San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad hopes for profit

Little train on a big track

At Twenty-second and Commercial streets, Scudella eases the engine past a switch that connects the main line to Vitagold’s spur track.
  • At Twenty-second and Commercial streets, Scudella eases the engine past a switch that connects the main line to Vitagold’s spur track.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It is just past 9:30 on a cool Thursday night when locomotive engineer Jim Scudella radios for clearance from the San Diego Trolley controller to move out across the trolley tracks at Thirteenth and Imperial in Logan Heights. In the cab of the San Diego & Imperial Valley (SD&IV) Railroad locomotive, Scudella signals his intentions on the horn: two long blasts, one short, and another long.

Original SD&IV route. The line will be open on all forty-four miles inside Mexico.

Original SD&IV route. The line will be open on all forty-four miles inside Mexico.

With the locomotive’s bell ringing and brakeman Fred Byle riding “point” on the front of the blue and yellow, 1200-horsepower engine, the train and its one car — a hopper filled with ninety tons of grain — chug slowly up Commercial Street for its first delivery of the evening.

Jim Scudella. If the SD&IV were unionized, tonight’s train would require four crewmen instead of two. But Scudella and Byle don’t seem to need assistance.

Jim Scudella. If the SD&IV were unionized, tonight’s train would require four crewmen instead of two. But Scudella and Byle don’t seem to need assistance.

The destination is Vitagold, a manufacturer of animal feeds. Vitagold’s whole-grain ingredients have been delivered by freight trains for more than fifty years, but in the last eighteen months those deliveries have arrived via yet another new era in the tangled epoch of San Diego railroading. Consisting of just ten nonunion employees, two second-hand locomotives, and several railroad cars, the San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad is a highly specialized version of the more than one hundred “short line” railroads that have taken root throughout the nation in the aftermath of the federal government’s 1980 deregulation of the railroad industry.

Fred Byle ignites “fusees,” a type of red flare, and places them on the black street at both ends of the train. Then he unlocks a “derail.”

Fred Byle ignites “fusees,” a type of red flare, and places them on the black street at both ends of the train. Then he unlocks a “derail.”

As the larger railroad companies are allowed to abandon or sell unprofitable rail routes, smaller outfits such as RailTex are filling the vacuum by starting small railroads such as the SD&IV. RailTex, a Texas-based company whose main business up to now has been in leasing rail cars, has branched out into the risky short line railroad business with its subsidiary, SD&IV.

The crew was arrested in early 1983 when the train hit a car that was sitting on the tracks. The Mexican police hauled the crewmen to jail, and the train was left untended.

The crew was arrested in early 1983 when the train hit a car that was sitting on the tracks. The Mexican police hauled the crewmen to jail, and the train was left untended.

To include “Imperial Valley” in its name is a way of looking both forward and backward at the same time. The rail line runs from San Diego to Plaster City, in the Imperial Valley, but damage to two bridges and a tunnel in the desert, and one tunnel in Mexico, has forced the railroad operations to stay strictly local.

SD&IV’s general manager, Dick Engle: “I can drive a spike as well as the next guy.”

SD&IV’s general manager, Dick Engle: “I can drive a spike as well as the next guy.”

The railroad, which shares most of its track with the San Diego Trolley, services just twenty-five customers on its east line, eighteen miles to El Cajon, and its south line, which now extends thirty miles down to Garcia, just south of Tijuana. Resuming service on the entire 130-mile line to the east is a dream the Texans are nurturing in the face of contrary history. “But optimism is one of our key traits,” chuckles Mac Irvin, one of SD&IV’s marketing executives.

The twenty-seven-year-old Irvin has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, but he can run the company’s locomotives. Similarly, SD&IV’s general manager, Dick Engle, is fond of saying, “I can drive a spike as well as the next guy.” Tonight, after Jim Scudella and Fred Byle make their regular run to the border, they’ll trade jobs: Byle will take over as engineer and Scudella will be brakeman. To. traditional railroad men, this blurring of tasks is heretical.

Over the last hundred years, the railroad unions have become specialized into classifications of “crafts,” and one type of craftsman is strictly prohibited from doing another’s work. Under the unionized Kyle Railways, the previous operator of the line, trains sometimes didn't move out because the engineer couldn’t physically load his own ice chest into the cab of the locomotive. That was somebody else’s job, and even if the ice chest were sitting beside the tracks and everything else was set to go, the engineer had to hold the train until another craftsman loaded it.

If the SD&IV were unionized, tonight’s train would require four crewmen instead of two. But Scudella and Byle don’t seem to need assistance, Byle signaling with his lamp and red flares and talking through his walkie-talkie, and Scudella, with a cheap cigar clenched in his teeth, inching the behemoth locomotive forward and backward with confident delicacy.

At Twenty-second and Commercial streets, at the top of a long incline, Scudella eases the engine past a switch that connects the main line to Vitagold’s spur track. Byle ignites “fusees,” a type of red flare, and places them on the black street at both ends of the train. Then he unlocks a “derail,” a metal bar that covers one track leading into the spur and acts as a guard plate that would stop Vitagold’s cars in the unlikely event that their hand brakes failed and they started rolling out toward the main line. After the switch is thrown, Byle directs as Scudella eases the engine and the hopper car backward onto the spur.

Three empty hoppers are in the way, so the first job entails moving them out onto the main track. Scudella pulls the empties out onto the main line, waits for Byle to throw the switch again, backs them down past the switch, and leaves them there. Byle again throws the switch, located in a compartment below street level beside the track, and Scudella backs the full hopper onto the spur and lines it up alongside Vitagold’s loading dock. Byle disconnects the car and Scudella drives the locomotive back onto the main line again. Byle closes and locks the derail bar on the spur, throws and locks the switch, and directs the train backward until it is coupled to the three empty cars. Scudella nudges the engine forward a few feet to “stretch the joint” and make sure the coupling is good, then Byle makes the brake hose connections and kicks off the hand brakes on the cars. He rides the “point” again, which this time is the rear of the train, as Scudella backs the engine and the cars toward the SD&IV rail yard near Fifth Avenue and Harbor Drive. Scudella sounds the horn at the trolley line crossing, the wail rising into the night and returning off the barrio’s sheds and overpasses before dying out toward the bay.

The nicked and creviced hands of vice president and general manager Dick Engle don’t seem to belong to the dapper man wearing a tailored suit, but there they are. Engle is fifty-seven, a second-generation railroad man who keeps his father’s old conductor’s hat on a brakeman’s light near his desk in the SD&IV offices at Eighth and Imperial. Engle is a Lee Iacocca lookalike, with the same evangelical enthusiasm as the Chrysler chief. “See, I don’t have a job,” he’s saying, “and I don’t want my employees to have a job. I enjoy this work, and I try to instill that in everybody else. I only have ten employees, but it’s like I have thirty. They can all do the job of engineer, conductor, brakeman, switcher, track inspector. We’re all interested in the work, so it’s like we don’t have a job at all.”

Engle is the point man in RailTex’s effort to resuscitate freight service in San Diego, and since he took over the line in October, 1984, his combination of energy, enthusiasm, experience, and business acumen has kept the railroad in the black. He worked as an agent for Kyle Railways, the previous operator, and before that he worked in every aspect of railroading stretching back to 1950 when he started in the freight office of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. “I don’t like to blow my own horn,” he says, explaining why RailTex tapped him for the crucial job of general manager. “But I know the property, I’m a goer, I know San Diego, and I know the business. If you can’t make it with that combination of ingredients, then it’s a losing proposition.”

Though Engle won’t divulge financial figures, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB), which owns the tracks SD&IV uses and holds a ten-year freight service contract with RailTex, received $9827.62 in operating fees from the company in 1985. According to the contract, this is one percent of the SD&IV’s gross revenues, which pencil out to $982,762. This is about average for the nation’s 375 short line railroads, according to the American Short Line Railroad Association. The company also paid MTDB $57,970 in 1985 in maintenance fees to help maintain the 18.7 miles of track the SD&IV shares with the trolley. “Their number of customers has grown, and their car counts have increased some since they began operating, and they’ve increased the quality of service,” says Jack Limber, general counsel to MTDB and the agency’s liaison with the railroad. “I had the unfortunate duty of liaison to shippers when Kyle Railways was trying to abandon the line, and I heard all the complaints,” Limber continues. “Now I hear very good things from shippers.”

Kyle Railways, now based in San Francisco, was approved as freight operator by the Interstate Commerce Commission in the summer of 1979, the same time that MTDB took possession of the 108 miles of track comprising the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad. MTDB needed the track for its trolley, but it felt that part of its public mandate was to continue running freight service on the line, which had been in operation between Imperial Valley and San Diego since 1919. But as the trolley quickly became a light rail passenger success story, a 1980 storm severely damaged the rail bed in Mexico and in the desert, and it wasn’t until January of 1983 that Kyle was able to deliver copper and grain shipments from Plaster City to San Diego. Then a short five months later, the copper market collapsed, and changes in the grain market made shipping by truck more economical. Kyle started losing big money.

For a short time, the company pulled small loads of various goods from the Imperial Valley, but then two bridges in the Carrizo Gorge east of Jacumba were destroyed by fire, and by June of 1983 Kyle was the unwilling operator of a very short line railroad. According to an independent financial analysis commissioned for MTDB, Kyle’s high overhead and labor costs, combined with the collapse of the copper and grain business to the east, rendered the operation a fincancial cripple. The analysis produced monthly loss projections of between $3200 and $151,000, depending upon how many trains Kyle wanted to run. By late 1983, Kyle wanted out. The company filed a request with the ICC to abandon the line, a required action because federal law loosely defines railroad lines as public utilities. “We could have gone through abandonment,” explains MTDB’s Limber, “but we had a moral commitment to try to continue freight service for shippers who felt it was a necessity for San Diego.” The ICC disallowed Kyle’s request to abandon the line. Kyle and MTDB eventually dissolved their contract, after Kyle put up $177,469 in a letter of credit to be used for the eventual restoration of the damaged line in the desert.

MTDB formed a task force to find another freight operator, and it received several proposals. Limber says some of these proposals were from train buffs, and some were from wealthy people with no railroad experience who just wanted to own a railroad, and there were a couple of proposals from companies with short line railroad experience. Although RailTex had never before operated a short line, the company was selected because “we wanted someone who had good business sense, who would operate it at a profit, and who had strong marketing plans,” Limber explains. RailTex fit that bill. Limber is also satisfied with the SD&IV’s safety record. He reviews copies of the monthly safety reports that the railroad is required to send to the Federal Railroad Authority, and says there have been no major accidents or derailments.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the safety of SD&IV’s operations is being scrutinized closely by workers on the unionized Santa Fe Railroad, which shares a rail yard with the SD&IV. “We call it a wooden axle outfit,” comments Terry Durkin, local chairman of the United Transportation Union, who works as an engineer for Santa Fe. “Sometimes we watch them switching out their cars, and we can’t believe what they do. I honestly think it’s dangerous.’’ Durkin says that, given the dangerous nature of railroad work, the SD&IV’s two-man crews are too small and the employees should be working on only one job, rather than be jacks-of-all-crafts. “I foresee them having a major injury over there,’’ Durkin continues. “It’s not that they’re nonunion, it’s that they’re running it on a shoestring, on too small a crew. It’s dangerous. Right now they can get away with it because they have so few cars, but if they do build up the business, they’re looking for trouble.”

Dick Engle, who is friends with Durkin, takes these comments in stride. “Our record speaks for itself,” he says. “We’ve basically had no accidents whatsoever. Of course the union will try to say we’re unsafe — that’s to be expected. But the industry has to go along with progress. That’s what our operation represents. I don’t want to get into controversy with the unions, but they’re part of the reason the big railroads are going broke.”

The SD&IV was founded in San Antonio in 1977 by Bruce Flohr, who for eleven years had been an executive for the Southern Pacific Railroad (previous owner of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern) and later served as deputy and acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration from 1975 to 1977. San Diego was to be RailTex’s first short line railroad, but the company made it clear to both MTDB and the ICC that it would take over the line only if it were free from any prior labor union agreements. RailTex knew that Kyle had come in as a fully unionized company and that the resultant high labor costs had aggravated its financial woes. On August 9, 1984, the ICC approved RailTex’s takeover of freight service and okayed the company’s nonunion stance, and by October the SD&IV was rolling.

“When we came in, this railroad’s image was zilch,” explains Dick Engle, the general manager. “We wanted a new name, for the purpose of creating a new image. We wanted to start pretty much from scratch.” Customers have responded favorably. “The difference is day and night,” says Mark Jacobs, general manager of Vitagold, one of the railroad’s biggest customers. “It’s an intangible thing. Service. Kyle stayed with the delivery schedule, but these new guys are easier to work with. They’re very flexible, they’ll come out when we have a problem, and they’ve even run switches for us on Sunday.”

Satisfying customers is the easy part; finding new customers in San Diego is the real challenge. “We can’t be robber barons,” explains marketing man Mac Irvin. “We don’t have the financial standing or the monopoly. We have to hold our customers by the hand.” Irvin lives every day in a struggle against the passing of an old era of transportation. In 1925 American railroads moved eighty-five percent of all intercity freight traffic in the nation: in 1975 that figure had plummeted to thirty-seven percent. Highway-borne truck transportation has become the bane of the railroad business. “For our predecessors, shipping by rail was the norm,” Irvin explains. “There was no interstate highway system. But today, shipping by rail is elective. It makes our job that much tougher and our successes that much more significant.” For all the company’s enthusiasm and good service, its officers realize that successful — and profitable — freight service here is still a high-stakes gamble. Dick Engle calls San Diego “the end of the world” in railroad terms. Most of San Diego’s rail freight is brought in by the Santa Fe Railroad from rail yards in San Bernardino. Santa Fe has its own rail customers, including the U.S. Navy, and its daily trains to San Diego move about fifty cars. Approximately ten cars a day are delivered to the SD&IV yard near Fifth Avenue and Harbor Drive, where the Santa Fe picks up cars that are invariably empty. There is almost no outbound boxcar or hopper car rail business originating in San Diego.

By historic railroad standards, the inbound rail traffic on the SD&IV is minimal. Most of the rail cars that the SD&IV delivers are owned by the major railroads and are rented by the shippers. The regular commodities are grain for Vitagold, Coors beer for the Dan McKinney distributorship in El Cajon, lumber for three separate hardwood companies and the La Mesa Handyman warehouse, plastic pellets for the Hardy Irrigation Company, and rolled paper to Fleetwood Pacific, a manufacturer of paper plates and bags. The SD&IV also delivers about fifty cars a month to customers in Mexico. These deliveries include tank cars of lard and boxcars of lumber. Engle is excited about a new deal with a joint venture company called Southwest Sunbelt, formed by Portland Cement and Cementes Guadalajara, to export cement from Mexico to the U.S. He says that within the last two weeks they have been moving thirty to thirty-five cars a week across the border, an increase of about fifty percent in SD&IV’s business.

RailTex has been negotiating for an operating agreement with Mexico for almost two years. The company is now paying Mexican tariffs, which fluctuate from week to week. The track currently extends twelve miles south of the border to Garcia, but when repairs on a tunnel are completed, the line will be open on all forty-four miles inside Mexico, to a point just past Tecate, where it reenters the U.S. Kyle Railways had had considerable difficulties operating in Mexico. The company’s contract with the Mexican railroad that owns the tracks called for a fixed yearly fee, and this became the source of serious disagreements between the two firms. Kyle’s trains were fired on in Mexico (which is not uncommon in the U.S.), and the crew was arrested in early 1983 when the train hit a car that was sitting on the tracks. The Mexican police hauled the crewmen to jail, and the train was left untended.

When RailTex took over, new agreements had to be made with the Mexican railroad (owned by the Mexican government), Sonora & Baja California. Dick Engle says the two companies are close to working out a deal in which RailTex would pay a certain fee for every car it moves on the Mexican line, and Mexico will maintain the track. Engle is looking to hire a marketing person who speaks Spanish, in order to help develop more business below the border. He has one eye cast on the brewery in Tecate. For the young railroad, Mexico is a land of opportunity, especially because the SD&IV is the only train operating on the Mexican tracks.

It is close to 11:00 p.m. by the time Jim Scudella and Fred Byle have dropped off Vitagold’s empty hopper cars in the rail yard near Fifth Avenue and Harbor Drive. The four cars they’ll be delivering on the south line tonight have already been “made up” into a train by the two-man afternoon crew, and Scudella backs his 1953 vintage locomotive into them with ease. After Byle connects the brake line from the locomotive to the rail cars, Scudella “pumps up” the train, allowing air pressure from the locomotive’s main brake cylinder to fill the line and each car’s brake cylinder to a pressure of ninety pounds per square inch. (Passenger trains are pumped up to 110 p.s.i., for faster braking.) In the event of a break in the train, the sudden release of air pressure will cause each car’s brakes to be applied automatically, bringing the cars to a quick halt.

The order of the cars behind the locomotive is of crucial importance, for it determines how efficiently the two-man crew can accomplish its deliveries. Normally the first car to be delivered is situated directly behind the locomotive, so that when the train arrives at the first spur, the engineer simply leaves the rest of the train on the tracks and pulls the single car behind the locomotive onto the spur for delivery. But the SD&IV operates on the same tracks as the trolley, a special circumstance that affects much of the railroad’s operations. Freight is delivered at night, only after the trolley starts operating at thirty-minute intervals at 7:15. Since the trolley runs until 1:00 a.m., the freight train cannot leave cars on the main line; that means the order of the cars to be delivered begins at the rear of the train. At each spur, Scudella must pull his entire train off the main line. “Railroading is a big checkers game,” explains Mac Irvin, “only you can’t hop one car over another.”

Tonight’s lineup, starting behind the locomotive, includes a car filled with cement, then a tanker of lard, and two boxcars full of lumber. The first three cars are all to be dropped off at the border and will be moved into Mexico the next day; the last car, which is the first delivery, is for Baker Hardwood Lumber Company in National City.

The trolley controller at Thirteenth and Imperial also directs the movements of the freight train. Using a large electronic map of the tracks, he knows the location of every train and the position of each switch at all times. At 10:55, Scudella radios for permission to head out onto the main line. Although the train is moving on the southbound trolley tracks, in trainmen’s parlance it is heading “east.” To train controllers in the western U.S., there are only two directions: “west,” toward the train’s point of origin, or “east,” away from the point of origin. As Scudella drives the train toward its top speed (on this line) of twenty-five miles per hour, Fred Byle stands at the leftside window of the locomotive cab and calls out the signal lights as they come into view.

The signals are spaced at line-of-sight distances, so that the next one is usually visible as the locomotive passes each signal. The lights will be green, yellow, or red, depending on the condition of the track ahead. If a switch is thrown by SD&IV, the next signal in both directions will turn red, and signals ahead and behind will be yellow.

The men call out signals to each other to help guard against one of them being lulled to sleep by the thrumming engines. “We don’t bullshit in here,” Scudella calls out over the gentle rumbling as the train passes signal 20R, at the Thirty-second Street Naval Station. “Bullshitting gets you hurt. Railroading takes concentration. I’m planning my moves on the tracks while I’m driving to work.” And between stops, Fred Byle, who’ll be directing the locomotive, is also planning the movements at the next spur.

Scudella, at age forty-eight, is one of the most experienced engineers on the SD&IV. Tonight he’s wearing the rubber boots, bib overalls, and checkered shirt of the prototypical engineer, and although his concentration on his work never breaks, he has the capacity to do his job and talk in snatches to a visitor. He says he began working on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad when he was eighteen, hauling coal to the steel mills of southern Illinois. He quickly rose to engineer, running the 3000-horsepower diesels pulling trains of 125 cars or more. “Safety is the main thing everybody’s concerned with,” says Scudella. “You can get killed or injured pretty easy.” The cold weather of the Midwest was particularly hazardous. The cab heaters sometimes wouldn’t work, and spilled coffee would freeze as it hit the floor. Men would become stiff from the cold, hampering their agility on the cars and causing injury or worse. One quarter-inch of ice on the rails was enough to derail a train. “It’d be so cold, the engines couldn’t crush the ice,” Scudella explains. “I’ve ridden ’em over.”

Like all experienced engineers, Scudella has had collisions with cars.

“You know, at crossings it’s always the guy with a carload of kids who tries to beat the train,” he observes. He says hitting a car feels like “hitting a tin plate” in the locomotive; you hardly notice it. He has friends who quit the business because they couldn’t stand the danger associated with the job.

Scudella got out of railroading himself for a while, moving to San Diego to open an automobile repair shop, “but I got sick of dealing with the general public.” He hired on with the SD&IV because “this is a little easier lifestyle, not quite as hectic. It’s not as much money, but I’m happier.”

In National City, Scudella slows the train as it approaches switch 51 A. He stops at the switch, and Byle jumps off and directs Scudella until the last boxcar is past the switch. Scudella calls the trolley controller to receive permission to back onto a “crossover” track, which will allow the freight train to move onto the parallel set of tracks. The spur for Baker Hardwood comes off these northbound trolley tracks, but trolleys are still running, so the controller has to be sure the next trolley is far enough away for the freight train to use the track to back onto Baker’s connecting spur. When permission is received, Byle throws the switches. The train backs onto the northbound tracks, “fouling” them for oncoming trolleys and turning the closest signals red, and then moves onto the spur. Scudella stops the train and gets out to close the spur switch so that trolleys can use the track while the freight train is on the spur. Byle directs as the locomotive and its four cars are backed into two other boxcars at the company’s loading dock. “Good on the hitch!” Byle calls through the walkie-talkie, and Scudella eases them out and leaves them on another branch of the spur. Scudella backs the train alongside the loading dock, and the car full of lumber is disconnected.

After connecting back on to the empties, Scudella lights another cigar and calls for permission to move onto the northbound tracks. When the switches have been thrown and the train is safely back through the crossover and onto the southbound tracks, the switches are closed and locked and Byle climbs back aboard the locomotive for the run to the border. Byle is twenty-four, and although he has only worked on the railroad since last July, he is already qualified as an engineer. He was working as a cabinetmaker before, “But I just really like trains and thought it’d be neat to work here,” he explains. Dick Engle says Byle came around asking for a job for six months before Engle finally hired him. “The big railroads are letting a lot of people go, so I get applications for work every day,” Engle says. “Fred didn’t have any railroad experience, but he’s the kind of man I wanted working for me.”

Byle professes to love hustling in and out of the locomotive all the livelong night, and he seems to enjoy the responsibility. One major derailment could severely damage such a small company, and a simple lapse of concentration on Byle’s part could bring about such a mishap. In his short railroad career, Byle has already performed some heroics. The night before last Thanksgiving, as the train was pushing an empty boxcar down Commercial Street, Byle, riding the point, observed a young man on a bicycle trying to ride across the tracks fifty feet ahead of the boxcar. But his bike’s tire skidded in the rail, and he went sprawling, along with his fast-food chicken dinner, across the tracks. “He just froze, with his mouth open, staring at the train,” Byle relates. Byle jumped down off the car and ran to the man and yanked the bike rider clear. The train, which Scudella had thrown into emergency braking, didn’t stop until it had crossed the point where the man’s legs had been lying across the tracks.

Sometimes the fog gets so thick on this night train to the border that Byle and Scudella can’t see the front of the locomotive. They have to watch for trolley riders scattering all over the tracks after exiting the trolley, and sometimes they have to guard against illegal commuters hitching a free ride north. (The Santa Fe Railroad between San Diego and Los Angeles has a much higher concentration of illegal riders.) Scudella has rearview mirrors in which he can observe the rail cars behind him. One recent night he saw two men running alongside trying to jump on, “but I just goosed it,” he laughs. “They didn’t make it.”

At the border the three remaining cars are left in the rail yard, and Scudella and Byle don’t return with empties to San Diego until the early hours of the morning. By 7:00 a.m. Dick Engle is driving alongside the tracks at the San Diego rail yard, counting the empties before he goes into the office. “People don't realize the accounting process involved in railroading,” he says. Once a customer empties a rail car, the SD&IV must pay rent on it until the Santa Fe comes to the yard and hauls it away. “We pay per ^ diem on all these cars, anywhere from fourteen or fifteen dollars a day for an I older car, to fifty or sixty dollars a day | for these newer ones. We can’t have | these empty cars sitting around for very | long.” Each day, by about ten in the morning, Engle and his secretary know what cars are awaiting delivery that night and what empty cars are costing them money. By the time the 1:00 p.m.-to-9:00 p.m. work crew arrives, Engle will have decided whether they’ll be working on the track, helping to service the locomotives, or any of a dozen other jobs. “We’re a model operation | across the country,” he says. “People | come in to observe us all the time, because there aren’t many successful lines that share both passenger and freight service.”

Whether or not substantial profits can be wrung from the freight operation is still an open question. “It’s not going to be a big moneymaker,” remarks accountant Rick Yager, who conducted a I detailed financial analysis of the line for I MTDB. “There’s just too much | competition.”

Mac Irvin, the railroad’s marketing man, is optimistic about expanding the business, but he’s also realistic. “We have a great product, it should be an easy sell, but really it’s a very difficult sell,” he explains. “A few years ago, when interest rates jumped, people slashed their inventories, and truck loads are much smaller than train loads.

But now that interest rates are back I down and people are expanding inventories, we’re up against that habit of | moving things by truck. A lot of what | we’re up against are people’s attitudes. There’s no doubt in my mind that rail service is a necessity for San Diego, and I tell myself there’s room for expansion, but Los Angeles is so close, and I-5 and I-15 are so wide.”


SD&A's first locomotive, October 1909

SD&A's first locomotive, October 1909

San Diego Historical Society

By 1907, when ground was first broken at the foot of Twenty-eighth Street for construction of the San Diego & Arizona Railroad, most San Diegans had already given up hope that the long-held dream of a direct line to Yuma would ever be realized. Although completion of a branch line from National City to Barstow in 1882 helped set off boom times in San Diego, it was rival Los Angeles that became the southern nexus of California’s major railroad lines. San Diego’s decades of frustration in trying to attract a major rail line stretched back to the Civil War, when it was the young town’s misfortune to be the favored terminus of the Southern states, which turned out to be the wrong side. After that, “paper” railroads came and went like swallows, each one a pipe dream of linking directly to the east, and each one dying the agonizing death of the underfunded. Then in 1905 calamity struck, and out of that was bom the San Diego & Arizona Railroad.

In that year the swollen Colorado River took a sudden right turn and began flowing into the farm-laden Imperial Valley. As the river’s chicanery wreaked economic disaster, President Theodore Roosevelt realized that unless the river were turned back around, what we now call the Salton Sea would soon be the banks of the Sea of Cortez. Roosevelt prevailed upon the Southern Pacific Railroad, which was controlled by tycoon Edward H. Harriman, to use the railroad to dump tons of rock and gravel into the Colorado to stop its rampaging course. Harriman succeeded, and the feat was recognized as one of the nation’s major engineering accomplishments. But at the same time, the railroad man realized the advantage of having a direct line from the Imperial Valley to the coast at San Diego. He immediately teamed up with John D. Spreckels, the San Diego business baron who already owned three local railroads, the San Diego Union, the Hotel Del Coronado, and about everything else of importance to the town. With Harriman as his silent partner, Spreckels began work on what was to be known by historians as the last major railroad line in the nation: the San Diego & Arizona.

Events seemed to conspire against the railroad. Shortly after groundbreaking on September 7, 1907, the U.S. was wracked by severe depression, and money for railroad construction dried up. Then, two years later, just as construction finally got under way, Harriman died. The new Southern Pacific chief promptly canceled Harriman’s contract with Spreckels, which shut off the major flow of money into the SD&A. Spreckels resolved to build the line himself. The Mexican Revolution prompted all the Mexican laborers to leave the railroad job in 1911, and the construction trains were raided and commandeered. In February, 1912, the Southern Pacific sued Spreckels for the three million dollars the company had invested in the SD&A. Spreckels fought this suit until it was dismissed in 1916, and the SP became a partner once again. Eventually all railroad operations throughout the U.S. were taken over by the federal government, and all railroad construction was halted. But Spreckels went to Washington and convinced the federal government that San Diego’s line was of strategic importance, due to the local harbor and growing naval fleet. The SD&A became the only railroad authorized to operate outside of federal control, and construction resumed.

San Diego’s great flood of 1916 tore out rails in the South Bay area and in parts of Mexico. By the time the construction front reached the Carrizo Gorge, where it would cost four million dollars to build only eleven miles of track, the SD&A had survived more than its share of adversity.

The Carrizo Gorge, which separates the Imperial Valley from San Diego’s eastern mountains, is where engineers dubbed the SD&A “the impossible railroad.” It required the blasting of seventeen tunnels and the construction of fourteen “side hill” trestles, where one rail was laid on the steep slope and the other was suspended out over wooden supports. Much of the construction took place during the summer of 1919, under the intense desert heat. When Spreckels finally drove the golden spike that connected the line from Seeley to San Diego, Mayor Louis Wilde all but crowned the man who finally gave San Diego its railroad. “You have often heard the remark that San Diego is a one-man town,” Wilde said. “Personally, I feel proud to live in San Diego when it is referred to as a one-man town.... This afternoon you can’t give our great leader enough glory.”

The railroad remained a part of the Spreckels fortune until 1932, when the depression forced Spreckels heirs to sell out to the Southern Pacific. The railroad was renamed the San Diego & Arizona Eastern, and it continued both freight and passenger service until 1951, when the postwar automobile and highway boom killed off the passenger service. Interstate 8 is thirty-nine miles shorter than the railroad tracks between San Diego and El Centro, making transportation faster by truck than by rail. Freight traffic steadily declined, and the Southern Pacific claimed a loss on the line of $1.1 million in 1975. Then in 1976 Hurricane Kathleen struck the West Coast and washed out fifty sections of track, destroyed three trestles, and damaged five others. Rather than pay the estimated $1.27 million to repair the line, the Southern Pacific applied to the ICC for authorization to abandon it altogether. Permission was denied, after a local hue and cry from shippers, politicians, and railroad buffs. Luckily for the Southern Pacific, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board needed parts of the railroad right-of-way for its trolley, and the MTDB was able to purchase the whole line, after it had been repaired by the Southern Pacific, for $18.1 million, which is about what Spreckels and the Southern Pacific had originally paid to build it.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader