Southern Pacific Transportation Company

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The Southern Pacific (reporting mark SP) (or Espee from the railroad initials- SP) was an American Class I railroad network that existed from 1865 to 1996 and operated largely in the Western United States. The system was operated by various companies under the names Southern Pacific Railroad, Southern Pacific Company and Southern Pacific Transportation Company.

Southern Pacific Transportation Company
Southern Pacific Lines (logo).png
SP Map.png
SP system map (before the 1988 DRGW merger)
HeadquartersSan Francisco, California
Reporting markSP
LocaleArizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah
Dates of operation1865–1996
PredecessorCentral Pacific Railroad
SuccessorsSanta Fe Pacific Corporation
Union Pacific Railroad
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge with some 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge branches

The original Southern Pacific began in 1865 as a land holding company. The last incarnation of the Southern Pacific, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, was founded in 1969 and assumed control of the Southern Pacific system. The Southern Pacific Transportation Company was acquired in 1996 by the Union Pacific Corporation and merged with their Union Pacific Railroad.

The Southern Pacific legacy founded hospitals in San Francisco, Tucson, and Houston. In the 1970s, it also founded a telecommunications network with a state-of-the-art microwave and fiber optic backbone. This telecommunications network became part of Sprint, a company whose name came from the acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony.[1]


The original Southern Pacific, Southern Pacific Railroad, was founded as a land holding company in 1865, later acquiring the Central Pacific Railroad in 1885 through leasing.[2][3] By 1900, the Southern Pacific system was a major railroad system incorporating many smaller companies, such as the Texas and New Orleans Railroad and Morgan's Louisiana and Texas Railroad. It extended from New Orleans through Texas to El Paso, across New Mexico and through Tucson, to Los Angeles, through most of California, including San Francisco and Sacramento. Central Pacific lines extended east across Nevada to Ogden, Utah, and reached north through Oregon to Portland. Other subsidiaries eventually included the St. Louis Southwestern Railway (Cotton Belt), El Paso and Southwestern Railroad, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad at 328 miles (528 km), the 1,331-mile (2,142 km) Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico, and a variety of 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge routes. The SP was the defendant in the landmark 1886 United States Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, which is often interpreted as having established certain corporate rights under the Constitution of the United States. The Southern Pacific Railroad was replaced by the Southern Pacific Company and assumed the railroad operations of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1929, Southern Pacific/Texas and New Orleans operated 13,848 route-miles not including Cotton Belt, whose purchase of the Golden State Route circa 1980 nearly doubled its size to 3,085 miles (4,965 km), bringing total SP/SSW mileage to around 13,508 miles (21,739 km).

An EMD FP7 leads a Pacific Rail Society Special through Floriston, California, in February 1971.

In 1969, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company was established and took over the Southern Pacific Company; this Southern Pacific railroad is the last incarnation and was at times called "Southern Pacific Industries", though "Southern Pacific Industries" is not the official name of the company. By the 1980s, route mileage had dropped to 10,423 miles (16,774 km), mainly due to the pruning of branch lines. On October 13, 1988, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company (including its subsidiary, St. Louis Southwestern Railway) was taken over by Rio Grande Industries, the parent company that controlled the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Rio Grande Industries did not merge the Southern Pacific Transportation Company and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad together, but transferred direct ownership of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, allowing the combined Rio Grande Industries railroad system to use the Southern Pacific name due to its brand recognition in the railroad industry and with customers of both the Southern Pacific Transportation Company and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. A long time Southern Pacific subsidiary, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway was also marketed under the Southern Pacific name. Along with the addition of the SPCSL Corporation route from Chicago to St. Louis, the total length of the D&RGW/SP/SSW system was 15,959 miles (25,684 km). Rio Grande Industries was later renamed Southern Pacific Rail Corporation.

By 1996, years of financial problems had dropped Southern Pacific's mileage to 13,715 miles (22,072 km). The financial problems caused the Southern Pacific Transportation Company to be taken over by the Union Pacific Corporation; the parent Southern Pacific Rail Corporation (formerly Rio Grande Industries), the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway and the SPCSL Corporation was also taken over by the Union Pacific Corporation. The Union Pacific Corporation merged the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway and the SPCSL Corporation into their Union Pacific Railroad but did not merge the Southern Pacific Transportation Company into the Union Pacific Railroad. Instead, the Union Pacific Corporation merged the Union Pacific Railroad into the Southern Pacific Transportation Company on February 1, 1998; the Southern Pacific Transportation Company became the surviving railroad and at the same time the Union Pacific Corporation renamed the Southern Pacific Transportation Company to Union Pacific Railroad. Thus, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company became, and is still operating as, the current incarnation of the Union Pacific Railroad.

G. W. & C. B. Colton, Map Showing the Line of the True Southern Pacific Railway, circa 1881

Locomotive paint and appearanceEdit

Like most railroads, the SP painted most of its steam locomotives black during the 20th century, but after 1945 SP painted the front of the locomotive's smokebox silver (almost white in appearance), with graphite colored sides, for visibility.

As locomotives are being restored, some Pacific type 4-6-2 locomotive boilers show signs of having been painted dark green. The soft cover book "Steam Glory 2" by Kalmbach Publications (2007) has an article "Southern Pacific's Painted Ladies" which shows color photos from the 1940s and 1950s revealing that a number of SP 0-6-0 yard engines, usually assigned to passenger terminals were painted in various combinations with red cab roof and cab doors, pale silver smokeboxes and smokebox fronts, dark green boilers, multi colored SP heralds on black cab, green cylinder covers and other details pointed out in color. Some other SP steam passenger locomotives may have been so painted, or at least had dark green boilers. The article indicates that these paint jobs lasted years and were not special paint for a single event.

Some passenger steam locomotives bore the Daylight scheme, named after the trains they hauled, most of which had the word Daylight in the train name. This scheme, carried on the tender, was a bright red on the top and bottom thirds, with the center third being a bright orange. The parts were separated with narrow silver-gray bands. Some of the color continued along the locomotive. The most famous "Daylight" locomotives were the GS-4 steam locomotives. The most famous Daylight-hauled trains were the Coast Daylight and the Sunset Limited.

Well known were the Southern Pacific's unique "cab-forward" steam locomotives.[4] These were 2-8-8-4, 2-8-8-2, and 4-6-6-2 (rebuilt from 2-6-6-2) locomotives set up to run in reverse, with the tender attached to the smokebox end of the locomotive.[4] Southern Pacific had a number of snow sheds in mountain terrain, and locomotive crews nearly asphyxiated from smoke in the cab.[4] After a number of engineers began running their engines in reverse (pushing the tender), Southern Pacific asked Baldwin Locomotive Works to produce cab-forward designs.[4] No other North American railroad ordered cab-forward locomotives.

Early diesel locomotives were also painted black. Yard switchers had diagonal orange stripes on the ends for visibility, earning this scheme the nickname of Tiger Stripe. Road freight units were black with a red band at the bottom of the car body and a silver and orange "winged" nose. "SOUTHERN PACIFIC" was in a large serif font in Lettering Gray (a very light gray). Railfans call this paint scheme Black Widow. An experimental scheme, all-over black with a variety of orange end and side sill treatments was called the Halloween scheme. Over 200 locomotives were so painted between March 1957 and mid-1958.

Most passenger units were painted originally in the Daylight scheme as described above, though some were painted red on top, silver below for the Golden State (operated with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad) between Chicago and Los Angeles. Silver cars with a narrow red band at the top were used for the Sunset Limited and other trains into Texas. In 1958 SP standardized on a paint scheme of dark grey ("Lark Dark Gray") with a red "winged" nose; railfans dubbed this scheme Bloody Nose. Lettering was again in Lettering Gray.

Anticipating the (ultimately failed) Southern Pacific Santa Fe merger in the mid-1980s, the "Kodachrome" paint scheme (named for the colors of the Kodak boxes that the film came in) was applied to many Southern Pacific locomotives. When the Southern Pacific Santa Fe merger was denied by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Kodachrome units were not immediately repainted, some even lasting up to the Southern Pacific's end as an independent company. The Interstate Commerce Commission's decision left Southern Pacific in a decrepit state, the locomotives were not repainted immediately, although some were repainted into the Bloody Nose scheme as they were overhauled after months to years of deferred maintenance.

Southern Pacific road switcher diesels often had elaborate lighting clusters front and rear, with a large red Mars Light for emergency signaling, and often two pairs of sealed-beam headlamps, one on top of the cab and the other below the Mars Light on the nose. Starting in the 1970s SP had cab air conditioning on all new locomotives and the unit is visible on the cab roof. Southern Pacific placed large snowplows on the pilots of their road switchers for the heavy snowfall on Donner Pass. Many Southern Pacific road switchers had a Nathan-AirChime model P3 or P5 air horn with chords distinct to Southern Pacific locomotives in the western states.

December 1954 (left): type designation and assignment of numbers: "A" indicates one driving axle, "B" two, "C" three, "1" idler; "DS" for Diesel Switcher, "DF" Freight, "DP" Passenger; (right): a list of numbering styles of the SP

The Southern Pacific and Cotton Belt were the only buyers of the EMD SD45T-2 "Tunnel Motor" locomotive. This locomotive was necessary because the standard configuration EMD SD45 could not get a sufficient amount of cool air into the diesel locomotive's radiator while working Southern Pacific's through snow sheds and tunnels in the Cascades and Donner Pass. These "Tunnel Motors" were EMD SD45-2's with radiator air intakes at the locomotive car body's walkway level, rather than EMD's typical setup with fans on the locomotive's long hood roof pulling air through radiators at the top/side of the locomotive's body. Inside tunnels and snow sheds hot exhaust from lead units would accumulate near the top of the tunnel or snow shed and be drawn into the radiators of trailing EMD (non-tunnel motor) locomotives, leading these locomotives to shut down as their diesel prime mover overheated. The Southern Pacific also operated EMD SD40T-2s, as did the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

Southern Pacific was known for L-shaped engineer's windshields. Introduced by EMD on SD45 demonstrator 4353, this design improves visibility by omitting the pillar which in conventional designs splits the engineer's windshield into two panes. Southern Pacific selected this option on new EMD locomotive orders starting in 1967 through the early 1980s, one of the few railroads to do so (Illinois Central was another buyer of this option), and ordered a similar windshield design from General Electric. After the "wide nose" design became popular, most of Southern Pacific's locomotives kept their L-shaped windshields before being rebuilt or sold to different private railroads after its merger.

Unlike other railroads whose locomotive number boards bore the locomotive number, SP used them for the train number until 1967. (SP's San Francisco-San Jose commute trains continued displaying train numbers for the convenience of passengers.) The other railroad that used locomotive number boards for train numbers into the 1960s was SP's transcontinental partner, Union Pacific.

On either side of the boiler near the smoke stack or further back, indicators are displayed. These are train numbers (figure 1). All trains going toward San Francisco are called 'westward' and are odd-numbered such as 1, 3, and so on. A train going away from SF are called 'eastward' and are even-numbered. The example in figure 1 shows 99 as the train number which is the number of the streamlined Daylight, northbound.

In order to carry all the people wishing to ride on the same train, sometimes it was necessary to operate the train in two or more separate parts, which are called 'sections.' When a train is operated in sections, the first section carries a '1' preceding the train number (figure 2). The second section carries a '2', etc., and the last section carries the train number only. Special trains or 'extras' carry the locomotive number preceded by an 'X' (figure 3).[5]

A former Southern Pacific caboose on static display in Dunsmuir, California

In 2006, the Union Pacific Railroad unveiled UP 1996, the sixth and final of its Heritage Series EMD SD70ACe locomotives. Its paint scheme appears to be based on the Daylight and Black Widow schemes. Today there are still locomotives in SP paint, including seven AC4400CWs with UP patches as of October 2021. The last SP unpatched unit was painted around 2016, ending the 151-year-long tenure of SP locomotives on Class I railroads.

Passenger train serviceEdit

Until May 1, 1971 (when Amtrak took over long-distance passenger operations in the United States), the Southern Pacific at various times operated the following named passenger trains. Trains with names in italicized bold text still operate under Amtrak:

Locomotives used for passenger serviceEdit

Steam locomotivesEdit

Diesel locomotivesEdit

Notable accidentsEdit

  • John Sontag, a young Southern Pacific employee, was injured c. 1888 while coupling cars in the railroad yard in Fresno. He accused the company of not providing him with medical care while he was recuperating from his on-the-job injury and then not rehiring him when he had healed. He soon turned to a life of crime (mostly train robberies) and died of gunshot wounds and tetanus in the Fresno jail in 1893 aged 32 years.[8]
Sontag's partner in crime, Chris Evans also hated the Southern Pacific, which Evans accused of forcing farmers to sell their lands at reduced rates to the company.[8]
  • On 28 March 1907, the Southern Pacific Sunset Express, descending the grade out of the San Timoteo Canyon, entered the Colton rail yard traveling about 60 miles per hour (97 km/h), hit an open switch and careened off the track, resulting in 24 fatalities. Accounts said 9 of the train's 14 cars disintegrated as they piled on top of one another, leaving the dead and injured in "a heap of kindling and crumpled metal". Of the dead, 18 were Italian immigrants traveling to jobs in San Francisco from Genoa, Italy.[9]
  • The Coast Line Limited was heading for Los Angeles, California, on 22 May 1907, when it was derailed just west of Glendale, California. Passenger cars reportedly tumbled down the embankment. At least 2 people were killed and others injured. "The horrible deed was planned with devilish accurateness" the Pasadena Star News reported at the time. It said spikes were removed from the track and a hook placed under the end of the rail. The Star's coverage was extensive and its editorial blasted the criminal elements behind the wreck:

    The man or men who committed this horrible deed near Glendale may not be anarchists, technically speaking. But if they are sane men, moved by motive, they are such stuff as anarchists are made of. If the typical anarchist conceived that a railroad corporation should be terrorized, he would not scruple to wreck a passenger train and send scores and hundreds to instant death.[10]

  • In the early hours of 1 June 1907, an attempt to derail a Southern Pacific train near Santa Clara, California, was foiled when a pile of railway ties was discovered on the tracks. A work train crew found that someone had driven a steel plate into a switch near Burbank, California, intending to derail the Santa Barbara local.[citation needed]
  • On 12 August 1939, the westbound City of San Francisco derailed from a bridge in Palisade Canyon, between Battle Mountain and Carlin in the Nevada desert. Among the passengers and crew members 24 people were killed and many more injured, and 5 cars were destroyed. An act of sabotage was determined to be the most likely cause; however, no suspect(s) was(were) ever identified.[citation needed]
  • On New Year's Eve 1944 a rear-end collision west of Ogden in thick fog killed 48 people.[11]
  • On 17 January 1947, the Southern Pacific Nightflier wrecked 12 miles (19 km) outside of Bakersfield; 7 people were killed and over 50 injured. Four coaches and a tourist sleeper were overturned, landing far off the tracks; the other seven cars remained upright. The locomotive stayed on the tracks and its crew was uninjured. A 29-year-old passenger, Robert Crowley from Miami, Florida, had been conversing with a man across the aisle who was killed instantly. Crowley, who was a combat war veteran, said “I never saw such a mess” even on a battlefield.[12]
  • On 8 May 1948, in Monterey, California, a Southern Pacific passenger train, the Del Monte Express struck a car driven by influential marine biologist Ed Ricketts at the now defunct railroad crossing at Drake Avenue. Ricketts subsequently succumbed to his injuries three days later in the hospital.[13]
  • On 17 September 1963, a Southern Pacific freight train crashed into an illegally converted bus at a grade crossing in Chualar, California, killing 32 bracero workers. It would later be a factor in the decision by Congress in 1964 to terminate the bracero program, despite its strong support among farmers. It also helped spur the Chicano civil rights movement.[14][15] As of 2014, it was the deadliest automobile accident in United States history, according to the National Safety Council[14][16]
  • On 28 April 1973, a Southern Pacific freight train carrying munitions exploded in Roseville Yard injuring 52 people, the cause of this was due to a hot box on a railcar setting the floor ablaze and causing the disaster to occur.[17]
  • On 12 May 1989, a Southern Pacific train carrying fertilizer derailed in San Bernardino, California. The train failed to slow while descending a nearby slope, and sped up to about 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) before derailing, causing the San Bernardino train disaster. The crash destroyed 7 homes along Duffy Street and killed 2 train workers and 2 residents. Thirteen days later on 25 May 1989, an underground pipeline running along the right-of-way ruptured and caught fire due to damage done to the pipeline during clean-up from the derailment or from the derailment itself, destroying 11 more homes and killing 2 more people.[18]
Site of the 1991 spill. The guardrail on the left was constructed after the spill.
  • On the night of 14 July 1991, a Southern Pacific train derailed into the upper Sacramento River at a sharp bend of track called “the Cantara Loop”, upstream from Dunsmuir, California, in Siskiyou County. Several cars made contact with the water, including a tank car. Early in the morning of 15 July, it became apparent that the tank car had ruptured and spilled its entire contents into the river – approximately 19,000 US gallons (72 m3) of metam sodium, a soil fumigant. Ultimately, over a million fish, and tens of thousands of amphibians and crayfish were killed. Millions of aquatic invertebrates, including insects and mollusks, which form the basis of the river's ecosystem, were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of willows, alders, and cottonwoods eventually died; many more were severely injured.[19]
The chemical plume left a 41 miles (66 km) wake of destruction from the spill site to the entry point of the river into Shasta Lake.[20] The accident still ranks as the largest hazardous chemical spill in California history.[19] At the time of the incident, metam sodium was not classified as a hazardous material.

Preserved locomotivesEdit

There are many Southern Pacific locomotives still in revenue service with railroads such as the Union Pacific Railroad, and many older and special locomotives have been donated to parks and museums, or continue operating on scenic or tourist railroads. Most of the engines now in use with Union Pacific have been "patched", where the SP logo on the front is replaced by a Union Pacific shield, and new numbers are applied over the old numbers with a Union Pacific sticker, however some engines remain in Southern Pacific "bloody nose" paint. Over the past couple years, most of the patched units were repainted into the full Union Pacific scheme and as of January 2019, less than ten units remain in their old paint. Among the more notable equipment is:

SP 1518 at IRM, July 2005

For a complete list, see: List of preserved Southern Pacific Railroad rolling stock.

Company officersEdit


Chairmen of Executive CommitteeEdit

Chairmen of Board of DirectorsEdit

Notable employeesEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ operated jointly with the Rock Island Railroad (1926–1938)[6]
  2. ^ operated jointly with the Rock Island Railroad
  3. ^ operates today as part of the Coast Starlight train
  4. ^ operated jointly with the Chicago and North Western Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad; SP portion operates today as part of Amtrak's California Zephyr
  5. ^ operates today as part of the Coast Starlight train
  6. ^ proposed, was to have been operated jointly with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad
  7. ^ operated jointly with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad
  8. ^ operated jointly with the Rock Island Railroad 1946–1967)[6]
  9. ^ operated until 1985, now Caltrain
  10. ^ operated jointly with the Chicago and North Western Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad
  11. ^ operated from 1927 till 1949 as an international train under the subsidiary Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico between Tucson and Guadalajara, featuring through sleepers from Los Angeles to Mexico City
  12. ^ operated from 1927 till 1951 as an international train under the subsidiary Southern Pacific Railroad of Mexico between Tucson and Guadalajara
  13. ^ see SP 6051
  14. ^ SSW only
  15. ^ see SP 5623
  16. ^ see SP 4450
  17. ^ leased from Amtrak


  1. ^ Block, Melissa; Neff, Brijet (2012-10-15). "Sprint Born From Railroad, Telephone Businesses". NPR. NPR. Archived from the original on 2012-10-24. Retrieved 2013-01-14. It all began in Kansas in the late 19th century and came to include a long-distance system created by the Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications, or SPRINT.
  2. ^ Yenne (1996), p. 29.
  3. ^ Yenne (1996), p. 51.
  4. ^ a b c d Yenne (1996), p. 96.
  5. ^ Rail Lore, Southern Pacific, 1955
  6. ^ a b "Imperial and Apache consists". Rock Island Technical Society. Retrieved December 12, 2013.
  7. ^ a b Schwantes, Carlos A. (1993). Railroad Signatures across the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA. ISBN 0-295-97210-6. OCLC 27266208.
  8. ^ a b "Sontag and Evans". Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  9. ^ "[no title cited]". San Bernardino Sun. 29 March 1907.
  10. ^ "Diabolism Incarnate". Editorial. Pasadena Star News. May 1907.
  11. ^ Arave, Lynn (26 Dec 2014). "Remembering Utah's Worst Train Wreck". Standard-Examiner. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  12. ^ "7 Dead in "Owl" Wreck". The Bakersfield Californian. 17 January 1947. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  13. ^ "Doc Ricketts Memorial". Atlas Obscura. n.d. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  14. ^ a b Flores, Lori A. (Summer 2013). "A Town Full of Dead Mexicans: The Salinas Valley Bracero Tragedy of 1963, the End of the Bracero Program, and the Evolution of California's Chicano Movement". The Western Historical Quarterly. 44 (2): 124–143. doi:10.2307/westhistquar.44.2.0124.
  15. ^ Martin, Philip L. (2003). Promise Unfulfilled: Unions, Immigration, and the Farm Workers. ILR Press. p. 50. ISBN 0801488753.
  16. ^ "Second survivor of 1963 Chualar bus crash emerges". Monterey Herald. March 1, 2014. Archived from the original on 2014-10-06. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  17. ^ Berthelsen, John (29 April 1973). "Freight train blasts shock area". Sacramento Bee. Retrieved 7 June 2021.
  18. ^ Malnic, Eric; Warren, Jennifer (13 May 1989). "3 Die as Runaway Train Tumbles Onto Homes". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  19. ^ a b "20th anniversary of largest chemical spill in California history". California Department of Toxic Substance Control. 2007.
  20. ^ Final Report on the Recovery of the Upper Sacramento River. Cantara Trustee Council. 2007.
  21. ^ "Locomotives". Austin Steam Train Association. Retrieved 2021-09-13.
  22. ^ "History of Southern Pacific 982 Steam Locomotive". Retrieved 2021-04-28.
  23. ^ "Orange Empire Railway Museum – Bringing Southern California's Railway History to Life".
  24. ^ "W. Burch Lee Funeral Here in Afternoon: Former Clerk of Federal Court Expires After Week of Illness". The Shreveport Times through Retrieved March 22, 2015.

External linksEdit