The Streamlined Sunset Limited

For many years, the Southern Pacific considered the Sunset Limited its premiere transcontinental train, because it followed the only transcontinental route entirely owned by the Southern Pacific. Yet, as Wikipedia notes, it was also “the last among the big American luxury trains to be streamlined. This is probably because, unlike the City of San Francisco and Golden State routes, the Southern Pacific had neither a partner railroad pushing it to streamline nor a competitor that was streamlining its own trains.

The name Sunset Limited goes back to 1894, when the Southern Pacific introduced it as an all-Pullman train–no coaches. Going all the way from San Francisco to New Orleans via Los Angeles, it was the longest distance train in the United States. The train was so near and dear to Southern Pacific’s heart that the railroad adopted a sunset as its logo. Still, it added coaches to the train and cut it back to Los Angeles-New Orleans during the early part of the Depression and again in 1942.

Click image to download an 8.2-MB PDF of a 20-page brochure introducing the streamlined Sunset Limited.

Still, when the Southern Pacific streamlined the train in August, 1950, it went all out. The entire train was built by Budd, and the railroad left it unpainted except for a red stripe above the windows. As built, each of five train sets included one 48-seat coach (partitioned to satisfy Jim Crow laws), three 44-seat coaches, and six all-room sleeping cars, each with 10 roomettes and six double bedrooms. Each of the coaches used a different color scheme: tan & turquoise; pink & blue; rose & beige; and brown & tan for the Jim Crow car–while the sleepers used three different color schemes, described as taupe, bright navy, and delicate green.

Non-revenue space included three full cars: the Audubon dining room, decorated with reproductions of the artist’s bird paintings; the Pride of Texas coffee-shop car with leather on the walls decorated with Texas brands; and the French Quarter lounge car, painted watermelon red and decorated with wrought-iron grillwork reminiscent of old New Orleans.

What the train didn’t have was a round-tailed observation car to give passengers a 180-degree view of the scenery, a tacit admission that there wasn’t much scenery to view along the route. The Southern Pacific used Alco PAs to haul the train east of El Paso and General Motors E7s west, with all locomotives painted in orange-and-red Daylight colors.

Naturally, Railway Age described the new train in detail. Click image to download a 17.4-MB PDF of the magazine’s article about the Sunset Limited.

The Southern Pacific advertised a 42-hour schedule between New Orleans and Los Angeles–not quite the 39-3/4-hour timetables of the City trains and Super Chief/El Capitan, but better than the 45-hour Empire Builder, Olympian Hiawatha, or Golden State.


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