OMAHA, Neb. — Railroaders call it the “Stormy” for its wild summer thunderstorms.
Historians call it the Sunset Route.
It has become a vital link handling booming traffic, and to address this growth, the 760-mile Union Pacific corridor between Los Angeles and El Paso is in the midst of an on-going effort to add capacity.
The route’s strategic importance was recognized more than 150 years ago. The treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War in 1848, resulted in Mexico giving up Texas and ceding most of what are now Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Nevada to the United States.
James Gadsden, president of South Carolina Railroad Company, dreamed of connecting his railroads to a southern transcontinental railroad to California, linking the West directly with the Southern states. The best route, however, was determined to be south of the new U.S. border. Congress paid Mexico $10 million in 1852 for the Gadsden Purchase, a strip of land south of the Gila River, for the proposed railroad route.
Gadsden didn’t live to see the line built, but Central Pacific pioneer Colis P. Huntington saw the value of the route and ordered his Southern Pacific Railroad to begin building east from Los Angeles in 1877 with rails reaching Tucson in March 1880.
A stub line was extended to Tombstone where the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral was fought in 1881.
The railroad reached El Paso in May 1881. It was quickly dubbed the Sunset Route, and the Southern Pacific circular logo showing a setting sun over a railroad track soon became the company’s trademark. Southern Pacific’s premier passenger train on the route was named the “Sunset Limited.”
Copper deposits in Southern Arizona were an initial traffic attraction, but by 1894 winter resorts in Tucson, Phoenix and Pasadena soon filled the passenger trains with affluent vacationers.
Vegetables grown in California’s Imperial Valley soon became an important commodity as well with Southern Pacific running the first solid train of refrigerated cars loaded with produce from the valley in 1884.
The valley nearly was lost in 1906 and 1907 when the Colorado River broke out of its banks and began filling the lower-than-sea-level Salton Sea. By then, Union Pacific’s E. H. Harriman had control of Southern Pacific, and he launched a massive effort using train loads of rock to contain the river, succeeding in early 1907.
Today, with 24 percent of all the freight cars handled by Union Pacific originating or terminating in Southern California, the Sunset Route is handling its share of the record traffic volumes on North American railroads. Marine containers stacked two high on “double-stack” trains dominate the route, but construction materials including lumber, plywood, steel and cement, are important to the region’s growth.
Gasoline additive ethanol is another important commodity as well as automobiles and automobile parts moving through the Mexico gateways at Nogales, Ariz. and Calexico, Calif. The Sunset Route also is an important transcontinental route for package express business, as well as finished automobiles in addition to Midwest grain for feed lots in Southern California.
Less than one quarter of the Sunset Route had a second double-track when Union Pacific acquired it in 1996 as part of the merger with Southern Pacific.
Since then, Union Pacific has built more than 100 miles of new main line double-track on the Sunset route to handle the nation’s growing freight traffic.
Union Pacific currently plans to invest $105 million this year to complete an additional 69 miles of double-track. The ultimate goal is to double-track the entire route.
“Trade between the United States and Asia is projected to double by 2020, and Union Pacific will strive to meet the demand that growth brings,” said Jim Young, UP president. “We will continue to expand and improve our rail infrastructure if we receive appropriate levels of return on our investment. Our nation’s highways are becoming more and more congested, and we can help alleviate this problem by increasing our capacity,” Young added.
Published in the August 2005 edition of The Cross-Tie.