The Sunset Limited was Southern Pacific's premier train, built for luxury first-class long-distance travel. Initially the Sunset Limited was an all-Pullman train, consisting only of sleeping cars and no coaches, running directly from New Orleans to San Francisco via Los Angeles. In 1924 the train received new all steel cars, replacing the old wooden cars. From its beginning in 1893 until streamlining in 1950, all the train's cars featured 6-wheel trucks and were painted in dark olive green with black roofs and trucks.
In 1930, the route was cut back to Los Angeles, and the train lost its all-Pullman status for the first time. After the Great Depression, in 1936, the train once again began running through to San Francisco and was also one of SP's very first trains to receive air-conditioning; in 1939, the train gained back its exclusive all-Pullman status. From 1939 to 1941 the train operated at its zenith, being equipped with air conditioning, featuring exclusively sleeping cars (All-Pullman status) and running the complete New Orleans to San Francisco routing via the magnificent coast line. The advent of the Second World War in December 1941 saw the train carry coaches again, and in January 1942 it was again cut back to Los Angeles. The Sunset Limited would never again be all-Pullman status, nor would it have the direct New Orleans to San Francisco routing.
The train was dieselized in late 1949, and upgraded to a streamliner in August 1950. The Sunset Limited was the last among the big American luxury trains to be streamlined, and in 1950 the train was reintroduced in a completely new look, featuring stainless steel cars, painted in silver with red letterboards and white "Southern Pacific" lettering. All cars except the RPO-Baggage (which had 6-wheel trucks) were built with 4-wheel trucks, and the last car of the train was a sleeping car with a blunted rear end, featuring 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 pulling the train, especially on the western portion of its run. Steam on the Sunset Limited lingered until 1953, when there were enough diesel locomotives to provide steady diesel power to the train.
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 pulling the train were painted in the Southern Pacific's "Daylight" scheme; later in the 1960s and 70s EMD F7 diesel locomotives in A-B-B-A sets and painted in SP's "Bloody Nose" scheme powered the train on the entire run.
A typical consist from the early 1950's included:
* An A-A Set of Alco PA-1 or an A-B-B Set of EMD E-7 diesel locomotives, both painted in Daylight colors
1. Railway Post Office/Baggage
2. Baggage Dormitory
3. Partitioned Coach
6. Coffee Shop Lounge Pride of Texas
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