U.S., The Sunset Limited History: From Southern Pacific’s Premier Train to Amtrak’s Stepchild

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 22, 2021

The Sunset Limited, often treated as Amtrak’s “stepchild,” is the oldest operating long distance/inter-regional named passenger train in the country. Inaugurated by the Southern Pacific in 1894, it continues today as an Amtrak Superliner train. It is Amtrak’s only transcontinental train which is permanently a tri-weekly operation, operating from Los Angeles to New Orleans.

When the Sunset Limited was new, so was the Southern Pacific. The SP came to prominence thanks to the (in)famous Big Four of California: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. The Big Four first were the prime motivators of the Central Pacific Railroad which pushed east from California to meet the west-building Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, creating the first transcontinental railroad. Soon, the Central Pacific would disappear into the Southern Pacific through a lease agreement.

The Southern Pacific was another big railroad project for The Big Four; Stanford, Huntington, and Crocker would all serve as presidents of the Southern Pacific in a continuous period from 1868 to 1900. Make no mistake, the Southern Pacific was a company that was grounded in California, but its web of rails spread in all directions. The second transcontinental route was a Southern Pacific route, from Los Angeles to New Orleans, named The Sunset Route.

Collis Huntington, after the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific, would later turn his attentions to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The town of Huntington, West Virginia is named in his honor.

Even though the Southern Pacific operated such prestigious trains as the Coast Daylight in California, and was a partner with Union Pacific in the City of San Francisco via The Overland Route, for most of its pre-Amtrak corporate life it considered Trains 1 and 2, the Sunset Limited as its premier trains.

In conjunction with the Southern Railway, the Sunset carried a Washington, D.C. – Los Angeles Pullman sleeping car via Southern’s Crescent, which had a scheduled arrival of 6:55 p.m. Since the westbound Sunset departed New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal at 11:30 p.m., passengers aboard the through sleeping car were allowed to remain on the car while it was being switched and in the station.

NOUPT in 1956 was practically brand new; it opened in 1954, consolidating several stations into one facility.

Southern Pacific management was less enamored with passenger trains in the 1960s, and the Sunset suffered embarrassing downgrades to as far as a locomotive, coach and automat food service car. Fortunately, prior to Amtrak full services were restored to the train, but it was reduced to a tri-weekly operation where it remains today over 50 years later.

Under Amtrak in the 1990s and until Hurricane Katrina in 2005 the Sunset added east of New Orleans to its route, first operating to Miami and later cut back to Orlando. When the hurricane destroyed the railroad infrastructure CSX created something of a miracle and restored the track to excellent condition in about six months, but Amtrak declined to reinstate the train. The train east of New Orleans was never officially discontinued, but, to this day the service remains “suspended.” Amazingly, the unions never pushed the issue, and the Sunset to Florida remains in limbo. Last year the track east of Pensacola through Florida’s panhandle to just west of Jacksonville was sold to a new short line railroad. It is financially questionable if the cost of restoring the Sunset east of New Orleans can ever be accomplished.

Southern Pacific ran a slower, full service train companion to the Sunset, the Argonaut, Los Angeles to New Orleans. The Argonaut was always a heavy-weight train, never streamlined and it handled mail and express cars. The train was designed as a less expensive option for travelers, including meals in its dining car at prices below those of the Sunset Limited. It first operated from 1926 to 1936, took a two year vacation, and came back from 1938 to 1958.

In non-pandemic times, the Superliner Sunset Limited – still Trains 1 and 2 – has a consist of a baggage car, transition-dorm, two coaches, one sleeping car, a diner, Sightseer lounge car, and a through coach and sleeping car from the Texas Eagle which are added/removed at San Antonio for Los Angeles service.

From the July 1956 edition, The Official Guide of the Railways, Southern Pacific’s Sunset and Argonaut offered the following services:

Sunset Route

Streamliner, Sunset Limited, Trains 1 and 2, Daily – Extra Fare
New Orleans – El Paso – Los Angeles
Regularly assigned cars are air-conditioned

(Open for occupancy at New Orleans 10:00 p.m.)

Full Lounge Car, New Orleans – Los Angeles (for Pullman passengers). (Shower bath and valet service.)

Standard Sleepers

New Orleans – Los Angeles, 6 Bedrooms, 10 Roomettes

New Orleans – Los Angeles, 4 Bedrooms, 4 Compartments, 2 Drawing Rooms

New Orleans – Los Angeles, 6 Bedrooms, 10 Roomettes

Washington – Los Angeles, 6 Bedrooms, 10 Roomettes (On Southern – Atlanta & West Point – Louisville & Nashville No. 37 [Crescent] to New Orleans.) (Sleeper may be occupied during layover at New Orleans.)

Dallas – Los Angeles, 6 Bedrooms, 10 Roomettes (On Texas & Pacific No. 1 to El Paso [The Texas Eagle].)

Chair Cars – Reclining Leg Rest Seats. Please reserved in advance. (Open for occupancy at New Orleans 10:00 p.m.)

New Orleans – Los Angeles (3 Coaches)

El Paso – Los Angeles

Pillow service available at nominal charge.

Dining Car, New Orleans – Los Angeles

Hamburger Grill Lounge Car, New Orleans – Los Angeles (For chair car passengers)

News Agent Service

Tickets Honored – Ask Agents.

Argonaut, Trains 5 and 6, Daily
New Orleans – El Paso – Los Angeles
Regularly assigned cars are air-conditioned

Full Lounge Car, New Orleans – Los Angeles

Standard Sleepers

New Orleans – Los Angeles, 8 Sections, 5 Bedrooms

New Orleans – San Antonio, 10 Sections, 1 Drawing-room, 2 Compartments (Occupancy at San Antonio until 8:00 a.m.)

El Paso – Los Angeles, 10 Sections, 1 Drawing-room, 2 Compartments

Dining Car, New Orleans – Los Angeles

Chair Cars

New Orleans – Los Angeles (Number of coaches not indicated)

Pillow service available at nominal charge.

News Agent Service.

Tickets Honored – All classes.

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