Early Train Trips in the USA
March-May, 1971

Don Winter

1966-70, Cincinnati

Although there were still quite a few passenger trains serving Cincinnati when I moved there, the only passenger trains I actually observed in the Cincinnati were the morning Cincinnati to Chicago trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad (an E-8 plus a couple of lightweight cars that just happened to be passing through Reading, OH, at the time I was heading for work during the five weeks in 1966 that I lived in a motel at the corner of Reading and Galbraith and drove from the motel to Avco in Evendale along Reading Road). At no time during this period did I actually ride on a train.

In June, 1969, on our honeymoon, we twice saw Northern Pacific's eastbound North Coast Limited running alongside the Yellowstone River east of Billings, MT. What a magnificent sight that was, with matching cars in two-tone green headed by a matching set of EMD locomotives (where they E-units or F-units)?. We saw the same train at the same spot in June 1970, while on our way from Cincinnati to Los Angeles via Glacier National Park and the Canadian Rockies.

1971 First excursions in Southern California

East Los Angeles to Kelso on Union Pacific, March, 1971

One of the incidental benefits of where I work, and we live, in Southern California is proximity to Ed and Irene Hakkinen’s “Whistle Stop” model railroading store on Colorado Boulevard (Route 66) in Pasadena, adjacent to the Santa Fe transcontinental passenger main line. Early in 1971, I spy a flyer for a train excursion to take place in a couple of months, take a copy home, and sign up for the trip. The Southern California Branch of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society is running one last excursion prior to the start of Amtrak, over the Union Pacific Railroad from East Los Angeles to Kelso, in the Mojave Desert at the foot of Cima Hill.

The Union Pacific East Los Angeles station is on Atlantic Avenue, just east of the UP’s Los Angeles area freight yard. The depot is a pleasant mission-style building, adjacent to the single platform alongside the single-track UP line between Los Angeles and Riverside Junction. Early on the appointed Saturday, we arise at the crack of dawn and drive down from Sierra Madre to the station. (In these days prior to full freeway interconnection, about two-thirds of this trip is on surface streets, only one-third on the San Bernardino freeway. The Foothill, San Gabriel River, and part of the Pomona freeways are not yet completed.) A long train of UP passenger cars is already in the station, so we find the car listed on our tickets, board and find our assigned seats.

The train comprises UP streamlined passenger cars, some of them with vista domes, with the addition of one or two cars from Pacific Railroad Society, also painted in the UP streamliner scheme of Yellow and Harbor Mist Gray, including their Starlight Café, headed by a set of UP’s EMD E-9 diesel locomotives, both A and B units. Unless one happens to notice the PRS car(s), it looks just like a normal UP streamliner in daily passenger service over this line (until the end of April). The UP Los Angeles line heads east from East LA, through Montebello, crosses the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River, then runs along the north side of the Hacienda Hills and up the Walnut Valley through City of Industry. In Pomona, the UP line is just a few yards from Southern Pacific’s Sunset Route through that same city, with stations opposite one another. We stop here to take on more excursionists. Then the line continues through Ontario, past the airport there, then heads east southeast to Mira Loma, where it turns northeast towards Riverside.

Before reaching the latter, however, the train draws to a halt just after crossing the lovely concrete arch bridge over the Santa Ana River. It transpires that we’re going to do something called a ‘photo runby’. Anyone wanting to take pictures of the train climbs down (using stepboxes, a special kind of footstool) onto the ballast, and forms a photo-line along the bluffs overlooking the river (with a sun-side aspect on the bridge and thus the train). The train then backs up until its out of sight and comes forward at full speed looking for all the world like a normal service train. Photographs of the train as it crosses the scenic bridge are taken. Then the train returns to where it let us off, and we reboard.

Heading east again, the train reaches Riverside where it passes through the UP Riverside station (and adjacent to the Santa Fe’s station on its own line through the town), then joins the Santa Fe at Riverside Junction. From here over Cajon Pass and through Barstow to Daggett, the UP has trackage rights over the Santa Fe line. The line heads north, crosses the SP Sunset Route at a flat crossing in Colton, then makes a bug right turn into San Bernardino. The latter city is 800 ft. higher than downtown Los Angeles.

North of San Bernardino, the line makes a big left turn and traverses Cajon Pass, with a summit 2400 ft. higher than San Bernardino, then drops gently to Victorville and Barstow. On the West slope of Cajon Pass, the line crosses the San Andreas Fault at ‘Blue Cut’. From San Bernardino to ‘Frost’, the traditional ‘current of traffic’ directions are reversed, in favor of left-hand running, to take advantage of favorable grades. The steepest grade on the former South Track (now simply Track 2) is 3%, while that on the former North Track (Track 1) is only 2.2%. Both tracks are now signaled for bi-directional running. The ex-Santa Fe mainline is at least double track all the way from Los Angeles to near Albuquerque, where the passenger main separates from the two-main-track freight main.

On the way up Cajon Pass, before we ever reach Blue Cut, we can see from the dome we’re currently sitting in (these seats are not assigned to anyone) that we’re slowly catching up to the caboose of the Santa Fe freight in front. Used to the Absolute Block requirements of lines carrying passenger trains in England, I’m concerned about this, but we’re assured that this is perfectly OK, since we’re going uphill and could thus easily stop short of the train in front, if need be. We are running this way under the instructions of a Dispatcher who controls traffic on this line. The line will acquire Centralized Traffic Control in 1972, in conjunction with some engineering works that will also change the appearance of the line in the area around the summit, up ahead.

As we approach the summit, the line turns through a sharp curve in a cut, just before it reaches the wye on witch helpers used to turn to return downhill and then the summit office at which the Dispatchers’ train orders have been handed to train crews since the line opened, more than eighty years previously. Right on this sharp curve, the westbound UP streamliner City of Los Angeles appears on the other track and passes us on its last few dozen miles into Los Angeles.

Barstow has a freight yard, where trains to/from both Los Angeles and the San Francisco area are, in many cases, re-sorted from/to trains connecting to points East of Belen (near Albuquerque), such as Fort Worth, Argentine Yard west of Kansas City, Corwith Yard in Chicago, or direct connections with Eastern railroads in Illinois. At Daggett, the UP line to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City diverges to the north. Our train takes this line, and soon passes through Yermo, where the UP has a freight yard and locomotive servicing point.

North of Daggett, the line turns north again, then curves through the spectacular Afton Canyon, which it shares with the Mojave River. In Afton Canyon, we do another photo runby. The train looks spectacular running along the line beside the river at the foot of multi-colored cliffs. Exiting Afton Canyon, the line turns east across a sandy plain that serves as the sink for the Mojave River, where once there was a railroad crossing with the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad that had served the Death Valley mining boom. Here the train stops again, and passengers climb down to look for artifacts left over from the days when the old railroad ran here. There are no longer any structures here, but there are many spikes and tie plates remaining laying in the desert. We collect a few and reboard the train, which restarts and soon reaches Kelso. Kelso is in the middle of the Mojave Desert and exists only because of the railroad. It is at the foot of the climb up Cima Hill, which was a standard helper district in steam days. The one time passenger depot is still in use by the railroad, and still has food service facilities that are open to the public, not just railroaders. Since we’ve already had the provided lunch, we don’t partake of their offerings.

While we’re looking around, the locomotives run around the train, which is then serviced (such as adding water to the tanks in the passenger cars) and made ready for the return trip. The return route is exactly the same as the outward trip. After all excursionists reboard, the train heads off west, across the flat area where we had all explored a few hours previously. Just before reaching the east end of Afton Canyon, the train stops for another photo runby. Again, we all climb off and take pictures of the train passing us at near track speed. Then we reboard and continue through the canyon, then through Yermo, Daggett, and Barstow. Between Barstow and Victorville, Chris and I are called to take our turn at eating dinner in Starlight Café.

We again spend the trip across Cajon Summit and down the west side of the pass in one of the domes. We talk with some of the local railfans of the younger generation (as we are ourselves), and learn a lot about the railroads in the area. One particularly helpful person is a teenager named Brad Black. Near Keenebrook, as darkness falls, we pass the eastbound City of Los Angeles streamliner, counterpart of the one we had passed at Summit in late morning. In the darkness, we again pass through San Bernardino. Riverside, and Pomona, before reaching East Los Angeles where our car awaits.

Los Angeles to Bakersfield on Southern Pacific, 17 April, 1971

While on the March trip, we acquire flyers for two upcoming Pacific Railroad Society excursions, in April and May. We decide to go on both of them. The first is one of a pair of excursions the same weekend that continues a series of excursions that PRS has run the last several years, running through Soledad Canyon, the Antelope Valley and over Tehachapi Pass to Bakersfield to view the spring wildflowers along the way. These excursions take place on a weekend in mid-April; we choose to ride on Saturday, April 17th. Unlike the March R&LHS excursion, these trains start from Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, and are operated by Southern Pacific.

The train will run as a second section of the San Joaquin Daylight, and like that train will make what is for us a very early morning departure. In fact, we have to leave home even earlier than might otherwise have been the case, since we don’t yet know our way either to or around LAUPT. Arriving at the station, we check in with the folks manning a booth labeled Pacific Railroad Society, then head out to the platform to find our car and assigned seats. The train comprises a set of Southern Pacific coaches in the Golden State scheme of aluminum with a red stripe above the windows, with the insertion of a couple of PRS cars, including Starlight Café. Power comprises SP FP7A 6459, a GP9, four F7Bs and another FP7A.

The train starts right on schedule, heads out of LAUPT past Terminal Tower, around the big right hand curve to Mission Tower and across the Los Angeles River. On the east bank of the river, the train makes a big left hand turn onto the SP track running north alongside the concrete river. Soon, the line passes Dayton Tower, where a connection from the Cornfield Yard near Chinatown trails in across the river, then runs along the east side of the large Taylor Yard, full of freight cars awaiting classification and departure, and then the locomotive facilities at the north end of the yard. Soon afterwards, the train makes a passenger stop at SP’s Glendale station.

North of Glendale, the train runs past the location of LA’s earliest airstrip at Grand Central Air Terminal (still in existence, but no longer at an airstrip), then runs through Burbank. At Burbank Junction, the line to Santa Barbara swings away, and we continue north through San Fernando, then through the lengthy tunnel into Saugus and Newhall in the Santa Clarita Valley. (At the moment before entering the tunnel, but only at that moment, we know where we are, since we have traveled over the highway to Bakersfield that runs directly above the track at this point.) East of Newhall, the now easterly-directed line enters Soledad Canyon, which it follows all the way to a summit, beyond which it drops down into the Antelope Valley. The last spike in the SP line into Los Angeles from the north was driven at Lang, along Soledad Canyon, in the 1870s.

Dropping down into the Antelope Valley, the line makes a turn to the left and heads due north through Palmdale, where the Palmdale Cutoff line from Colton via Cajon Pass enters from the east, then Lancaster, followed by sixty miles of Mojave Desert to the town of Mojave. Along here, there are many fields of colorful wildflowers to be seen. At Mojave, the Santa Fe line from Barstow trails in from the right, there is a freight yard and locomotive facilities to the left, and an SP branchline to Inyokern and an intermediate connection with the Trona railway goes off to the northeast. Shortly afterwards, the main line makes a big turn to the left and starts the westerly climb over the Tehachapi Mountains.

The weather, bright and sunny in Los Angeles, has deteriorated as we came north, and here we can see that it has been, and perhaps still is, snowing in these mountains. In the lightly blowing snow, the train passes a cement plant and reaches the summit just east of the town of Tehachapi. Further west, on the downgrade towards Bakersfield is the famous Tehachapi Loop where the line crosses over itself. Some miles further, at a siding named Cliff, the train stops and passengers are allowed down to photograph both train and surroundings. There are wildflowers on the hillsides, and a view all the way down to Caliente, which we will pass through later. It is no longer snowing (and may not have done so, this far down the west slope).

After reboarding, we’re provided with lunch. We pass through the horseshoe curve at Caliente. Along Caliente Creek, we pass through tunnel no. ½, the last tunnel on the line (and one built during a line change some time after the main line had been completed, hence its number). In Bakersfield, the passengers leave the train, which disappears to the yard for servicing and running the power around the train. While we’re here, a couple of freight trains pass, then the LA-bound San Joaquin Daylight appears from the north, makes its station stop, and heads for the mountains. This train comprises three or so SP aluminum-colored cars hauled by an SP SDP45. Almost immediately, our train appears, we reboard, and it heads off for the return trip.

The climb back up the west slope is quite a bit more interesting than the descent, since the locomotives are now working hard (whereas before they were holding the train speed down with the dynamic brakes). East of Bakersfield, the Santa Fe line joins the SP line at Kern Junction, then heads eastsoutheast, directly towards the Tehachapi Mountains. ATSF has trackage rights over the SP as far as Mojave. At this point, the line is double track. At Sandcut, the line reaches a small summit, then drops down and around a jog to the north, to Bena. At the latter location there is a stub track where the SP helpers wait to assist trains over the mountain, and then the double track section comes to an end. The line is single track with many passing sidings, the rest of the way to the summit. It crosses and then runs along the north bank of Caliente Creek, passing through tunnel no. ½ again.

At Caliente, the line turns a complete half circle and heads back west and up the side of the mountain on the south side of the creek. Then it turns away from the creek, passes through tunnels 1 and 2, and circles west again at the sidings at Allard followed by the one at Bealville. East of Bealville, the line climbs another hillside, circling back through several tunnels (and the sites of some former tunnels that were destroyed in, or in the clean up after, the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake). At Cliff, Caliente can clearly be seen a couple of miles below, (but about seven track miles away).

Several miles of hillside running later, the line curves to the south, passes under Highway 58, crosses Tehachapi creek, and turns eastward into the sidings at Woodford. The track crosses Tehachapi creek several more times as it curves north and then east again, makes a half circle west, then a half circle east, passes through a short tunnel, then makes a complete circle around a hill at the siding called Walong, during which it passes over itself in that small tunnel below. This is, again, Tehachapi Loop. At the east end of Walong, the line again curves east and passes through Tunnel 10. It now runs along the hillside on the south side of Tehachapi Creek, across from Highway 58, through several more tunnels and the siding at Cable, before emerging onto the floor of the summit valley. Here, there is the first stretch of straight track since leaving Caliente, followed by the town of Tehachapi, and then the summit itself, where double track resumes and there are crossover facilities for removing helpers and returning them to their starting points.

There is a cement plant on the north side of the track at Monolith, after which the track heads downhill through Cameron, then makes a sweeping turn to the south and enters Mojave. By now, darkness has fallen (or the clouds have made it seem so). The rest of the trip back to LA, along the same route as the outward trip, passes in interesting conversation. Somewhere along here, we eat dinner. Back at LAUPT, we find our car and head home to Sierra Madre.

Los Angeles to Surf (for Lompoc) on Southern Pacific, 16 May, 1971

Four weeks later, but on Sunday, May 16th (the only possibility for this excursion), we return to LAUPT for another PRS excursion over the Southern Pacific. Although Amtrak day has now come and gone, this train is still operated by SP. The consist is much as for the Tehachapi excursion, except that there are no PRS cars in the train, and the only food and beverage service is provided by one of the infamous SP ‘Automat’ cars containing automated food service machines as well as rudimentary table and seating space.

The starting time for this train is a little later in the day, which we appreciate. As before, we drive down to LAUPT, park the car, check in with the PRS folks, board and find our assigned seats. We also investigate the Automat car to get coffee. Departure is close to the advertised time.

From Los Angeles to Chatsworth, the line runs through the urban fabric of Los Angeles, turning north at Mission Tower, across and along the Los Angeles River, past the SP Taylor yard and them the locomotive maintenance facilities. After the Glendale station, the route heads north through some of the earliest industrial areas of greater LA (including the original airport facilities in the area-no longer connected to an airfield-at Grand Central Air Terminal). The route separates from the Soledad Canyon line at Burbank Junction and runs diagonally towards the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, passing the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the General Motors car assembly plant at Van Nuys, along the way. West of Chatsworth, the lines passes through the famous ‘Chatsworth Rocks’ area, and then through a long tunnel under thousand foot high Santa Susanna Pass.. The mountains along this line, and further west, are covered in the typical Southern California brush and yellow grass (except in spring, when the grass is green).

The line then enters the Simi Valley, passing through the towns of Santa Susanna, Simi and Moorpark, then descends towards the Pacific Ocean at Oxnard. West of Oxnard, the line comes alongside the ocean, which it will run alongside, or very close to, for the next 100 or more miles. West of Ventura, there are places where there is barely enough space for the railroad and US Highway 101 (built to Interstate Highway standards) between the ocean and the mountains. This is soon followed by the Santa Barbara urban area, followed by a line segment that has a number of scenic trestles over beach-access ravines. West of Gaviota, the highway veers away to the north, and the railroad is alone alongside the ocean. At Point Conception, the coast, and thus the railroad, turns north from its heretofore east-west alignment. Here, it runs through Vandenberg Air Force Base, site of the launch facilities for the Pacific Test Range and polar-orbiting satellites, to Surf.

At Surf, the excursionists leave the train and board a congeries of school buses for the ride through the cultivated flower fields to Lompoc, where we will have lunch at the Fiesta de la Purisima being held at Mission La Purisima Concepcion. The area alongside the river between its mouth at Surf and the town of Lompoc is famous for the spring flowers cultivated in the fields, which are supplied to flower shops throughout Southern California and beyond. A buffet lunch of Mexican-style food is part of the fiesta. After a couple of hours at the Fiesta, time to eat and explore the Mission, we reboard the buses and return to Surf by a different route through the flower fields.

Our train is running as a second section of the Coast Daylight, whose schedule is as yet unchanged from pre-Amtrak days. So, we have to be ready to leave when it passes, but can’t leave until then. In the meantime, our train is parked on a siding by the beach. Many of us go down to the beach to occupy the time, while others sit at lineside and watch those on the beach. Chris decides to build a sandcastle for the incoming tide to destroy. She builds this sandcastle while kneeling with her back to the beach. It appears that the tide is coming in faster than expected, since a particularly high wave splashes over her, to the amusement of the onlookers above. I take a picture of the occurrence. Ever since I have jokingly referred to this place as “Chris’ favorite beach”. J It is a very nice beach!

I also join the photo line taking pictures of the southbound (“east” bound on the SP) Coast Daylight, as it passes Surf station. This train is indistinguishable from those operated under SP auspices, comprising five or six aluminum-colored cars headed by one of SP’s SDP45s. Once it has passed, we all reboard our train, which follows the regular service train at a decent interval. I don’t notice us having to stop at any red signals due to following the train ahead, so we can’t be particularly close to it. The return trip is completely uneventful. We’re back to LAUPT by early evening, and drive home to eat dinner and go to bed.