The Sunset Route will never be as glamorous as when Southern Pacific operated the line. From the Sunset Limited and Blue Streak Merchandise trains of yesteryear to SP’s onslaught of manifest freights and stack trains in the final days, it was a magnificent run until 1996 when the Espee flag finally came down and was handed over to “Uncle Pete” in Omaha.
In some ways, SP’s identity got lost in its last decade as you searched for anything with SP or SSW (St. Louis Southwestern, the official name for SP subsidiary Cotton Belt) markings in a sea of trailers, containers, freight cars, and a multitude of borrowed locomotives. SP and SSW locomotives could be found, but rarely in solid sets; the company was all about moving goods regardless of locomotive reporting marks or color.
The pace along this route was energetic, which is why the railroad had to address accommodating more traffic. This wasn’t your typical Class I single-track handling some 20–25 trains a day. How about 30–40? Chalk it up to the wonderful world of intermodal. The number of stack trains coming out of the Port of Long Beach, Calif., seemed endless at times. SP dispatchers had to be at the top of their game figuring out meets and runarounds in mostly single-track territory (exceptions being Beaumont Hill in California and two segments in Arizona — a brief section of double track 15 miles east of Yuma and the 35-mile Tucson–Mescal segment).
Two SP GP60s and two tunnel motors lead an eastbound freight around a curve near the Cienega Bridge on the Number 2 Main in November 1994. This is where the Number 2 Main ducks under the Number 1 Main, joining to form a single line 13 miles ahead at Mescal (now all double-tracked). Unit 9600 was SP’s first of 195 GP60s ordered from EMD beginning in December 1987.
Thanks to a friend, my observation post of SP’s closing act was mostly east of Tucson, Ariz., on the Lordsburg District. I visited on four occasions, and it was far more eye-popping than any other SP location I staked out. On the first visit in fall 1990, I witnessed a traffic rush like never before — 13 trains in five hours (some that were missed), slowed only by a track gang at one spot where all traffic was routed through a siding. It was a festival of yellow block movements both directions.
Motive Power for the Sunset
I didn’t live there or spend near enough time to catch the “good stuff,” but I saw SP make good use of its late-model four-axle locomotives. And there were still a few oldies hanging on until the bitter end. EMDs, GEs, home-road units, leasers — all were a part of Southern Pacific’s southwest scene.
The last locomotives ordered by SP were primarily assigned elsewhere. They included 279 AC4400CWs (100–378), delivered between April and October 1995. These units found a home on Tennessee Pass where their a.c. traction pulled heavy tonnage on steep grades (see Railfan & Railroad, December 2018 and November 2020 issues). Their last days have played out on Union Pacific hauling Powder River coal trains to power plants south and east of Wyoming.
Also in the closing group of motive power orders were GE C44-9Ws (8100–8200). Again, these 101 units, delivered between April and December 1994, were not regulars on the Sunset Route. And neither were the EMD SD70Ms, which came to SP in June through August 1994. The railroad ordered just 25 (9800–9824) and mainly used them between Los Angeles and Portland. Of course, any one of these three models could waltz in as a stray, but it didn’t happen on my watch.
SPSF merger-painted SD45T-2 9207 and four trailing units pass under the classic cantilever signal at Wilmot, Ariz., eight miles east of Tucson. This train is the westbound APL from New Orleans to Los Angeles, symboled the AVAXT, running on October 4, 1990. Along with the Blue Streaks, these were also handled with high priority.
Espee’s last two four-axle models? That’s a whole different story. They were seen by the tons, and this route was perfect for them as they were built for high-speed intermodal service on mostly flat track. There were some grades east of Tucson, including the summits of Mescal, Dragoon, Raso, and Steins. But SP just loaded up on the front-end horsepower, saving any helper service for only the heaviest of freights.
The final four-axle order with GE was a group of B39-8/B40-8 units, with the first 40 (8000–8039) being B39s. These came online in August and September 1987 and were rated at 3,900 hp. The only other B39s outshopped at Erie were the 100 LMX units on long-term lease to Burlington Northern.
GE’s upgraded model was the B40-8, providing 4,000 horsepower. SP decided to take 54 (8040–8093) between July 1988 and May 1989, which gave them a total of 94 Dash 8 models for rushing hot trains between Los Angeles and Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans. While SP and a few other roads had B40 standard-cab units, Santa Fe was the first to order Dash 8s with the North American cab, starting a trend in locomotive production.
In addition to the newer four-axle GP60s and B39/B40-8s, SP still had old locomotives battling to the bitter end. In Tucson’s PFE Yard, SP B30-7 7843 shows its age in November 1991 as it prepares to pick up a cut of cars. Also in the consist are D&RGW GP35 3050, Santa Fe B36-7 7490, SD45R 7424, and GP60 9765.
EMD’s answer to high-powered four-axle models was its GP60. The first three demonstrator units saw the light of day in October 1985. After these units toured the country, SP, Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, and Rio Grande stepped up to the sales counter. While D&RGW ordered just three and NS purchased 50, SP and Santa Fe made the production worthwhile. Santa Fe grabbed 40 standard units (in blue and yellow) plus 63 with North American cabs (in red and silver “Super Fleet” paint) and 23 cabless companions — a total of 126. And that was nothing compared to SP’s order. The company brought in 195 between December 1987 and January 1994 (9600–9794). The last unit, 9794, marked the end of EMD’s Geep series when railroads began to shift exclusively toward six-axle units as main line hauls became heavier.
One interesting note about EMD’s demonstrator GP60s (numbers 5, 6, and 7) is that they were built with the SP light package, including horizontal nose headlights plus the red warning light, and upper horizontal oscillating headlights. Ironically, SP did not order that package, nor did it want the rounded edges of the nose and cab, choosing instead to stick with sharper angles.
As it did with the Dash 8s, the road used Southern Pacific lettering on some units and Cotton Belt lettering on others. The GP60s sounded the same as the classic SP locomotives with their distinctive three-chime horns. If something else was heard, it was likely a foreign unit on the point.
Working with the newer locomotives were well-worn SD40T-2 and SD45T-2 tunnel motors plus rebuilt SD45s, SD40s, and GP40s. The birth of T-2s dates back to 1972–1974, and SD45s sprouted as far back as 1966. Age took its toll on hundreds of these units, but even with new locomotives and rebuild programs, SP was still power-short in every corner. The road relied heavily on pooled and leased power, and because the Sunset Route had the most traffic and the high-priority trains, it had the greatest variety of locomotives. The line was often dubbed the “Rainbow Route,” and motive power books were even published to document this period of SP’s storied history…