|Service type||Inter-city rail|
|Locale||Southern United States|
|Former operator(s)||Southern Pacific (1894–1971)|
|Annual ridership||73,904 (FY22) 28.4%[a]|
|Termini||Los Angeles, California|
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Distance travelled||1,995 mi (3,211 km)|
|Average journey time|
|Service frequency||Three round trips per week|
|Train number(s)||1 (westbound)|
|Disabled access||Train lower level, all stations|
|Catering facilities||Dining car, Café|
|Observation facilities||Sightseer lounge car|
|Baggage facilities||Overhead racks, checked baggage available at selected stations|
|Rolling stock||GE Genesis|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8+1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
|Operating speed||44 mph (71 km/h) (avg.)|
79 mph (127 km/h) (top)
|Track owner(s)||UP, BNSF|
The Sunset Limited is a 1,995-mile (3,211 km) passenger train service operated by Amtrak between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Los Angeles, California, with major stops in Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, and Tucson. Introduced in 1894 by the Southern Pacific Railroad, it is the oldest continuously operating named train in the United States.
With three round trips per week, the Sunset Limited is tied with the Cardinal for the lowest frequency of any regularly-scheduled Amtrak route. Each end-to-end journey takes about two days. West of San Antonio, the train runs combined with the Texas Eagle.
The Sunset Limited was extended to Florida in 1993, creating Amtrak's longest route and its only coast-to-coast train service. This ended in 2005 when service east of New Orleans was indefinitely suspended due to Hurricane Katrina.
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 along the Sunset Route (though originally named the Sunset Express). The Sunset Route (originating in New Orleans) is the southernmost of the three gateways to the West Coast envisioned through the Pacific Railroad Acts. The other two embarked from Chicago and St. Louis. However, the Sunset Route had two major advantages over the other two routes. It was an all-weather, year-round route that did not face the crippling snows of the Wasatch or Sierra mountain ranges to reach the Pacific Coast. Additionally, the other two routes had to assault the front range of the Rockies.
In addition, opened 20 years before the Panama Canal, the Sunset Route vastly shortened the time to reach the West Coast from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, as New Orleans was already an established seaport for Atlantic shipping lines’ passengers, seeking to reach the US interior. The Sunset Limited allowed passengers to reach the West Coast in a few days, not weeks.
The Sunset Limited was Southern Pacific's premier train. 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 the summer of 1926, it was scheduled at 71 hr 40 min New Orleans to San Francisco; it then carried a coast-to-coast sleeper from Jacksonville to Los Angeles.
In contrast to its earliest Amtrak years, the Sunset Limited, up to its later years, made stops not only at Phoenix, but also at Mesa and Chandler, Arizona.
Amtrak assumed operation of most intercity passenger train routes in the United States on May 1, 1971, including those of the Southern Pacific. Amtrak retained the Sunset Limited and initially left its route unchanged.
On October 2, 1981, Amtrak began operating the Chicago-bound Eagle (known as the Texas Eagle since 1988) in conjunction with the Sunset Limited. The routes operate as one train between Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas.
The Louisville and Nashville Railroad had operated the Gulf Wind between New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, from 1949 to 1971, when Amtrak dropped the route. This corridor saw limited service over the next two decades: in 1984–1985 the Gulf Coast Limited ran between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and from 1989 to 1995 the Gulf Breeze served the segment from Mobile to Atmore, Alabama.
On April 4, 1993, Amtrak extended the Sunset Limited eastward to Miami. The train followed the former route of the Gulf Wind between New Orleans and Jacksonville, restoring service on that corridor, and used the route of Amtrak's Silver Meteor south of Jacksonville.  It was serviced at Amtrak's Hialeah yards for the return trip. It was only the second direct rail link between Orlando and Miami, following local trains by the Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Coast Line in the mid-1960s.
Schedule unreliability caused the Sunset Limited's eastern terminus to be truncated to Sanford on November 10, 1996. Service was re-extended to Orlando on October 26, 1997, and the train deadheaded (operated empty) between Orlando and Sanford for servicing. Sanford was, and still is, the servicing point for Amtrak's Auto Train.
On September 22, 1993, the three locomotives and four of the eight cars of the eastbound Sunset Limited derailed and fell off a damaged bridge into water near Mobile, Alabama, in Amtrak's worst train wreck, the Big Bayou Canot rail accident. 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. The attack killed one person and injured dozens of others. The crime still remains unsolved.
On June 2, 1996, the Sunset Limited was rerouted to a more southerly route between Tucson, and Yuma, Arizona, bypassing Phoenix. Union Pacific, which had acquired Southern Pacific earlier in the year, wanted to abandon a decaying portion of its Phoenix–Yuma "West Line" that had previously been used to serve Phoenix. This made Phoenix one of the nation's largest cities without direct passenger service; although the designated Phoenix-area stop is in Maricopa, a suburban community about 40 miles (64 km) south of downtown Phoenix. Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach service, run by Stagecoach Express, connects the two cities.
On August 29, 2005, the Sunset Limited route was truncated east of 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. Service east of New Orleans has remained indefinitely suspended despite CSX Transportation completing repair of the track in January 2006.
The Sunset Limited received a modified schedule on May 7, 2012, moving its westbound movements from New Orleans to a Monday, Wednesday, Saturday circuit. 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.
While most Amtrak trains saw service reductions in 2020–2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sunset Limited and its existing sub-daily schedule were not affected. The Texas Eagle was reduced to tri-weekly from October 2020 and May 2021, temporarily matching the Sunset Limited.
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, 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.
Section 226 of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, signed into law by President George W. 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."
In January 2016, Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission announced jointly that a Gulf Coast passenger rail inspection trip was to be made from New Orleans to Jacksonville, with elected officials among those on board during the February 18–19 excursion. Stops were planned for all of the stations formerly part of the Sunset Limited's route between those two cities. In June 2018, the commission missed the deadline for submitting a request for service restoration along the Gulf. It said that it could not apply for the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) fiscal-year 2017 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety and Improvements (CRISI) funding because Alabama and Mississippi were unwilling to assist with funds. Alabama's share would have been $5.3 million. The Louisiana governor, on the other hand, was willing to provide the funds. The three states' cooperation was needed to secure the $35.5 million in federal CRISI funds.
Main article: Gulf Coast Limited § Planned restoration
On February 23, 2021, following the conclusion of one year of negotiations with CSX and Norfolk Southern, Amtrak officials announced that a new Gulf Coast corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile would start as early as January 2022. Amtrak plans to pay for repairs along the route. As of late 2022, after lengthy negotiations with Norfolk Southern and CSX, Amtrak now expects Gulf Coast service to begin sometime in 2023.
In terms of the rest of the route for the restoration of Florida Panhandle service, Amtrak stated that their "focus has been on restoring service from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama," and they would be "willing to explore such service [on the Florida Panhandle] with the state’s financial support." The mayors and city councils of Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Lake City have shown much interest in resuming the service. The corridor would eventually need to be upgraded for speeds greater than 45 mph, and some of the stations require refurbishment or replacement.
As of 2022[update], Amtrak's schedules and maps describe the route between Mobile and Orlando as suspended.
In 2009, Brian Rosenwald, a now-departed Amtrak executive, outlined ideas for a complete overhaul of the route, including daily service. It was to have the Texas Eagle operate over the Sunset Limited'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 to get a daily Sunset Limited, Amtrak would need to pay $750 million for infrastructure improvements.
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. 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.
In June 2021, Senator Jon Tester of Montana added an amendment to the Surface Transportation Investment Act of 2021 which would require the Department of Transportation (not Amtrak itself) to evaluate daily service on all less frequent long-distance trains, meaning the Sunset Limited and Cardinal. The bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee with bipartisan support, and was later rolled into President Biden's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which Congress passed on November 5, 2021. The report must be delivered to Congress within two years.
In February 2023, the FRA indicated that it was studying a re-route of the Sunset Limited from Maricopa back to Phoenix as part of the Long-Distance Service Study ordered by the IIJA. The move would revert a 1996 route change that cut direct service to Arizona's most populous metropolitan area, with stops at Phoenix, Tempe, and Coolidge.
Since 1981, the Texas Eagle has operated as a section of the Sunset Limited. A coach and sleeper from the Texas Eagle split from the eastbound Sunset Limited at San Antonio station and continue to Chicago, combining with the westbound Sunset Limited for the journey to Los Angeles. The Texas Eagle runs independently between Chicago and San Antonio for the rest of the week.
A Sunset Limited Consist includes two GE P42DC Locomotives, a Viewliner II Baggage Car, a Superliner transition Sleeper, a Superliner sleeper, a Superliner dining car, a Superliner sightseer lounge car, a Superliner coach-baggage car, two Superliner coaches and a Superliner Sleeper at the rear.
For most of its existence, the Sunset Limited route was owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The name Sunset Limited traces its origins to the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway, a Southern Pacific subsidiary which was known as the Sunset Route as early as 1874.
Most of the current route from New Orleans westward is now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, which acquired Southern Pacific in 1996. However, the route within Louisiana and some of Texas was partially sold to BNSF Railway in 1995 in return for BNSF not objecting to the UP-SP merger.
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 merged into CSX Transportation. Currently, the segment of the former Atlantic Coast Line Railroad between DeLand and Orlando is owned by Orlando's commuter service SunRail, and the segment of track from Pensacola to Baldwin is now owned by the Florida Gulf & Atlantic Railroad.
The train uses the following route segments, identified here by the names of their original owners:
|Route||Original owner||Current owner|
|New Orleans–Lafayette, Louisiana||Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad and Steamship Company (SP)||BNSF / UP|
|Lafayette–Lake Charles, Louisiana||Louisiana Western Railroad (SP)|
|Lake Charles–Orange, Texas||UP|
|Orange–Houston, Texas||Texas and New Orleans Railroad (SP)|
|Houston–El Paso, Texas||Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway (SP)|
|El Paso–Los Angeles, California||Southern Pacific Railroad|
Along with the Cardinal, this train is one of Amtrak's two long-distance services which operate thrice weekly. Consequently, the Sunset Limited carried the third-fewest passengers of any Amtrak train in fiscal year 2019, 92,827, a 4.4% decrease over FY2018. It had a total revenue of $10,769,179 in 2016, marking a 7.5% decrease over FY2015.
|Ridership||Change over previous year||Ticket Revenue||Change over previous year|
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