Sunset Limited

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For the play by Cormac McCarthy, see The Sunset Limited.
Sunset Limited
Amtrak Sunset East.jpg
The Sunset Limited rounds Pensacola Bay in
December 2004, less than a year before service east of New Orleans was suspended.
Overview
Service type Inter-city rail
Status Operating
Locale Southern United States
First service 1894
Current operator(s) Amtrak
Former operator(s) Southern Pacific
Ridership 105,041 total (FY14)[1]
Route
Start Los Angeles, California
Stops 20
End New Orleans, Louisiana
Distance travelled 1,995 mi (3,211 km)
Average journey time 48 hours
Service frequency Tri-Weekly
Sun, Wed, Fri from LAX (Los Angeles)
Mon, Wed, Sat from NOL (New Orleans)
On-board services
Class(es) Coach and First
Disabled access Yes
Seating arrangements Reserved Coach Seat
Superliner Lower Level Coach Seats
Sleeping arrangements Superliner Roomette
Family Bedroom
Superliner Bedroom
Superliner Bedroom Suite
Superliner Accessible Bedroom
Catering facilities Dining car
Observation facilities Sightseer Lounge
Baggage facilities Checked baggage available at selected stations
Technical
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm)
Operating speed 42 mph (68 km/h) Average (including stops)
Track owner(s) UP, BNSF, and CSX (Even though it only owns
trackage from New Orleans to Orlando, which
is currently suspended)

The Sunset Limited is a passenger train that for most of its history has run between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Los Angeles, California over the nation's second transcontinental route.

Both passenger totals and revenues have shown a steady improvement in recent years. During fiscal year 2014, the Sunset Limited carried 105,000 passengers, an increase of 2.1% over FY2013, even as the total for all long distance service declined that year. But held back by running only three days a week (one of the two out of 15 long-distance trains that are not daily) the Sunset Ltd. carried the fewest passengers of any in the Amtrak system. For FY2014, it had a total revenue of $12,598,000, giving it a 2.6% increase over FY2013.[1]

Route[edit]

Amtrak Sunset Limited (interactive map)

West of New Orleans, the route was owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad and is now owned by the BNSF Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad. The name Sunset Limited traces its origins to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, which was known as the Sunset Route as early as 1874. On the portion of the route east of New Orleans, service was suspended after Hurricane Katrina. Those tracks, between New Orleans and Florida, include parts of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad—all now owned by CSX Transportation.

The train uses the following route segments, identified here by the names of their original owners:

Route Original owner Current owner
Orlando, FloridaSanford, Florida South Florida Railroad (ACL) CSX
Sanford–DeLand, Florida Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway (ACL) CSX
DeLand–Jacksonville, Florida Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railway (ACL) CSX
Jacksonville–Chattahoochee, Florida Florida Central and Western Railroad (SAL) CSX
Chattahoochee–Pensacola, Florida Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad (L&N) CSX
Pensacola–Flomaton, Alabama Pensacola Railroad (L&N) CSX
Flomaton–Mobile, Alabama Mobile and Montgomery Railway (L&N) CSX
Mobile–New Orleans, Louisiana New Orleans and Mobile Railroad (L&N) CSX
New Orleans–Lafayette, Louisiana Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company (SP) BNSF
Lafayette–Lake Charles, Louisiana Louisiana Western Railroad (SP) BNSF
Lake Charles–Orange, Texas Louisiana Western Railroad (SP) UP
Orange–Houston, Texas Texas and New Orleans Railroad (SP) UP
Houston–El Paso, Texas Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway (SP) UP
El Paso–Los Angeles, California Southern Pacific Railroad UP

Timetable notes[edit]

Service on the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Florida has been abandoned. The rail line in the path of Hurricane Katrina east of New Orleans was washed out. The operating railroad CSX restored the line itself between New Orleans and Jacksonville. However, it was deemed too expensive to rebuild to modern passenger rail standards. AMTRAK identifies the route as suspended indefinitely.

At San Antonio, the Sunset Limited train and Texas Eagle thru-cars are combined for the journey westward and split eastward.

A highlight of the trip is the crossing of the Huey P. Long Bridge just west of New Orleans. The bridge is one of the longest railroad bridges in the United States, at 4.5 miles (7.2 km); it takes the train 135 feet (41 m) above the Mississippi River.

History[edit]

The train when it ran between New Orleans and San Francisco
Early depiction of the train at Yuma, Arizona.
The train crossing Ciénega Creek near Vail, Arizona, in 1921.

Pre-Amtrak[edit]

Before the start of Amtrak on May 1, 1971, the Sunset Limited was operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Sunset Limited is the oldest named train in the United States, operating since November 1894 (though originally named the Sunset Express). The Sunset Limited was Southern Pacific's premier train.[2]:170 Initially the Sunset Limited was an all-Pullman train, with sleeping cars and no coaches, running from New Orleans to San Francisco via Los Angeles. From its beginning in 1894 until streamlining in 1950, all the train's cars had 6-wheel trucks and dark olive green paint with black roofs and trucks. In summer 1926 it was scheduled at 71 hr 40 min New Orleans to San Francisco; it then carried a coast-to-coast sleeper Jacksonville to Los Angeles.

An 1895 consist included:

  • A 4-4-0 American steam locomotive
  1. Composite Baggage car with barber shop, bath and buffet smoker lounge El Indio
  2. 7 Drawing Room Sleeper with ladies´ parlor lounge El Piloto
  3. 10 Section 2 Drawing Room Sleeper El Dorado
  4. Dining Car Gourmet
  5. 6 Section 1 Drawing Room 3 Compartment Sleeper Cliola
  6. 14 Section 1 Drawing Room Sleeper Los Angeles

A 1929 consist included:[citation needed]

  • A 4-6-2 Pacific or 4-8-2 Mountain steam locomotive
  1. Railway Post Office
  2. Baggage
  3. Buffet library baggage combination car
  4. 12-section, 1 drawing room sleeper Brazos
  5. 12-section, 1 drawing room sleeper Calaveras
  6. 12-section, 1 drawing room sleeper Pecos
  7. 12-section, 1 drawing room sleeper Tontos
  8. Diner
  9. 10-section, 1-drawing room, 2-compartment sleeper El Monte
  10. 10-section, 1-drawing room, 2-compartment sleeper El Norte
  11. 10-section, 1-drawing room, 2-compartment sleeper El Occidente
  12. 10-section, 1-drawing room, 2-compartment sleeper El Oriente
  13. 4-2 sleeper lounge observation Sunset Beach

A 1940 consist included:

  • A GS-1 4-8-4 Golden State steam locomotive
  1. Railway Post Office
  2. Baggage
  3. Parlor Sleeper Abington
  4. 16 Section Tourist Sleeper Catlin
  5. 12 Section 1 Drawing Room Sleeper Alamo
  6. Coffee Shop Lounge
  7. Diner
  8. Lounge with barber shop, shower-bath and valet service
  9. 10 Section 1 Drawing Room 2 Compartment Sleeper Lake Ariana
  10. 10 Section 1 Drawing Room 1 Compartment Sleeper Prior Lake
  11. 8 Section 1 Drawing Room 2 Compartment Sleeper Des Plaines
  12. 6 Compartment 3 Drawing Room Sleeper Glen Aladale
  13. 6 Single Bedroom 2 Double Bedroom Sleeper Lounge Sun-Room Solarium Observation Mission Santa Ynez

In 1930 the route was cut back to Los Angeles and the train carried coaches for the first time. In 1936 the train resumed running to San Francisco and was one of SP's first trains to receive air-conditioning. In January 1942 it was cut back to Los Angeles; the Sunset Limited was never again all-Pullman and never again ran beyond Los Angeles.

The train was dieselized in late 1949 and became a streamliner in August 1950. The Sunset Limited was the last among the big American luxury trains to be streamlined but in 1950 the train got a new look, with stainless steel cars with red letterboards and white "Southern Pacific" lettering. All cars except the RPO-Baggage (which had 6-wheel trucks) had 4-wheel trucks. The last car of the train was a sleeping car with a blunt rear end and a lighted neon-sign with the train name on the rear door. Until 1950 the train was pulled by 4-6-2 Pacific type and 4-8-4 GS-1 Northern type steam locomotives between New Orleans and El Paso, and by 4-8-2 MT-4 Mountain type and 4-8-4 GS-4 Northern type steam locomotives between El Paso and Los Angeles/San Francisco. Occasionally, even some 4-10-2 Southern Pacific type and 4-8-8-2 AC class Cab Forward type steam locomotives could be seen, especially on the western portion of its run. Steam occasionally appeared on the Sunset Limited until 1953.

After dieselization Alco PA A-A Unit diesel locomotives powered the train between New Orleans and El Paso, and EMD E7 and E9 diesel locomotives in A-B-B sets pulled the train between El Paso and Los Angeles. Between 1950 and 1958 the diesel locomotives were painted in the Southern Pacific's "Daylight" scheme; in the 1960s and 70s EMD F7 diesel locomotives in SP's "Bloody Nose" scheme powered the train on the entire run.

Interior of the "Pride of Texas" lounge car.

A typical consist from the early 1950s included:[citation needed]

  • An A-B-A Set of Alco PA-1 or an A-B-B Set of EMD E-7 diesel locomotives, both in Daylight colors
  1. Railway Post Office/Baggage
  2. Baggage Dormitory
  3. Partitioned Coach
  4. Coach
  5. Coach
  6. Coffee Shop Lounge Pride of Texas
  7. Coach
  8. Coach
  9. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper
  10. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper
  11. Diner Audubon
  12. Lounge French Quarter
  13. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper
  14. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom sleeper
  15. 10-roomette, 6-double bedroom blunt ended sleeper

A typical consist between October 1970 and April 1971 (the last months under Southern Pacific's thrice-weekly operation):

  • An A-B-A Set of EMD FP-7 units or a SDP-45 diesel locomotive, painted in the "Bloody Nose" scheme
  1. Box Car Baggage Express
  2. Baggage Dormitory
  3. 10-6 Sleeper
  4. 10-6 Sleeper (Southern Railway through car New York - Los Angeles via the Crescent Limited)
  5. Lounge French Quarter
  6. Diner Audubon
  7. Coach
  8. Coach
  9. Coffee Shop Lounge Pride of Texas
  10. Coach
  11. Coach

During the decline in the 1960s more and more services on board were cut back, culminating in the elimination of the dining car, lounge car and all sleeping cars. By 1968 the once proud streamliner had three cars: a baggage car, a coach and an automat lunch counter car. The Sunset was even combined with the Golden State passenger train west of El Paso in 1964. In October 1970 the Sunset's daily service between New Orleans and Los Angeles was reduced to tri-weekly, but with full dining and sleeping car service returning over the entire route. This was the state of the train when Amtrak took control in May 1971.

Amtrak[edit]

Amtrak retained the Sunset unchanged, while it dropped the Gulf Wind, which was operated between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad and the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad (previously the Seaboard Air Line Railroad).

The tracks between New Orleans and Jacksonville remained unused by passenger trains from the Amtrak takeover until April 29, 1984, when an Amtrak train called the Gulf Coast Limited, running between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, began service, seeking to regenerate some form of regional intercity rail traffic between large cities, outside of the Northeast. However, this train only lasted until January 6, 1985. Almost five years later, on October 27, 1989, the track segment between Mobile and Flomaton, Alabama, came into passenger train use as part of the route of the Gulf Breeze. This was another attempt to regenerate regional intercity rail traffic, this time between Birmingham and Mobile, AL. The train was actually a reestablishment of the Mobile section of Amtrak's New York-to-New Orleans Crescent. It branched from the Crescent's route at Birmingham, AL, turning south heading toward Montgomery, Flomaton, and terminating in Mobile. The Gulf Breeze was discontinued in 1995.

Meanwhile, on April 4, 1993, the entire New Orleans-to-Jacksonville route reestablished passenger train service with the extension of the Sunset Limited to Jacksonville and later, Miami, using the route of Amtrak's Silver Meteor south of Jacksonville. The train's eastern endpoint was later cut back from Miami to Orlando due to the difficulties associated with turning the equipment in time if either east or westbound trainset was delayed. Amtrak's operating reliability could never achieve the consistency needed to coordinate movements between what were two separate trains.

On September 22, 1993, the locomotives and some cars of the eastbound Sunset Limited derailed and fell off a bridge into water near Mobile, Alabama, in Amtrak's worst train wreck, the Big Bayou Canot train disaster. 47 people died.

On October 9, 1995, saboteurs derailed the Sunset Limited near Harqua, Arizona by removing 29 spikes from a section of track, and short-circuited the signal system to conceal the sabotage.[3]

On June 2, 1996, the Sunset Limited was rerouted to a more southerly route between Tucson, Arizona, and Yuma, Arizona, bypassing Phoenix, Arizona, in order to accommodate the Union Pacific Railroad's desire to abandon a portion of its Phoenix-to-Yuma "West Line". This made Phoenix one of the largest cities in the nation without direct Amtrak passenger service, although the designated Phoenix-area stop is in Maricopa, a suburban community about 40 miles south of downtown Phoenix. (Some Phoenix passengers choose instead to travel to Tucson to board the train.) As of early 2006, however, the West Line had not yet been abandoned, and construction activities suggested that Union Pacific might reopen the line.

Katrina and aftermath[edit]

On August 28, 2005, the Sunset Limited route was truncated at San Antonio, Texas, as a result of damage to trackage in the Gulf Coast area caused by Hurricane Katrina. In late October 2005, service was restored between San Antonio and New Orleans, as the line through Louisiana had been repaired.

As time has passed, particularly since the January 2006 completion of the rebuilding of damaged tracks east of New Orleans by their owner CSX Transportation Inc., the obstacles to restoration of the Sunset Limited's full route have been more managerial and political than physical. Advocates for the train's restoration have pointed to revenue figures for Amtrak's fiscal year 2004, the last full year of coast-to-coast Sunset Limited service. During that period, the Orlando-New Orleans segment accounted for 41% of the Sunset's revenue.[4]

Section 226 of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (H.R. 2095), signed into law by President Bush on October 16, 2008, gave Amtrak nine months to provide Congress with a plan for restoring service that "shall include a projected timeline for restoring such service, the costs associated with restoring such service, and any proposals for legislation necessary to support such restoration of service."[5]

Recent changes to service[edit]

In 2009, Brian Rosenwald, a now departed Amtrak executive, outlined ideas for a complete overhaul of the route, including daily service.[6] It was to have the Texas Eagle operate over the Sunset's route west of San Antonio, with a stub train connecting San Antonio (with a cross-platform transfer) and New Orleans. The plans were halted when Union Pacific stated that in order to get a daily Sunset Limited,[7] Amtrak would need to pay $750 million for infrastructure improvements.

The Sunset did receive a somewhat better schedule on May 7, 2012, moving its Westbound movements from New Orleans to a Monday, Wednesday, Saturday circuit. The changes restored daylight service to both Houston (11:10 a.m. eastbound, 6:18p westbound) and Tucson (7:28 a.m. eastbound, 6:45p westbound); a 10:00 p.m. departure from Los Angeles eastbound and a 5:35 a.m. arrival westbound; and arrival into New Orleans at 9:40 p.m. eastbound and departing westbound at 9:00 a.m.[8] The times allow several 7- to 12-hour rides between major-city pairs; for example, overnight between Tucson or Maricopa (for Phoenix) and Los Angeles in both directions.

In exchange for the Union Pacific speeding up the current three trains a week each way, Amtrak promised not to exercise its legal right to ask to increase the frequency to daily before 2015.

Passenger totals would double with daily service, according to the PRIIA study that looked at Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited service. It forecast an incremental improvement of more than 100,000 passengers from the daily service, which is already running in excess of 100,000 a year.[9] In the meantime, the Union Pacific has double-tracked much of the route with its own money. However, Amtrak still lacks the equipment and funds needed to move to daily service.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Lambert, Anthony (21 December 2012). "The Ghan: Great Train Journeys". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 24 December 2013. 
  • Schafer, Mike; "Amtrak's atlas", Trains; June 1991
  • Johnston, Bob; "Getting Ready for the Sunset", Trains; March 1993
  • Johnston, Bob; "At last, a transcontinental passenger train", Trains; July 1993

External links[edit]