That modern train is the successor to the Sunset Limited, the first of which went into service on Nov. 25, 1894, when Southern Pacific officials left from New Orleans on the first westbound trip aboard their fancy new entry into the elite passenger service.
The railroad had offered transcontinental service since 1883, when it put its eastbound Atlantic Express and westbound Pacific Express into service, but the Sunset Limited was designed to be faster and more comfortable than anything that had been offered before. At first, it was an all-Pullman train, made up only of sleeping cars and no coaches, running directly from New Orleans to San Francisco via Los Angeles.
The first four-car train pulled by a tiny steam locomotive made the trip from New Orleans to El Paso in 35 hours and 50 minutes - ultimately cutting a full day's running time for passenger service between New Orleans and San Francisco.
In those early days, the westbound Sunset Limited left New Orleans on Thursday morning at 8 o'clock and arrived in San Francisco on Sunday morning. The eastbound train left San Francisco at the same time and steamed into New Orleans also on Sunday morning.
The train operated on a weekly schedule until Oct. 31, 1895, when it began twice weekly runs. It was placed into daily service on Nov. 15, 1902.
By 1912 the Sunset Limited had added a club car that included a barber shop and a fancy dining car to its usual Pullman cars, with compartments that could be made up into bedrooms. It was the first train to feature electric lights.
In 1930, during the Great Depression, the route was cut back to stop at Los Angeles, and the train lost its all-Pullman\status for the first time. It began running to San Francisco again in 1936, when it became one of Southern Pacific's first trains to receive air-conditioning.
The Sunset Limited's heyday was from 1939 to 1941, when it was again made up solely of Pullman sleeping cars and its elite specialty cars. Then, during World War II the train began to carry coaches again and was again cut back to Los Angeles.
In August 1950 Southern Pacific completely revamped the Sunset Limited, reporting, "Seventy-eight streamlined passenger cars are required for the five trains needed for daily service. In each of the new trains of 15 cars, including a baggage-mail car, dormitory car, four chair cars, a coffee shop-lounge car, diner, full lounge with barber shop, and other special conveniences, and six Pullmans featuring room service."
The five new trains went into operation on August 20, 1950, taking 42 hours for the 2,070-mile run from New Orleans to San Francisco. That was five hours less than the old eastbound schedule and three and a half hours off of the westbound run.
But the early 1950s were the last hurrah for passenger service generally and the Sunset Limited particularly. Southern Pacific began eliminating service during the 1960s, removing the dining car, lounge car, and sleeping cars. By 1968, the one-time luxury train consisted of only three cars: a baggage car, a coach and an automat lunch counter car.
In October 1970, the schedule between New Orleans and Los Angeles was cut from a daily schedule to only three times a week, but with full dining and sleeping cars returning across the entire run.
When Amtrak took over in May 1971, the train had already lost the "Limited" part of its name, and had become only the Sunset, and offered service that is a far cry from the train's best days.
From early 1993 through August 2005 the route was extended east of New Orleans to Jacksonville, making it for a time the only true transcontinental passenger train in American history. That stopped when Katrina tore up tracks on the Gulf Coast. Since then, the route is still designated as from Florida to Los Angeles but that service has never been restored.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.