Railroads & Locomotives Passenger Service The Southern Pacific Daylight passenger trains

The Southern Pacific Daylight passenger trains

By Lucas Iverson | February 11, 2024

| Last updated on March 1, 2024

Learn about these distinctive streamliners of the western United States

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When first introduced, the Southern Pacific Daylight passenger trains shined through the dark days of the Great Depression. From the Pacific coast of California to the Heartland of Texas, learn which services flashed in the distinctive red and orange color scheme.


Coast Daylight

Orange and red streamlined steam locomotive on passenger train
Train 99, the Coast Daylight, sails through Santa Barbara, Calif., in the early 1950s. Matching the colors of the train is GS-4-class 4-8-4 No. 4452, one of 28 built for Southern Pacific by Lima in 1941 and 1942. Linn Westcott photo

It’s easy to forget that the name “Daylight” already graced the SP long before streamlining began. The heavyweight Daylight Limited (Later renamed Daylight) was inaugurated on April 28, 1922, for a premier accommodation along the Coast Line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Assuming the presidency of the railroad in 1933, Angus McDonald commissioned new, streamlined passenger trains, each consisting of 12 cars from the Pullman Company while powered by the GS-type 4-8-4 steam locomotives of the Lima Locomotive Works. Replacing the heavyweight predecessor on March 21, 1937, the rejuvenated Daylight became an immediate success.


Later renamed Coast Daylight, “The Most Beautiful Train in the World” was the luxury flagship for the Southern Pacific, usually receiving the latest equipment (Except the 1954-built dome-lounges initially ran on the San Joaquin and Shasta Daylights before seeing service on the Coast Daylight later). The service at its peak expanded over the years with two trains a day as a Morning and Noon Daylight, a connection out of San Jose to Oakland, Cali., and overnight runs in the form of the Starlight and Lark – an all-coach train and Pullman sleeper train, respectively. As the flagship, it was fitting for the Coast Daylight to stick it to the end of passenger service along the Southern Pacific in 1971.


San Joaquin/Sacramento Daylight

Steam locomotive with passenger train on broad curve
A Daylight 4-8-4 and a 4-8-2 doublehead the Los Angeles-bound San Joaquin Daylight upgrade at Allard, Calif., a dozen miles north of famous Tehachapi Loop, in May 1953. W. E. Malloy Jr. photo

Re-equipping the Morning and Noon Daylights in the early 1940s resulted in expanding the branding beyond the Coast Line. Looking to tap into California’s Central Valley market with a better presence, Southern Pacific eyed its heavyweight San Joaquin– beginning operations in 1927 originally as the San Joaquin Flyer. The San Joaquin Daylight burst onto the scene on July 4, 1941, before being fully streamlined a year later.


Between Oakland and Los Angeles, the train operated by way of Fresno and Bakersfield. The Tehachapi Pass was the scenic highlight along the way, though it became a crutch to the schedule with slower speeds through the pass. This didn’t stop the 1946 introduction of the Sacramento Daylight, serving as a section to the San Joaquin Daylight out of Lathrop and connecting to the state capital. Much like its coastal brethren, the San Joaquin/Sacramento Daylight became one of the last daily scheduled trains for the SP until the very end of passenger service on the railroad.


Shasta Daylight

Looking up at orange and red diesel locomotives on curved steel trestle
The Oakland-bound Shasta Daylight rumbles over the big, curved trestle at Redding, Calif., in mid-1950. The Shasta was diesel-powered from its July 1949 launch. James L. Martin photo

The end of World War II began the boom of the postwar streamliners in North America. Southern Pacific was no exception as it too beefed up its long-distance services on the Four Scenic Routes into California. Only the Shasta Route of the Pacific Northwest hosted a Daylight train, replacing previous Oakland-Portland, Ore. daytime runs dating as far back as 1887. Despite a multi-year delay due to limited materials, the all-diesel Shasta Daylight was inaugurated on July 10, 1949, becoming the last Daylight appointed by the railroad.


Though a longer daytime trip of over 15 hours, the Shasta Daylight shaved off three hours from the timetable of its predecessors. The consist, apart from reused parlor/observation cars of previous Daylights, was an all-new and specific design from Pullman-Standard. The “Skyline” picture windows for the cars were the highlight as being 30 percent larger for better views of the traversed Cascade Range. Like the postwar era, the Shasta Daylight’s lifespan was brief. The train was reduced to trI-weekly in 1959 and was ultimately discontinued on September 6, 1966.


Sunbeam and Hustler

Vintage train pulling line of cars
Pacific 650 leads an all-streamlined Sunbeam consist out of Dallas Union Station at the start of the train’s 4-hour 25-minute dash to Houston. Departing their terminals in late afternoon, the Sunbeams make only two conditional stops on their 264-mile trips. H. A. DeGolyer

These short streamliners in Texas were honorary “Mini Daylights.” And with a valid reason as the Southern Pacific needed an answer to the Sam Houston Zephyr, introduced in 1936 by the Burlington-Rock Island Railroad as competition for the Dallas-Houston corridor. Early success of the Coast Daylight prompted the go ahead to relaunch the Sunbeam in the red-and-orange streamlining on September 19, 1937. The heavyweight Hustler was given the same treatment a year later.


The SunbeamHustler operated two daily roundtrips. Morning departures from each terminal ran as the Hustler while making multiple local stops. The afternoon return trips would then fly under the Sunbeam name with only two express stops in between. Though these twins never had the advantage of leaving the Sam Houston Zephyr in the dust as the Burlington-Rock Island line was shorter, the replicated service from the premier Daylight on a condensed scale gave the stainless-steel competitor a run for its money. Patronage drop-off by the mid 1950s resulted in the Hustler and Sunbeam to be one of the first casualties in passenger discontinuation on the SP – 1954 and 1955, respectively.


Today’s service and preservation

On May 1, 1971, Amtrak took over most of the nation’s intercity passenger services, including what was left operating on the Southern Pacific. Routes of the former Coast, San Joaquin/Sacramento and Shasta Daylights continue to host Amtrak’s long-distance Coast Starlight and the state-supported regional trains. Caltrain’s commuter system remains as the only passenger service along the San Francisco-San Jose section of the Coast Line.


The distinctive flashes of red and orange may no longer be regular occurrences along the former Southern Pacific network, yet multiple preservation efforts across the western U.S. keeps the history and legacy of the Daylight passenger trains sustained for future generations. Notable centerpieces are GS-4 steam locomotive No. 4449 and EMD E9 diesel No. 6051, both in operating condition.

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