These signs included "El Capitan" in a distinctive logotype with the railroad's logo.


The El Capitan Welcome Brochure awaited all passengers aboard the train. April 30, 1961. Click to enlarge.

(AT&SF, Public domain, W. Lenheim Collection)


El Capitan Photo Gallery

(Click image to enlarge)

The El Capitan in 1938.

(Santa Fe Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of El Capitan at Albuquerque in 1938.

(Acme News Photos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Comns.)

Postcard of the dining car of El Capitan, ca. 1940s.

(Fred Harvey, Public domain, W. Lenheim Collection)

Santa Fe EMD F3A No. 19, assigned to that day's El Capitan, smashed through a concrete barrier at Los Angeles Union Station in January of 1948.

( - FAIR USE 0

The El Capitan in 1956.

(Santa Fe Railway-photographer-R. Bradley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Interior of a Santa Fe El Capitan high level lounge car, July 15, 1956.

(Santa Fe Railway, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the Native Guides hired by Santa Fe to ride their trains through New Mexico. The men were members of the Pueblo Tribe and were hired to ride the eastbound Super Chief and westbound El Capitan (train) to present information and history about their tribe. From left: Conrad Blue Wing, Harry War Bow and Lowell Sun Rise. October 4, 1954.

(Curt Teich, Santa Fe Railway, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of a H-Level car on the Santa Fe Railway's El Capitan streamliner.

(Photo: Fred Harvey, Public domain, W. Lenheim Collection)

Photo of one of the "Big Dome" observation cars which the Santa Fe introduced on its "El Capitan" and San Francisco Chief trains in 1954. The observation dome extended over the roof of the entire car, as opposed to other domed cars whose domes occupied only a portion of the car's roof, November 8, 1954. (Santa Fe Railroad, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Fe Train No. 18, the combination Super Chief - El Capitan, east of Streator, IL on January 28, 1967.

(Photo: By Roger Puta, railfan 44, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway's Super Chief / El Capitan pulls into Track 10 at Los Angeles' Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) on September 24, 1966.

(Public domain, see page:

An El Capitan brochure from 1956.

Click on the image to download a PDF file of the brochure.

(AT&SF, via the Walter Lenheim Collection)


ATSF FP45 104 with the eastbound El Capitan on September 1, 1969. Click to enlarge.

(© Marty Bernard. All rights reserved. Used by permission.


(Drumhead image above: By AT&SF, Fair use,