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FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Ralph Budd led the Burlington Route into the streamliner age

Tom Sawyer contestants gather around Ralph Budd at the Mark Twain Zephyr dedication. (

Born on a farm near Waterloo, Iowa, on August 20, 1879, Ralph Budd became a key railroad executive later in his life. Budd graduated from high school and college in only six years, earning a bachelor’s degree in science and civil engineering. 

His first job was with the Chicago Great Western Railroad. Budd began his career as a draftsman in the railroad’s divisional engineering office.

Mentor John Frank Stevens

John Frank Stevens 
John Frank Stevens

Budd joined the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad in 1902 to work on the construction of the railroad’s St. Louis to Kansas City line. While he was working for the Rock Island Budd met John Frank Stevens, considered “one of the deans of American railroad civil engineering.” Stevens was already well-known for the Great Northern Railway’s rail line across Montana’s Marias Pass. However, that would be surpassed when he was tapped by President Theodore Roosevelt to plan the Panama Canal. At the age of 27, Budd followed Stevens to Panama in June 1906 and he became the chief engineer of the Panama Railway. Ahead of schedule, Budd successfully completed the rail line across Panama’s rough jungle terrain.

James J. Hill. (Photo:
James J. Hill. (Photo:

In 1910, Budd followed Stevens once more, this time to Oregon and the Great Northern Railway. There, Stevens was working for James J. Hill, the railroad’s chief executive. (To read more about James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway, read a two-part FreightWaves Classics article, here and here.) Budd was appointed chief engineer of the Oregon Trunk Railway (a subsidiary of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle), and Budd was named its chief engineer. He helped to build it from the Pacific Northwest into northern California. The Oregon Trunk included pieces of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle, the Oregon Trunk Railway, the Western Pacific Railroad, and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. When it was finally “pieced together in the 1930s” it gave the railroads controlled by Hill a route into the heart of California and it became known as the “Inside Gateway.” 

Budd’s work with Stevens brought him to the attention of Hill, and in 1912, Budd became Hill’s assistant. Hill was so impressed with Budd that he “left confidential instructions that after his death, Budd should be appointed president of the Great Northern.”

Great Northern Railway

In 1919, Budd became president of the Great Northern Railway at the age of 40. He was the youngest railroad president in the United States.  

Under his leadership, the Great Northern built the Cascade Tunnel in Washington. Teams of workers bored through solid rock 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 35 months. The tunnel was critical; it enabled trains to bypass several very dangerous switchbacks in the mountainous area, as well as avoid the numerous avalanches that hit the area. During the construction, Budd installed stationary diesel engines to provide standby power to the workers underground. Although the engines were too heavy for use on a locomotive, Budd liked their economy and dependability.

The Great Northern Railway system. (Image:

The project’s price tag was $25 million, but the new tunnel eliminated the need for an earlier tunnel under the Cascade Range that included a difficult alignment. The Great Northern’s New Cascade Tunnel was 7.79 miles long, and over 100 years later, it is still the longest railroad tunnel in the United States and one of the longest in the world.

During a 13-year career at Great Northern, Budd invested $79 million in improvements to the railroad, as well as $75 million in rolling stock, and nearly $7 million to build new rail lines.

Ralph Budd. 
Ralph Budd.

The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad

The stock market crash of 1929, protectionist trade laws and other factors led to the Great Depression. During those difficult financial times, Budd left the Great Northern to become president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (known as the Burlington Route) on January 1, 1932. In his new role, Budd sought methods to reduce operating costs while also improving the railroad’s service. However, the Depression was crushing the passenger rail industry.

The Great Depression depleted most railroads’ financial reserves. They were also facing increasing competition from automobiles (passenger traffic) and trucks (freight traffic). The Burlington Route, a railroad with an 11,000-mile system, lost 20% of its passenger traffic between 1926 and 1929. Between 1929 and 1931 it lost another 50% of its passengers. 

The Burlington, Chicago & Quincy Railroad logo. (Image:
The Burlington, Chicago & Quincy Railroad logo. (Image:

Budd and the 1930s bring changes to the Burlington

Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on a platform of social and public works programs to pull the U.S. out of the Depression, and he had also promised rail-industry improvements. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States in November 1932 and took office in early March 1933. The political climate of Roosevelt’s administration included a willingness for experimentation.

Joseph Eastman was Roosevelt’s coordinator of transportation. He stated that in an effort to revive the railroad industry, the administration might be willing to relax antitrust regulations to encourage experimentation with methods, materials and new locomotives.

It just so happened that a new locomotive was waiting, and so was a new train. In September 1932 Budd took a demonstration ride on the E.G. Budd Manufacturing Company’s stainless-steel gas-electric car. Edward G. Budd (either a distant relation of Ralph Budd, or no relation at all, depending on the source) had founded the Budd Company in 1912. During the first part of his career Edward Budd had worked in the railroad industry, and then began manufacturing all-steel bodies for the automobile industry. By the early 1930s he was designing for the railroad industry again. (To read more about Edward G. Budd, read the three-part FreightWaves Classics article here, here and here.) 

The CB&Q's Pioneer Zephyr. (Photo: Chicago Museum of Science and Industry)
The CB&Q’s Pioneer Zephyr. (Photo: Chicago Museum of Science and Industry)

Ralph Budd had been impressed with General Motors’ diesel engine prototype, which had been designed by Charles Kettering. Budd also admired the Pullman Company’s Railplane, an early streamlined railcar designed by aviation engineer William B. Stout. After examining the diesel engine and the streamlined railcar at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, Ralph Budd hired Edward Budd to build a streamlined stainless-steel train, and Kettering to supply the engine to power it.

Named the Pioneer Zephyr, the new train rolled out of the Budd Co. manufacturing plant on April 9, 1934, and immediately replaced two conventional steam locomotives and six railcars. Together, the traditional locomotives and railcars weighed eight times more than the Zephyr!

The Burlington’s Pioneer Zephyr made a “dawn-to-dusk” run from Denver to Chicago (over 1,000 miles) on May 26, 1934. The trip set records; it completed the run in just over 13 hours, and helped begin the streamliner era of railroads. Both Ralph Budd and Edward Budd were on the train for its record-setting trip. The train’s speed averaged 77.1 miles per hour, and reached a top speed of 112.5 miles per hour. 

The Burlington Route's Pioneer Zephyr. (Photo: National Railroad Museum)
The Burlington Route’s Pioneer Zephyr. (Photo: National Railroad Museum)

Ralph Budd wanted his Zephyr to excite the public, and it did. Racing along the tracks at record-breaking speeds, the Burlington Zephyr attracted crowds wherever it went. By the end of the decade, passenger rail travel was once again fashionable; Americans were inspired by the Zephyr. During the summer of 1939 Budd persuaded his counterparts at the Denver and Rio Grande and the Western Pacific railroads to join the Burlington and establish a daily passenger train to the Pacific Coast. 

However, despite Budd’s accomplishments, passenger rail travel was never really profitable again (despite the record number of passengers during World War II). Historians point out that the lasting importance of the Zephyr and other streamlined trains was as a public relations tool for an industry that was heavily regulated by the federal government’s Interstate Commerce Commission.

World War II

As noted in an earlier FreightWaves Classics article, most U.S. railroads were nationalized by the federal government during World War I and were not returned to their owners until 1920. During that period, little maintenance was performed; the wear and damage sustained by the railroads’ trains and track from overuse “necessitated huge expenditures on repairs and rehabilitation during the 1920s.” 

In 1940, President Roosevelt sought the help of American railroads in the war effort. Although Roosevelt still hoped to keep America out of the war, he also knew that the government might need the railroads to move American soldiers and equipment. Roosevelt and Eastman met with Budd, and they discussed the potential of the federal government seizing control of the railroads as it had done in World War I. 

Budd countered, suggesting that the railroads be consolidated and mobilized through existing channels. Roosevelt was impressed by Budd; on May 28, 1940, he named Budd his federal transportation commissioner. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and drew the United States into the war, Budd and the railroad industry were ready to make major contributions to the war effort. American railroads moved most of the war materiel produced by U.S. industries, as well as the majority of troops during the war.

A train carries troops during World War II. (Photo:
A train carries troops during World War II. (Photo:

A return to the Burlington

When World War II ended, Budd returned to his position at the Burlington. 

Budd was interested in an idea by Cyrus R. Osborne of Electro-Motive Diesel, which was a domed passenger car. Burlington built the first experimental one at its Burlington’s Aurora Shops. Domed passenger railcars have been widely used from that time until now (although the number of passenger trains is a fraction of what it was formerly).

Prior to the war (in 1940) and again in 1949, Budd supported the sponsorship of two elaborate historical pageants on the Burlington Route. He was also one of the group that staged the extremely successful Railroad Fair, which was held on Chicago’s lakefront in 1948-49.

Ralph Budd. (Photo:
Ralph Budd. (Photo:

Retirement, accolades and legacy

Budd’s last day as president of the Burlington was August 31, 1949. That day was designated as “Ralph Budd Day” at the Chicago Railroad Fair. 

When Budd retired, the editor of Railway Age magazine wrote: “…His chief claim to fame is that he has been one of the most accomplished, progressive and courageous administrators and business statesmen who have ever devoted their talents to railroading.”

One of the Burlington’s accomplishments during the 1930s had been Budd’s insistence to build the Dotsero Cut-Off, which opened in 1934. It led to a four-fold increase of Burlington business through Denver. However, a key accomplishment of Budd’s was something else entirely.

Burlington historian Richard C. Overton wrote the following: “The Burlington, with Budd in command, was virtually a training school for railway executives. Men like Fred Gurley, John Farrington, Fred Whitman, Harry Murphy and Alfred E. Perlman – all of whom went on to head great railways – served varying terms on the Burlington while Budd was at its head. As James G. Lyne put it in Railway Age at the time of his retirement in 1949, the Burlington was ‘principally the lengthened shadow of Ralph Budd.’”

Budd died on February 1, 1962 – 60 years ago today. His obituary stated that “he was known internationally as a builder and rehabilitator of railroads.” He was that, and much more.

Five different Burlington Route locomotives show the span of time. (
Five different Burlington Route locomotives show the span of time. (

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.