High-water mark for the 'Sunset Limited'

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, July 30, 2020

SP Executive Vice President E. A. Craft and Lindy Boggs, wife of Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, smile over a bottle of champagne just before she christens the road's newly streamlined Sunset Limited on Aug. 20, 1950. SP
On a typically muggy summer Sunday in New Orleans, a small crowd gathered in the trainshed of New Orleans’ old red brick and stone Union Station on South Rampart Street, ready for a party. 

At some point a vivacious Lindy Boggs, wife of Second District Congressman Hale Boggs and herself a future congresswoman, smiled at Southern Pacific Executive Vice President E. A. Craft and stepped up to the last car of a gleaming new streamlined train. Moments later she doused the train in a loud “pop” of broken glass and champagne.

With that, a new version of one of the most durable trains of all time, Southern Pacific’s New Orleans–Los Angeles Sunset Limited, was launched on August 20, 1950. It was the last of the great transcontinental trains to be streamlined. 

Most of the players on that stage are long gone. Union Station, architect Louis Sullivan’s only train depot, was torn down four years later to make way for today’s New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. Lindy Boggs, mother of the late journalist Cokie Roberts, died in 2013; E. A. Craft passed away long ago and the Southern Pacific was smothered up by Union Pacific in 1995. 

But somehow, some way, the Sunset Limited continues to roll, covering those same 1,995 former SP miles three times a week for Amtrak. On the eve of the streamlined Sunset’s 70th anniversary, I thought it would be good to look back on a true survivor.

Today’s Sunset can trace its roots to 1894, when SP inaugurated the train as a weekly service on a far longer schedule — New Orleans to San Francisco, 2,500 miles in 75 hours, with the 1,178 miles east of El Paso on SP subsidiary Texas & New Orleans.

Eleven years before it received new streamlined equipment, the Sunset rolls west out of New Iberia, La., behind T&NO Pacific 612. Harold K. Vollrath
As author Arthur Dubin noted in the book Some Classic Trains, Southern Pacific tried to turn its long route through the desolate Southwest into an advantage. “Transcontinental travelers were cautioned not to ‘take a line that will carry you into the heart of the Rockies, and leave you there a week or more, snowbound.’” Take that, Rio Grande and Great Northern!

By 1913 the Sunset had finally moved to a daily schedule and remained that way through the heavyweight era, a period in which the train was usually pulled by big T&NO P-class 4-6-2s on the east end and SP Mt-class 4-8-2s to the west, gradually giving way by the 1940s to the railroad’s celebrated GS-class 4-8-4s.

Although SP was the last of the big Western roads to streamline its premier long-distance train, when the time came the railroad didn’t scrimp, investing $15 million in five trainsets — 78 stainless-steel cars, all from the Budd Company — plus requisite motive power. The new train also inaugurated a new 42-hour schedule, down from the previous 48 hours.

It must have been quite a train to ride. Each consist boasted four of what SP called chair cars, coaches featuring Sleepy Hollow-style seating; six Pullmans, configured with 6 double-bedrooms and 10 roomettes; and three notable “feature” cars: Pride of Texas coffee shop and lounge, Audubon Dining Room, and French Quarter Lounge.

The railroad was eager to play up its Crescent City bona fides, such as in its description of the lounge car. “The full-length lounge suggests the mood of New Orleans’ famous Vieux Carré, but in a modern setting. Wrought-iron grillwork accentuates the old French Quarter feeling. The watermelon-red ceiling lends a touch of Mardi Gras atmosphere.” And if that wasn’t authentic enough, there was always the Baked Red Snapper a la Creole or the Green Turtle Soup in the Audubon dining car. 

Framed by trees heavy with Spanish moss, Alco PA diesels cross a bayou near Morgan City, La., with the eastbound Sunset in 1958. Classic Trains coll. 
There was also plenty of style on the head end, with spiffy PA diesels on the T&NO leg from New Orleans to El Paso and E7s west from there, all of them painted in the familiar SP red and orange made famous on the railroad’s west coast Daylight trains. 

Despite its splashy debut, it didn’t take long for the train to fall afoul of SP management. In his book The Southern Pacific: 1901-1985, author Don L. Hofsommer notes that by 1954 the railroad was racking up a $50 million annual passenger deficit. Two years later, Hofsommer reports, legendary SP President Donald Russell rode the Sunsetand found only 19 Pullman passengers and 57 in coach. He returned to the office in an aggravated state.

“We have the finest equipment in the country and the best schedules on the Sunset Limited, but apparently to no avail,” Russell wrote to top company officers. The railroad’s famous dismantling of its vaunted passenger service began not long after that trip, Hofsommer says.

In fact, the Sunset took center stage in a tortured drama that played out in the late 1960s involving the SP, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and members of the new National Association of Railroad Passengers. Leaders of the association as well as some state government officials along the route objected vehemently when SP removed sleepers and diners from the Sunset, substituting with the infamous Automatic Buffet Car.

West of El Paso, the streamlined Sunset used EMD E7 diesels, as seen in this 1950s view of the train somewhere in New Mexico. SP
By the time Amtrak arrived in May 1971, the Sunsetwas back to carrying sleepers and diners as part of a deal SP made with the ICC in October 1970 to cut frequency to triweekly. “That was the service Amtrak decided to continue,” says Bob Johnston, Trains’veteran passenger correspondent. “There were other triweekly trains at the time, most notably the City of San Francisco remnant west of Ogden, so Amtrak accepted that frequency for the San Francisco Zephyr, which became triweekly west of Denver.” In time, the San Francisco service would go to daily operation. 

“But the Sunset always remained triweekly because the company really wanted to get rid of the Penn Central, New Haven, and other assorted junk cars running in the East and there just wasn’t enough of the good stuff — which included all of those 1950s Budd coaches, sleepers, diners, and lounges — to go around,” Bob reports. More recently, with equipment availability no longer a constraint, Amtrak has been unable to meet Union Pacific’s demand for hundreds of millions in infrastructure investment to allow daily service.

So that leaves us with today’s Sunset, still a triweekly train and likely destined to stay that way — if long-distance Amtrak trains manage to survive at all. The train still races across the bayou country of Louisiana and East Texas, climbs the 5,000-foot summit at Paisano Pass in the dead of night, and rolls across Beaumont Hill, the fabled gateway to L.A. But once you’re on board, it’s just another Amtrak train. 

A far cry from that celebration 70 years ago when Lindy Boggs toasted what was, for the moment, possibly the finest train in the land.

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