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Railfan Trips Bring Big Rewards

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Railfan Trips Bring Big Rewards

Pacific Railroad Society 75th Anniversary Trip

Loving long-distance rail travel, I grabbed a chance to join the Pacific Railroad Society 75th anniversary trip on a major U.S. mainline route in Southern California that has seen just one passenger train since opening in 1967.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 3, 2011

On April 2, our special train headed

  • East out of Los Angeles,
  • North through Cajon Pass along old Route 66,
  • West along the north face of the San Gabriel Mountains in the Mojave Desert,
  • North through the Mojave Desert, known as the high desert, and then
  • West through the Tehachapi Loop area into Bakersfield.

The scenery was spectacular even though we never ventured more than 110 air miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 3, 2011

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2-3, 2011

We traveled through four districts with distinctly different railroad histories and landscapes. During 1996, these Southern Pacific lines became part of an expanded Union Pacific system.

LA Union Station to Colton ~ 56 miles

This line, part of Southern Pacific’s Sunset Route from Louisiana and Texas, was the first railroad to reach Southern California, but now sees Amtrak passenger service just three times weekly in each direction.

In the first photo on this page, our Pacific Railroad Society train passes the Amtrak thrice weekly train, the Sunset Limited, near Los Angeles.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 3, 2011

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 3, 2011

Above: Passing San Gabriel Mission, the first Spanish church near Los Angeles, as well as the main building of the LAC+USC Medical Center, much more well known as “General Hospital” on television. The office of the Los Angeles County Coroner sits across from the hospital. I do not consider that a ringing endorsement. :-)

Just as Hollywood uses LA Union Station as its prototype, LAC+USC functions in countless films and television shows. As vain as any Hollywood star, the hospital considers its “front,” the one you see in film and television most often, out of the photo to the right, as its "best side.”

Interestingly, the Spanish never built a mission closer to downtown Los Angeles, unlike other early California cities. Perhaps even back then, church leaders realized they faced a hopeless level of sin!

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011

Above: Crossing the Los Angeles River near where trains enter Los Angeles Union Station.

You can almost see Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong on a motorcycle desperately trying to outdistance “T-1000” Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which was filmed in a concrete flood control channel flowing into this normally mostly dry river. T-1000 manifested under the Sixth Street Bridge south of Union Station.

Many other productions have also shot along this river.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011

Above: We stop at Amtrak’s Ontario, California, station. You will find similar open-air stations without ticket offices elsewhere, for example at Winter Springs near Orlando.

As late as the 1960’s, orange groves and vineyards lined nearly half the distance between Union Station and Colton.

Colton to Palmdale ~ 78 miles

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Mormon Rock in Cajon Pass

Completed in 1967, this line was the last major truly mainline railroad in the United States built not just to serve one industry.

Opening of the Colton to Palmdale route let Southern Pacific bypass severe Los Angeles-area congestion. It also let “the Espee” sell now unneeded LA railroad classification yard land at lucrative prices.

In other words, building the new line permitted Southern Pacific to "cash out" of until then tied up equity in a classic Southern California real estate swap, while gaining more efficiency.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Because Santa Fe refused to share its line, Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) built an often-adjacent track on the portion of its Colton to Palmdale route that follows Cajon Pass.

Santa Fe had long shared its line through Cajon Pass with the original Union Pacific, but Santa Fe considered Southern Pacific much more of a direct competitor throughout its operating area.

Three very busy railway routes come together in Cajon Pass, which makes it one of the best places in the U.S. to observe a variety of rail traffic.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 3, 2011

Ours was just the second passenger train to transit the very scenic Colton to Palmdale route since it opened.

Due to the recession, the Union Pacific apparently felt that our train would not unduly interfere with its freight traffic.

Pacific Railroad Society excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Palmdale to Lancaster ~ 8 miles

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

This segment now has commuter service continuing to Los Angeles via a more direct route than ours. The affordability of family homes in this area compared to Los Angeles prompts many residents to commute all the way into the city. Having a rail transit option helps dampen a grueling day.

Lancaster to Bakersfield ~ 93 miles

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

After Amtrak took over nearly all long-distance U.S. passenger service in 1971, this line has not seen regular passenger trains.

More about this famous railway route below.

Long-distance trains become social events

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Long-distance train travelers tend to be a friendly lot, and our group was no exception.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

J'ai bien aimé parler avec ces gens de Montréal.

Jokingly, this friendly Canadian couple had me promise to caption their photo in French. The husband retired from the Canadian National Railway 18 months ago.

I asked the person wearing a Canadian Pacific hat next to the window on the far right how well he was getting along with the Canadian National couple. “Oh, just fine. Our two railways are a duopoly!”

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Good-naturedly, this former Santa Fe employee dispensed simply hilarious insults to present and former employees of competing railways on board.

Railroaders from across North America packed our train, including Amtrak employees on their days off. Many were sharing the exhilaration that comes from their work with their spouses and children.

These people truly love what they do and that is something precious.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Although there were a lot of railoaders on board, the majority of the 450 passengers had no rail connection, but simply wanted to experience this train and its wonderful scenery.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011

Hundreds of people lined the tracks to greet us. That our special train would operate had been featured in local media.

Special cars maximize enjoyment

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Kids of all ages flocked to a specially converted former Canadian Pacific baggage car.

Baggage car, Pacific Railroad Society excursion, April 2-3, 2011

Baggage car, Pacific Railroad Society excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Four open doors without glass allowed clear photos with no glare in the fresh air. Train speed was posted and a computer map showed exactly where we were.

Dome car, Pacific Railroad Society excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Nevertheless, the main dome provided the most popular venue. It was packed!

Unlike Amtrak’s Superliner high-level sightseeing cars, this vintage dome allowed views both to the front and back. Society volunteers monitored usage, but usually passengers did not need to be reminded to allow others have their turn by the big windows.

Tehachapi Loop

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

I loved Cajon Pass and the views of Mt. Baldy in the San Gabriel range from the Mojave Desert most of all, but most travelers favored the Tehachapi route into Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Certainly, the rugged and steep Tehachapi barrier presented Southern Pacific with some of its most formidable engineering challenges.

On one side, you have the Mojave Desert at high elevation and on the other the San Joaquin Valley at low elevation, with mountains in between.

Heavy trains cannot climb steep grades and cannot safely descend them.

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011

With its famous “Tehachapi Loop,” the Southern Pacific gained elevation in an especially steep area by looping sharply over itself using a tunnel. In other words, the rear of a longer train travels directly below its front or vice versa.

In nearby areas, the railroad gained grade by using tight turns into canyons and ravines, in much the same pattern as a river meandering, instead of attempting to go straight up.

Bakersfield

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

Bakersfield Station, Pacific Railroad Society excursion, April 2-3, 2011.

In time to relax before the Pacific Railroad Society 75th anniversary bash that evening, we pulled into Bakersfield Station.

Amtrak California service to the Bay Area and Sacramento has become enormously popular hence the modern station. Connecting Amtrak bus services fan out throughout Southern California.

How can you participate?

(Updated July, 2013)

Groups operate trips around the world, but as far as I know, no central directory exists. For profit rail trips are widely advertised, but those operated by nonprofit organizations like the Pacific Railroad Society are harder to find.

A few U.S. sources are:

Railserve.com features an extensive excursion and railroad events calendar.

Trainorders.com features rail excursion announcements. Paid members can have these emailed to them.

Importantly, Trainorders also lets you know when Amtrak or Via Rail Canada have to run their trains on alternative routes due to track work, mudslides, or other reasons. Though these are often decided at the last minute, if you are flexible, you have a chance to experience areas not usually seen from passenger trains. 

Nonprofit trips such as the Pacific Railroad Society one are sometimes mentioned in the classified section of the print version of Trains Magazine.

Various chapters of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) also sponsor trips.

During 2011, the Central Coast Railway Club organized a 3-day “Northern California Explorer" trip through the northern Sierra range into Oregon that was incredibly scenic. That same year I rode "The Feather River Express" by Trains and Travel International through part of the same area, which also gave an outstanding experience.

During May, 2012, I joined the Central Coast Railway Club and Trains and Travel International on the Grand Canyon to Los Angeles portion of their "Grand Canyon Limited," a steam pulled excursion in honor of the Arizona Centennial. This traveled in part over a line not used by passenger trains, even mixed passenger and freight ones,  since 1955, according to one source. This trip was simply outstanding.

Unfortunately due to charges and safety and other regulations of host freight railroads, even nonprofit trips may not come cheaply.

For example, there are big costs involved in upgrading older equipment such as the former Canadian Pacific baggage car used on our Pacific Railroad Society trip to current safety and compatible energy standards.

I do it again

Pacific Railroad Society excursion, April 2-3, 2011

Pacific Railroad Society Union Pacific excursion April 2 - 3, 2011.

Most of us chose to return to Los Angeles via the same route the next day. That trip provided the same enjoyment.

Take a railfan trip. You will have great fun!

Some of the other rail travel articles by Don Nadeau:

In addition, enjoy "Pikes Peak Cog Railway: Rocky Mountain High" by Billie Frank.

Comments

Jim Lind
September 5, 2011

Thanks Donald. I take it the route missed your old homestead eh. It looked like it was great fun all around.

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Don Nadeau
September 5, 2011

Thanks Jim.

Our route actually passed close to three former homes.

Great to see that so much of Southern California remains not paved over.

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Harrison D.
September 5, 2011

Nice write up of your trip. I’ve taken trains from LA to Santa Barbara frequently before and really enjoyed it. It’s a nice way to save money on gas and forces me to be car-free for the duration of my vacation. In a place like Santa Barbara it’s so easy to walk around to all the attractions, especially if you are staying downtown.

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santafetraveler
February 12, 2012

Those look like they were great trips.
I love seeing the country by rail. We’d love to do the California coastal route and ride through the Canadian Rockies. We once stayed in an inn adjacent to the tracks in Lake Louise and longed to get on one of the passing trains.

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Don Nadeau
February 17, 2012

Thank you, Harrison.

I also love Santa Barbara and going there by Amtrak along the coast just makes it better.

Thank you, Billie.

Be sure to go northbound on the Coast Starlight, because you won’t miss the best coastal scenery if the train is a bit late, unlike the southbound trip. And if traveling north of the Bay Area, you will also wake up near Mount Shasta and get to see that wonderful sight, unlike on the southbound trip.

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