Tijuana, Tecate, and Steam
March, 1998

Don Winter

Chris Skowís Trains Unlimited Tours is running an excursion from Tijuana, Baja California through Tecate, BC to Campo, CA, along the operable lengths of the old San Diego and Arizona Eastern, with steam haulage between Tecate and Campo provided by the San Diego Railroad Museumís ex-SP 4-6-0 2353. This trip starts and ends with buses connecting from and to the Amtrak station in San Diego. Because the start time on Saturday morning is so early, and the end time so late (and unpredictable), we opt to travel down on Friday, spend two nights at a hotel near the San Diego station, and travel back on Sunday afternoon.


After work, I drive home to pick up Chris (my wife, not the tour operator), and we then drive to Los Angeles Union Station for our train. Because I had left lots of time in case of rush hour problems on the highway, weíre quite early for our train. So, we opt to eat dinner at the new Traxx restaurant located inside the main waiting area of Los Angeles Union Station. Although the food is excellent, the quantity received for the money paid doesnít represent value for money, in our opinion. However, itís definitely better than the Amfood we would have had to have on the train. After dinner, we walk out to the platform and board the Superliner coach operating the Custom Class service on tonightís train that otherwise comprises two-level California Cars that are compatible with the Superliners. Custom Class not only provides a guaranteed seat (important on the busiest San Diegan services), but also provides coffee and juice available throughout the trip.

From Los Angeles Union Station, the line passes Terminal Tower, turns east past Mission Tower, then heads south along the west bank of the Los Angeles River. At Redondo Junction, where the ex-Santa Fe line to the LA/LB Harbor diverges and an ex-SP line to the harbor crosses, the line turns east and passes, in turn, UPís Hobart Tower at the crossing of the UP line to LA/LB Harbor, Hobart Yard, Commerce Locomotive Facility across from Metrolinkís Commerce station, Pico River Yard, the crossings with the ex-SP branches at DT Junction and Los Nietos, and Metrolinkís Norwalk station (on a southerly jog of the line) before reaching the Amtrak/Metrolink station at Fullerton. This entire stretch of two and three track line runs through the urban fabric of Greater Los Angeles, with the line bordered by many old-line industries that were once rail-served, even if they are no longer.

At Fullerton, the line to San Bernardino proceeds straight ahead, while that to San Diego turns sharply southward. The Anaheim station is located adjacent to Anaheim Stadium, after which the line angles southeastward for a while. In Orange, the line from Atwood trails in from the north (east side of the line), after which the line resumes its southerly direction, passing through the Regional Transportation Center at Santa Ana. At one time, there were many citrus packing plants along the line in this area, all rail-served at the time of their peak operations. In the early 1970s, the line left suburbia and entered agricultural and partly rural areas south of Santa Ana. By the 1990s, the whole area through Irvine to San Juan Capistrano, site of the famous mission and swallow habitat, and San Clemente is covered in new suburban housing. The line reaches the Pacific Ocean just south of San Juan Capistrano, and follows it closely, and in many cases intimately, to south of Del Mar. In the early 1970s, this line was entirely single track with passing sidings. By 2000, much of it had been upgraded to have two main tracks.

South of San Clemente, where the Metrolink and Amtrak stations are at different locations, the line passes the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station and then runs through the large US Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton. Even in the 1990s, this provides a welcome area of open countryside along the inland side of the line. At the south end of Camp Pendleton, the line reaches Oceanside, joint terminal point for Metrolink services from Los Angeles and Coaster services from San Diego. Amtrak trains also stop here. The line continues through Solano Beach, with its impressive new station building, and Del Mar, where trains used to deliver huge masses of patrons for the Del Mar racetrack, before turning away from the ocean to climb through Sorrento Valley to a summit near Miramar, then descends again into urban San Diego, passing Mission Bay, the facilities of General Dynamics, and San Diegoís Old Town before reaching the bayside station in San Diego itself.

The San Diego line is divided into the following subdivisions:

        San Bernardino subdivision from Los Angeles Fullerton

        San Diego subdivision from Fullerton to San Diego (National City)

Our entire journey this evening is accomplished in darkness. On arrival in San Diego, we walk the two blocks to the hotel, check in, and go to bed. We have an early start to make in the morning.


We have been asked to be at the San Diego station by 6:30 am, for a bus departure of 7 am, so we arise at the ungodly hour of 6 am to make sure we can be over at the station in time. Our room rate includes breakfast in the restaurant next door, so we take a few minutes to get coffee and bagels before heading over to the station. At the appointed meeting place, Chris Skow is checking off names against a list he has on a clipboard, so we check in with him. Then the buses arrive, so we climb on board. The buses depart on time and head south on Interstate 5 for the Mexican border.

Once in Mexico (much faster on a tour bus headed south than in a car headed either direction), the buses head for the Tijuana station. Unfortunately, there are streets blocked off for some sort of road race, today, so the normal route is unavailable. After some driving around, we find the alternate route. Even after that delay, the excursionists are all delivered to the station before the train has arrived (it has to come from Campo). The local kids, (and panhandlers), however, notice the crowd and show up to investigate (and, they hope, profit). Eventually, we see a train coming towards us, that then stops for the locomotive to run around before backing into the station.

We have taken space in the Pullman car on the rear, so we board at the rear platform. We take seats in the rear observation lounge of the Pullman, named after Robert Peary, a famous explorer, xxx, while others take seats in one or other of the several private rooms on the car. Chris Skow has sold all of the seats in the car, not just those in the private rooms, so those in the private rooms have no call on space in the observation lounge, although some of them do not seem to understand that. However, passengers in this car are permitted to ride on the rear platform, so there really is enough observation space for everyone, even pushy New Yorkers.

With the Museumís diesel, former SD&AE 1809, in Black Widow paint, on the head end, the train (made up entirely of cars owned by the Museum), the train sets off east-southeast through the ratty third-worldish housing and light industry of Tijuana. The line continues in this direction, gradually emerging into a countryside whose appearance, except for an air of poverty in the human encroachments, does not differ significantly from the areas of California north of the border, until it reaches the climb up the Coast Range at Redondo. Here, the line swings to the north, passes around a dairy farm on a sweeping horseshoe curve then climbs southward along the hillside, makes another half circle and climbs northward higher up on the same hillside until it reaches a plateau, where it takes up an easterly heading into Tecate.

Halfway up to second leg on the hillside, the train stops and unloads the passengers for a photo runby. For this, it backs down the hillside until it has gone past the photographers on the lower leg (which is adjacent to, but significantly lower than, the upper leg). Then it comes roaring past, both on the lower leg, with the dairy farm on the valley floor behind it, and on the upper leg (with the hillside behind it). Runbys complete, we reboard and the train runs the rest of the way into Tecate. Here, we leave the train to walk into town where lunch at a local restaurant is part of the tour. Tecateís depot building looks fairly modern, a concrete or adobe structure with clean lines. Walking down the once-paved platform, I twist my ankle in a pothole. However, I still manage to walk to the restaurant, past the famous brewery and along the main street of the town.

While weíre eating, we hear the whistle of the steam locomotive as it comes into town to take over the running of the train the rest of the way into Campo and then along the trackage operated by the museum east of the museums location itself. Lunch over, we walk back to the station and find that the steam locomotive is on the front of the train, while the diesel is sitting behind (but not coupled to) it. The diesel will follow us to Campo, to provide assistance if needed. Just west of Tecate is a large sports stadium, south of the tracks. Further east, the line runs along a hillside, starting to gain altitude, with a road at streamside across the valley below.

A few miles east of Tecate, the train stops on a curving hillside for another photo runby. Passengers alight and climb the hillside to get good views of the train. The train backs down around a curve, then canít gain traction when it starts back up for the runby. From our vantage points on the hillside, we see plumes of smoke reach high into the air, and hear copious amounts of slipping, but no train appears. Eventually, the radio carries the request of the engineer on the steam engine for assistance from the diesel. The latter responds by coming up behind and pushing the train, then dropping back as the steamer gains traction. Our photo runby does not include the diesel helper.

The diesel does stay around, however, to help with the restart after the passengers have reboarded. A few miles further east, and a few hundred feet higher, the train enters a tunnel that is right on the Mexico-US border. When it emerges in the US, the train stops to let passengers off for another runby. Unfortunately, this means (a) that the passengers have left the train before being vetted by Immigration officials, and (b) that the train must back into Mexico again, and then return to the US again, which it has no authorization to do. Chris Skow thinks he has arranged for the radio traffic to deceive those listening in Campo, but that proves not to be the case, so the runby is canceled and we all reboard for the short trip into Campo. (Some passengers spotted Border agents watching us from nearby hillsides, so perhaps itís as well that we didnít do the runby.)

In Campo, Immigration officials walk the train and assess the passengers before we are allowed off the train. After a brief humanities interval, during which we buy a couple of videos from the museumís gift shop, we reboard the train, which then heads east over the track normally served by museum excursions. After some photo runs we head to the end of track, where the steamer runs around the train for the return journey. This puts the tender directly up against our observation platform, so we have an interesting trip back to the museum in the deepening darkness.

The buses are waiting for us at Campo, and take us back to San Diego over the quickest route (using Interstate 8). On the way, we pass through an Immigration checkpoint that is actively watching for illegal immigrants. Our return to San Diego is long after the last train to Los Angeles has left. We walk over to a waterfront hotel that has an English-style restaurant where we have dinner, then go to bed.


When we awake on Sunday, we have several hours to spare before our train back to Los Angeles. So, we pack our bags, eat the included breakfast at a more leisurely pace than the day before, checkout of the hotel and store the bags, then walk over to the light rail line station north of the Amtrak depot. We have not traveled on the light rail segment out to Mission Valley, so weíre about to do that. We use the ticket machine to get round trip tickets to the end of that line, the train arrives and we board. Apart from an underpass that ducks under a street that the BNSF line crosses at grade, the light rail line runs alongside the BNSF as far as Old Town San Diego, which has both a light rail station and a Coaster station adjacent to one another. North of Old Town, the light rail turns east, away from the main line, and crosses the San Diego River on a sweeping curve. The line then parallels the small river, crossing it several more times, east through several shopping centers and residential areas to a (temporary) terminus at Mission San Diego that also serves San Diego Stadium.

We ride back to Old Town, where we get off to explore the State Historical Site there. We also eat lunch at a Mexican restaurant on the site before taking the light rail back to our starting point. We return to the hotel, reclaim our bags and walk over to the Amtrak station. In a few minutes, our train is ready to board, so we walk up to the Custom Class car (a single-level Amfleet car, this time) and take seats on the ocean side for the views between Del Mar and San Clemente.

The run along the Pacific is spectacular as usual.† Dinner is Amfood from the food service car. In Los Angeles, we leave the train and drive home, ready for bed.