The Espee, The Friendly Southern Pacific


Much like the Pennsylvania Railroad was to Pennsylvania so was the Southern Pacific to the State of California, an institutional icon. Also just like the Pennsy the railroad (also referred to affectionately as the “Espee” by railfans and historians after its SP reporting marks) has such a history that entire libraries of books could be written on the differing aspects of the company. The SP was by far our country’s single largest classic railroad (i.e., before the modern-day merger movement began in the 1950s), spanning over 15,000 miles and reaching from the stretches of northwest Oregon to southeast Louisiana!  Today, given the road's size and scope most of its principal lines remain in regular service under Union Pacific such as the Shasta Route, Sunset Route, and Overland Route.

The final batch of locomotives ever purchased by the Espee was its large order of nearly 300 new AC4400CWs from General Electric in 1995. Seen here is #372 leading an eastbound coal drag into the siding at Granite, Colorado as a westbound freight led by #178 and #220 await for the train to clear on September 29, 1996.

The Espee has a whole host of renowned achievements it is credited with, far too many to go into detail here. However, to name a few it had three important main lines which continue as important arteries under Union Pacific today, the Overland Route (San Francisco to the Midwest), the Golden State Route (the Southwest to Kansas City), and the Sunset Route (the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast). The railroad also had numerous famous passenger trains bedecked in its celebrated “Daylight” livery of bright red and orange (with black and white trim), one of the all time classics in American railroading. Many of its trains shared the same name as its paint scheme, Daylights. These include such names as the Coast Daylight, Sacramento Daylight, San Joaquin Daylight, and Shasta Daylight. Other notable trains included the Lark, Sunset Limited (still operated by Amtrak), Starlight, San Francisco Overland, City of San Francisco, and the Golden State Limited just to name a few.

Being such a large railroad, the history of the Southern Pacific is quite long and complicated. However, the Espee’s beginnings can be traced all of the way back to the State of California’s beginnings, in 1850. Around that time, railroad moguls Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford set about to finance the famous Central Pacific to complete the first transcontinental railroad, which was accomplished when the CP connected with the Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah in May, 1869.  The SP would come about in the 1860s when was chartered to build from the San Joaquin Valley to the Southwest, and Arizona. By the late 1870s the railroad was sprawling out across Southern California and served the state’s largest markets including its line through the Southwest, which reached El Paso, Texas by the early 1880s.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century the Espee continued to spread throughout the West and Southwest, reaching northern Oregon and serving most of that state’s largest cities by the late 1880s.  By the 20th century the railroad continued to expand and was by this time well entrenched into the Southeastern markets of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (it also leased the CP in the 1920s, eventually merging the railroad into its system with its main line becoming the Overland Route). By mid-century it owned a stunning 15,000 miles of track, stretching from the warm and sunny beaches of Southern California and Gulf of Mexico to the deserts of Arizona and mountains of the Sierra Range.

A tired and worn Southern F7A #6303, still clad in the road's venerable Black Widow livery, leads a perfect A-B-B-A set of covered wagons across Stockton Avenue in San Jose, California during August of 1966.

Aside from its very popular and famous passenger trains its traffic base, as you might expect, was very diverse and included things such as chemicals, lumber and timber products, produce, autos and auto parts, other agricultural products, and almost any other product that could be hauled in a freight car. Through the 1970s the Espee was by far one of the most respected railroads, if not the industry standard, in terms of size and scope.  However, around this time things began to change drastically for the Espee. Passenger operations had long since been in a downward spiral and the railroad sought to rid itself of as much of such services possible during the 1960s. Except for a few principle routes and trains it was able to achieve this and many of its most famous names went the way of the stagecoach and into history, much to the dismay of historians and loyal riders.

(Of note, this map does not include the Espee-owned St. Louis Southwestern. To view a map of the Cotton Belt and history of the railroad please click here.)

For all of the railroad’s wealth and prosperity up to this time traffic pattern shifts and poor management would prove costly to the Southern Pacific. During the 1970s the lucrative automotive traffic and industrial base in San Francisco began to disappear. Where once the SP dispatched several trains in and out of the city daily, in just a few years much of this traffic had dried up as industry there closed it doors to either move elsewhere or take operations overseas. It was also during this time that another rich source of traffic, produce, grown in the fertile valleys of California began to move their business to trucks. This was partly due to SP’s ever-worsening transit time for the delicate product, which must make it to market extremely quickly before it begins to rot. At one time the SP had a sprawling network of branch lines and spurs that seemingly reached every field and farm in the region. However, by the 1970s and especially the 1980s these were either rusted over or pulled up as the business had disappeared.

Espee SD40R #7342 sports the road's Daylight livery as nod to its heritage, leading a westbound freight into Houston's Englewood Yard during December of 1982.

As the 1980s unfolded the railroad was able to regain its footing but a much weaker road than prior to that time. It attempted during the decade to merge with the Santa Fe and the two were even so sure the union would be approved by the ICC that they began repainting units in the now-famous red and yellow livery, which sported the bold letters “S P” across the nose and flanks of locomotives.  Of course, the merger failed to pass ICC approval and the repainted units served as a subject of what was not to be.  With the failed merger a stunning about face took place. Rio Grande Industries, the holding company for the Denver & Rio Grande Western offered to purchase the Espee and it passed not only the board’s approval at SP but also that of the ICC in 1988.

GP9 #3491 still looks like new in its Black Widow livery as it is about to depart San Jose with its train during April of 1966 (note the blue flag on the cab window).

However, in one of the rare events in railroading, Rio Grande Industries chose to merge the D&RGW into SP, rather than the other way around as is usually the case, mostly because the SP was much larger and better recognized than the smaller Rio Grande.  While the newly owned SP never quite became as large, profitable, and powerful as it had been prior to the 1970s it did rather well over the next eight years. It was at this time that the Union Pacific, which had been gobbling up western railroads since the 1980s motioned to purchase the SP in the early 1990s. After much deliberation the ICC approved the merger and UP officially took over its larger neighbor in 1996.   However, the SP did not go out quietly following the merger. All mergers have their hiccups and it typically takes a few years before their successes can clearly be seen.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S110 (T&NO), 1017-102019415
S230-71 (T&NO), 89-94 (T&NO), 1300-1309, 1330-1370, 1386-1392, 1426-14411941-1950122
S495-104 (T&NO), 1464-1485, 1514-1528, 1551-15671951-195564
PA-1200A-205A (T&NO), 200B-205B (T&NO), 6005A-6010A, 6005C-6010C1948-194924
HH-6601001-100319393
S31023-1032195110
S61033-1090, 4634-46451955-195670
C4152400-2409196610
RSD154816-481819593
C6284845-4869196525
RSD55294-5307, 5336-5339, 5445-5448, 5494-55071953-195636
RS115723-5729, 5845-58711956-195934
PB-25918-59241950-19537
PB-16005B-6010B1948-19496
PA-26019-6045, 6900-69051950-195333
RSD127000-7020196121
RS327300-7309196210
C6307800-7814196615
C6439018-902019643

The Baldwin Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S12105-107 (T&NO), 1442-1463, 1492-1513, 1539-15501951-195359
AS416177-184 (T&NO), 5228-52781950-195259
DRS-6-6-1500 (A)187-190 (T&NO), 5203-52261949-195028
VO-6601021-102219412
VO-10001320-1329, 1371-13851941-194425
DS-4-4-10001393-1402194810
DRS-6-6-1500 (B)522719501
DRS-6-4-15005200-520219483

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
E2ASF119371
E2BSF2-SF319372
E6ASF419411
E6BSF5-SF619412
SW111 (T&NO), 1000, 1004-10161939-194115
SW812-16 (T&NO), 4604-46231953-195425
NW272-88 (T&NO), 1310-1319, 1403-14251941-194940
SW9108-112 (T&NO)19535
SW1200113-118 (T&NO), 123-128 (T&NO), 1597-16061954-196522
GP9240-249 (T&NO), 280-283 (T&NO), 400-410 (T&NO), 411-458 (T&NO), 5600-5719, 5730-5844, 5872-58911954-1959318
F7A338-381 (T&NO), 6140A-6169A, 6140D-6169D, 6240-6423, 6440-64451949-1953288
F7B538-553, 6140B-6169B, 6140C-6169C, 8140-83031949-1953240
E7A907A, 6000A-6004A1946-19476
E7B908B-909B, 6000B-6004B, 6000C-6004C1946-194712
SW15002450-2480, 2493-2510, 2523-2578, 2591-26891967-1969204
MP15DC2690-27011974-197512
MP15AC2702-2731, 2736-2759197554
SD38-22971-297619736
GP40P-23197-319919743
SDP453200-3209196710
TR64600-4700 (Cow-Calf), 4601-4603 (Cow), 4701-4703 (Calf)1950-19518
SW9004624-4633195410
GP38-24800-4844 (Second)198045
SD354816-4844 (First)1963-196529
SD75279-5293, 5308-5335 (First)1952-195343
SD395300-5325 (Second)196826
SD95340-5444, 5449-54931954-1956150
E8A601819501
E9A6046-605419549
F3A6100A-6139A, 6100D-6139D1947-1949280
F3B6100B-6139B, 6100C-6139C1947-1949280
FP76446-6461195316
GP207200-7237 (First)1960-196238
GP40X7200-7201, 7230-7231 (Second)19784
GP307400-740719638
GP357408-7484, 7700-77821963-1965160
GP40-27608-7627, 7640-76771978-198458
SD40T-28230-8391, 8489-85731974-1979247
DD358400-8402 (First)19643
SD408400-8488 (Second)196689
SD458800-8963, 8982-9051, 9069-91511966-1970348
SD45T-29166-9313, 9344-93701972-1975175
SD45X9500-95051970-19716
GP609600-9619, 9715-97941988-1994100
SD70M9800-9824199425

Due to the railroad's size it's not surprising that the Espee owned a multitude of 4-6-2s. Seen here is preserved Class P-7 Pacific #2472 leading the famous 4-8-4 #4449 as both participate in Railfair 1991 leading an excursion through Benicia, California during March of that year.

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H12-441486-1491, 1529-15961952-195774
H24-66 (Train Master)4802-48151953-195414

Impressive and captivating to see in service, a Cab Forward, Class AC-5 4-8-8-2 #4125, is seen here in Los Angeles on December 13, 1935.

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
50-Tonner (Narrow-Gauge)119541
AC4400CW100-3781995279
70-Tonner5100-5120 (First)1949-195521
B23-75100-5114 (Second)198015
U28B7025-702819664
U28C7150-7159196610
U25B7500-75671962-196668
B36-77754-7769198416
B30-77800-78831978-197984
U30C7900-79361968-196937
B39-88000-8039198740
C44-9W8100-82001994101
U508500-850219643
U33C8585-87961969-1975212

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
A Through A-6Atlantic4-4-2
AC-1 Through AC-3 (Various), MC-1 Through MC-6Cab Forward2-8-8-2
AM-2, MM-2Cab Forward4-6-6-2
AC-4 Through AC-8, AC-10 Through AC-12Cab Forward4-8-8-2
AC-9Yellowstone2-8-8-4
B-1Berkshire2-8-4
C (Various)Consolidation2-8-0
F-1 Through F-6Santa Fe2-10-2
GS-1 Through GS-6Golden State4-8-4
M (Various)Mogul2-6-0
MK (Various)Mikado2-8-2
Mt-1 Through Mt-5Mountain4-8-2
P-1 Through P-14Pacific4-6-2
S-1 Through S-22Switcher0-6-0
SE (Various)Switcher0-8-0
SP-1 Through SP-3Southern Pacific/Overland4-10-2
T (Various)Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
TW (Various)Twelve-Wheeler4-8-0

Notable Passenger Trains

Argonaut: (Los Angeles - New Orleans)

Cascade: (Oakland - Portland)

City of San Francisco: Union Pacific's streamliner forwarded by the SP to Oakland, California.

The Daylight Fleet:  (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Del Monte: (San Francisco - Monterey)

Golden State:  (Los Angeles - Chicago via Tucumcari in conjunction with the Rock Island)

Imperial: Operated between Los Angeles and Chicago in conjunction with the Rock Island.

Lark: (Oakland/San Francisco - Los Angeles via San Luis Obispo)

Owl: (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Sacramento Daylight: (Sacramento - Los Angeles)

San Francisco Overland: Until 1955 operated in conjunction with UP and C&NW between Los Angeles and Chicago. Afterward operated only west to St. Louis via the Wabash Railroad.

San Joaquin Daylight: (Oakland - Los Angeles via Bakersfield)

Shasta Daylight:  (Oakland - Portland)

Starlight: (San Francisco - Los Angeles)

Sunbeam/Hustler: (Houston - Dallas)

Sunset Limited: (Originally San Francisco - New Olreans, later Los Angeles - New Orleans)

Notable Advertisements

San Francisco World's Fair



It wasn't until later years that Espee began to purchase GE products in increasing numbers. However, in the late 1960s it did acquire a large batch of U33Cs from the builder, such as #8640 seen here paused at Cuesta, California with its freight train during March of 1972.

However, the SP was so large that the UP was clearly not equipped, or ready, to handle the merger which nearly brought the Union Pacific to its knees as yards clogged and transit time and operating ratios soared (an eerily similar situation which happened nearly 30 years before on merger day of the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central).   Unlike the Penn Central disaster, however, UP was able to right itself and as the 20th century closed it began to smooth out operations and lower operating ratios.  Today the Southern Pacific continues to live on in its main lines which remain as important arteries under UP as well as Amtrak operating its famous Sunset Limited. The Union Pacific also recently paid homage to several of its predecessors, including the Espee, by painting one of its new EMD SD70ACe locomotives into a version of the railroad’s famous Daylight passenger livery and numbered 1996 in honor of the year the railroad joined the UP system.

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