The Tehachapi Desperadoes

The Tehachapi Desperadoes

The Tehachapi Desperadoes


Tim Howlett

Saturday 25th January 2009

Sometimes in life caution just has to be thrown to the wind and you must go for that ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. So, when I heard that Amtrak’s Coast Starlight was again on a rare diversion over the Tehachapi Loops between 25 – 27 January (and the planets were aligned for a long weekend involving using only one day’s annual leave), the temptation was too much to resist!

My trusty cranking travel agent, Mr Bennett (who had tipped me off about the happening), set to making the appropriate arrangements, while words such as ‘desperate’, ‘mad’ and the like were being heard but ignored.

All too soon I found myself for the first time at the very new, very pleasant - and very early - Heathrow Terminal Five; on through security and boarded on to British Airways 10.15am 747 flight to Los Angeles.

My bad right knee twitched with excitement at being allowed back to the California warmth – away from the penetrating English cold – for the third time in two years.

A very tolerable eleven airborne hours followed, punctuated by the new Western ‘Appaloosa’; blues music and free beer and wine - all with views of a very frozen Baffin Island and the snowbound Canadian vastness.

The ‘Homeland’ customs process was very slick, and I strolled through the glass exit doors into a warmish L.A. afternoon. Waiting for me was a bus to L.A. Union Station, which must have known that I had just arrived!

After hotel check-in I was soon walking beneath the palm trees outside the Spanish architecture of L.A. Union Station and into its spacious splendour, to cover the five Saturday Metrolink diesel turns before meeting Bob Hannaford – my fellow Desperado – who was flying in from Canada.

Five unprecedented ‘winners’ followed, taking my Metrolink haulage to 23: -

868 / F59PH / Metrolink 267 / 4.10pm: L.A. Union – San Fernando
878 / F59PH1 / Metrolink 268 / 4.51pm: San Fernando – L.A. Union
887 / F59PH1 / Metrolink 372 / 6.15pm: L.A. Union - Upland
891 / MP36H-3C / Metrolink 377 / 7.36pm: Upland – L.A. Union

Bob and I rendezvoused and celebrated with winning:

870 / F59PH1 / Metrolink 660 / 8.45pm L.A. Union - Anaheim

At Anaheim it was but a short walk to the J.T. Schmidt brewpub for a pint and a return to L.A. Union on Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train No.597; powered by winning P59PH1 459.

Bed was very required after this stint, with the body going ‘ oh no, he’s at it again’!

Sunday 26th January 2009

Sleep was ended by the hotel room phone ringing at 8.30am, with an insomniac Bob reminding me that the ‘Big Day’ had indeed arrived.

We walked excitedly to Union Station for bagels and coffee, and talked to some fellow ‘nuts’ who had not come quite so far for the Starlight diversion. Full of anticipation we walked up the platform of track five, to where the high revving song of our two Amtrak P42s revealed Nos.92 and 83 ready for the trip over the ‘pass’ (more winners!).

Amtrak P42’s 92 and 83 wait departure at Los Angeles Union Station with train 14 10.15am to Seattle. Photograph by Tim Howlett.

And so we boarded Amtrak train 14, ‘The Coast Starlight’ – though today there would be no ‘Coast ‘; instead desert and mountains and orange groves; with the starlight bit concealed by the cloud of the San Joaquin.

Highball time was 10.15am, and we crept steadily out of L.A. Union, hung a sharp left at Mission Tower and headed toward Glendale and Burbank. Just before the dereliction of the old Southern Pacific Yards at Taylor we passed the Metrolink depot with the new MP36PH diesels in evidence up to No. 897.

After the ‘new’ art deco station at Burbank we headed for the hills up the Antelope Valley and through San Fernando. After Tunnel 5 and Santa Clarita, we snaked along the Soledad Canyon in the late morning sunshine. From our lofty perch in the lounge car we had great views of the surrounding hills and arroyos, while sipping Sam Adams – with little fingers raised! - then on through Via Princessa and up the Vincent Grade, with the P42s barking at the point.

The line dropped sharply down onto the Mojave Desert flatness, and at Palmdale Junction we joined the ex-SP Bakersfield Line toward Lancaster. We looked out on to the sandy vastness punctuated by the hangars of the ‘Skunk-Works’ – where the Blackbird Stealth Bomber was developed – and other sporadic aircraft works.

Approaching Mojave, several airliners could be seen shimmering away, going nowhere and ‘stored serviceable’ at a large airfield in the desert. East Mojave saw the BNSF line from Barstow trail in and the Tehachapi Mountains encroach as we headed though Mojave itself and started climbing again.

The sunshine of the morning gave way to low grey cloud, but our excitement grew as the Starlight passed the cement plant at Monolith and crested the summit of the Bakersfield Line at 4030 ft.

The site of Tehachapi station was passed, and we entered an altogether different landscape. Descending sharply and slowly, Amtrak 14 was now as a long silver snake meandering around the sharp reverse curves through the beautiful smooth green hills.

We lunched while wheel flanges protested and squealed at the sharp curvature, and we exclaimed wonderment at such an incredible stretch of railroad engineering. The train was surrounded above and below by tracks, which we had just traversed or were about to; then it was onto the ‘Loop’ at Walong, drifting down and around past the horse ranches.

The P42s continued braking us through more curves and short tunnels; Bealville, Allard and the incredible horseshoe curve at Caliente – where we met a BNSF manifest freight held at the siding.

Caliente Curve provides the chance to photograph the head end from the train as Amtrak train 14 heads towards Bakersfield, CA. Photograph by Tim Howlett.

Making a crew stop at Bakersfield’s Southern Pacific depot Amtrak train 14 waits time. Photograph by Tim Howlett.

All too soon we left the beauty of the mountains and headed on into Bakersfield and some drizzle. A crew stop was made at the old SP depot at Bakersfield (not the Amtrak station), as we were now routed on to the ex SP Fresno Line.

The Landscape had again changed completely; the Californian sun had reappeared and we were soon speeding across the flat country of the San Joaquin Valley through orange groves, vineyards and fruit orchards. Small towns with large rail-served grain silos came and went: Tulare, Goshen, Kingsburg, Selma. Mysterious switchers, painted blue and yellow with the number 1668 could be seen at several of the yards. More research needed there!

Things were becoming even more civilised on the Starlight. Bob and I retired to the 1950s built ex Santa Fe parlour car, which used to ply its trade on the ‘El Captain’. A wine tasting was now in full swing!

Following a sampling of some fine Californian bottles we chose a bottle of the Greg Norman Cabernet Sauvignon; far better to produce this stuff than play golf!

Darkness fell as we passed though Fresno and sped on to Merced, Modesto and Stockton.

After traversing 440 miles of ex Southern Pacific freight track, we approached Sacramento. In order to reach Sacramento Union Station the Starlight turned north eastwards at the Elvas Wye. Once on the main line clear of the switches we stopped and reversed the mile or so into Sacramento – precisely one hour early. Amtrak 14 then recessed for two hours before continuing on to Seattle over the normal route.

Bob and I retired to the hotel – or more precisely – the bar!

Monday 27th January 2009

I awoke as my body protested that it would rather stay in bed for another six hours; arose and met Bob for a short trudge through the dark streets to Sacramento Union Station.

A Capitol Corridor bash was about to commence. Amtrak F59 No 2010 was singing away at the head of our first move – Amtrak 523 the 5.30am to Oakland. The Locos and cars on this route are painted in an attractive blue, grey and orange livery.

We ‘leapt’ down the line as a magnificent blood red Sun rose and transformed the dawn into a chilly, clear blue California morning.

Amtrak moves went as follows:

2010 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 523 / 5.30am Sacramento - Davis
2013 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 525 / 6.30am Davis – Suisan Fairfield
2011 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 527 / 7.39am Suisan Fairfield - Martinez
2007 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 529 / 8.40am Martinez - Richmond

(At Richmond I waved Bob off onto the BART train as he had a plane to catch!).

2052 / P32BWH / Amtrak 531 / 9.55am Richmond - Berkeley
2006 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 533 / 10.52am Berkeley - Emeryville
2014 / F59PH1 / Amtrak 535 / 11.50am Emeryville – San Jose

(The GE built 2052 was the most raucous loco of the day!).

The 132 miles between Sacramento are fairly scenic, as the trains cling to the shoreline of Suisan Bay, then cross Suisan Bay Bridge (5603 feet long), and pass beside Carquinez Strait and San Pablo Bay. At Oakland Jack London Square, we literally trundled down the main street through a rejuvenated waterside area. Long stack trains from Oakland yards pass this way too.

South of Oakland Amtrak 535 traversed the ex-SP Hayward Line to the complex Niles Junction area, then onto the Centerville Line, before joining the ex-SP Coast Line across the salt marshes to San Jose.

As I had some time before my evening flight, there was ample opportunity to ‘bash’ the red and silver of the Caltrain Line from San Jose towards San Francisco City on the south side of San Francisco Bay. Caltrain must have known that I was coming, because they had all three of their oldest F40PHs out that afternoon!

926 / MP36PH / Caltrain 253 / 1.45pm San Jose – Santa Clarita
918 / F40PH2-CAT / Caltrain 155 / 2.15pm Santa Clarita - Lawrence
920 / F40PH-2 / Caltrain 257 / 2.50pm Lawrence – Palo Alto
919 / F40PH-2 / Caltrain 256 / 3.25pm Palo Alto – California Avenue
921 / F40PH-2 / Caltrain 159 / 3.34pm California Avenue - Belmont
922 / F40PH-2 / Caltrain 260 / 4.09pm Belmont – San Carlos
910 / F40PH2-CAT / Caltrain 261 / 4.29pm San Carlos - Millbrae

The evening rush and the ‘Baby Bullets’ were just starting as I sped from Millbrae to San Francisco Airport on the BART - I’ll cover those another time! SFO Airport is very user-friendly, and soon I tucked into a wood fired pizza washed down with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, before boarding my half empty British Airways 747 back to Heathrow.

A fantastic long weekend trip to California – it can be done!