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Go West Episode III: San Francisco Railroading

Above: San Francisco Bay Railroad ALCO S-2 takes a cut of “dirty dirt” cars out of their small bay area rail yard. This shortline was definitely among our favorites on this trip. All photos are © 2016 by Michael Polk and Drayton Blackgrove.

Part III of our series begins on February 2nd and we’re in Watsonville, California as guests at The Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway. After a series of unfortunate weather events, Michael Polk and I had to change our plans from visiting the Tehachapi Loops southern California to visiting this unique Iowa Pacific-owned shortline railroad. We certainly were not disappointed, as our friends at this unique shortline allowed us special access to their operations. The Santa Cruz & Monterey Bay Railway provides freight service, connecting with the Union Pacific at Watsonville Junction, California. The railroad also operates seasonal excursion trains with plans for additional excursion service and dinner trains.

Construction was started on the Santa Cruz Railroad in 1873 and completed in 1876 as a narrow gauge line. The Santa Cruz was later acquired by the Southern Pacific in 1881 and shortly after was converted to standard gauge. SP ultimately acquired other lines into Santa Cruz but before the SP was merged into the Union Pacific in 1996, only the 32 miles between Watsonville Junction, Santa Cruz, and Davenport remained. The line was eventually purchased by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. In 2012 Iowa Pacific was selected to operate the line and service commenced in November, 2012. At several locations the line hugs the Pacific Ocean and features well-known trestles at La Selva and Rio Del Mar. Another interesting feature of this line is that the railroad runs down the middle of Walker Street through downtown Watsonville.  Some of the key commodities of this railroad are lumber, frozen food, and input for biodiesel processing.

Below: Ex-ex-Milwaukee, ex-Mount Hood GP9 #89 rolls down Walker Street in downtown Watsonville.

24158847703_8ebc466f83_oToday, ex-Milwuakee Road GP9 #89 was picking up a lone center beam car from the Big Creek Lumber Company. The empty car was to be taken to Union Pacific’s Watsonville Junction Yard to the east of town for interchange. After dropping off the car, the #89 returned as light power. We again caught the locomotive as it ran down the middle of Walker Street.

In all, it was an exciting day. Though visiting this shortline was not on our original schedule, we enjoyed our visit and are still incredibly thankful for the hospitality shown to us by Iowa Pacific. That night, we drove to the outskirts of San Fransisco to pick up our friend, Davis Strench. He would act as our tour guide while visiting the area.

The next day, after picking up Davis from his dorm at the University of Berkley, we found ourselves driving over the bay bridge into downtown San Francisco. After sitting in an intense amount of traffic, we finally made our way to the San Francisco Bay Railroad on the southeast side of the city. This amazing shortline uses an Alco S-2 switcher every day and is very railfan friendly. So much so, we were invited into the cab by our friends Sam and Danylo. Who would have thought we would be riding a diesel in revenue service that is as old as Nickel Plate Road 765?

The State Belt Railroad of California was a shortline that served San Francisco’s waterfront until the 1980’s. Although locals nicknamed the line the Toonerville Trolley and the Wooden Axle Line, the State Belt had an illustrious career. The first trackage of the State Belt was built by the Board of State Harbor Commissioners in 1889. At that time, the lands along waterfront were owned by the State, not San Francisco. These lands were once under water, so they were not included in the original survey of the City.

IMG_0672The original tracks were dual-gauged, to allow transfer of narrow gauge freight cars from the North Pacific Coast R.R. (Marin County) and the South Pacific Coast R.R. (Alameda, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz counties), as well as standard gauge cars. These first tracks did not yet connect to the outside world – all cars were ferried in from around the San Francisco Bay. Belt tracks finally connected with Southern Pacific tracks in 1913 at a small interchange yard located at Townsend and Berry Streets.

Left: Engineer Sam from the SFBR smiles for a photograph. 

The State Belt built a five-stall concrete-reinforced roundhouse at Sansome and the Embarcadero. (This historic structure still stands today as an office building). This engine facility housed a modest number of oil-fired steam switchers (mostly 0-6-0’s), and later, ALCO S-2 diesels. The railroad also owned four freight cars – idler flatcars that were used to prevent the heavy engines from rolling onto the car ferries.

State Belt’s ferry slips were located near Fisherman’s Wharf. The railroad transferred cars from the Santa Fe, the Northwestern Pacific, and the Western Pacific. In the twenties, the Santa Fe built its own car ferry operation in China Basin, and State Belt tracks were extended over Third Street and the Mission Creek drawbridge to make a connection.

Construction at the 1915 Panama-Pacific World’s Fair and traffic to Fort Mason justified the construction of a tunnel, 1500 feet long, 15 feet wide and 22 feet high underneath the Fort Mason Military Reservation. Eventually tracks were extended across what is now the Marina District to Crissy Field to serve the Presidio. World War II generated a large amount of trans-Pacific traffic, and the State Belt contributed greatly to the movement of materials during the War. Army and Navy switchers were added to provide enough locomotive capacity. The State Belt also delivered trainloads of fresh troops to debarkation points, and picked up hospital trains and returning troops. The railroad moved 156 troop trains and 265 hospital trains in 1945 alone.

Operations slowly wound down as shipping moved across the Bay to Oakland. In 1969, with the State wanting to get out of the port business, San Francisco voters approved a bond issue to buy the Port of San Francisco. The State Belt R.R. thus became the San Francisco Belt Railroad. Later in 1973, the City offered to sell the railroad to any operator for $1. After more than half a year, a 20-year contract to operate the railroad was signed with KYLE Railways. Total trackage had fallen from 67 miles in 1950 to 58 miles in 1973.

By 1993, most trackage north of the Ferry building was gone or inactive. The only activity took place at Pier 96, a newly built container facility near Hunter’s Point. ALCO S-2 #23 was chosen to serve the facility, and was given a new number (#49) and a new paint job in 49er colors. At the same time Alco #25 began a long term loan from the Port of San Francisco to the Golden Gate Railroad Museum at the Hunters Point Shipyard. Soon thereafter, the #49 was also loaned to the museum. They joined State Belt Steam Engine #4 as part of the GGRM’s San Francisco Railroading Heritage collection.24713422521_ff4423a527_o

Right: SFBR #23 takes another cut of cars from the ship yard, with a classic plume of ALCO made carbon exhaust.

In 2000, the Belt Railroad was renamed the “San Francisco Bay Railroad” (SFBR), and both ALCO locomotives were sent back to the Port for restoration by SFBR in 2004. In addition to complete restoration of the #23 and #25 to their original condition, the railroad decided to convert both locomotives to use biodiesel. This made SFBR the first railroad in the U.S. to exclusively operate on biodiesel. Today, only one ALCO continues to operate at the Port of San Francisco, with the second being restored. The Bay also plans on receiving an MTU locomotive from the Knoxville Locomotive Works in the future.

SFBR operates on 10,000 feet of track in its paved railyard and a short stretch of track along the southern waterfront of the Port of San Francisco. The railroad’s core business is soils and other waste materials in containers and gondola cars from various San Francisco and East Bay projects and refineries by rail to Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Texas. Loaded trains can be up to 54 cars long and empties vary between 50-80 cars. Each car can carry 100 to 110 tons of payload, the equivalent of 400 – 450 heavy duty diesel trucks. Locomotives operate at speeds averaging 10 miles per hour over short distances.

Today, Union Pacific’s local train, the YSF70, would meet the San Francisco Bay Railroad and interchange at the yard. This local is affectionately named the “South City Switcher” and can usually been seen multiple times throughout the week, interchanging with this unique shortline. Another interesting aspect of this branch is that it street runs for most of the distance to the interchange on Rankin and Quint Streets.

At Rankin Street, the crew of the UP local must wait for CIRCOSTA Iron & Metal’s ground employees to clear the tracks before proceeding to the interchange. This street is extremely busy throughout the day and mass chaos always seems to ensue once the trains arrive on the branch line.

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Above: With a former Cotton Belt locomotive on the point, the local slowly moves down Rankin Street after CIRCOSTA’s ground crews cleared the busy city street.

After catching the locomotives at Rankin Street, we tried to beat it once again at the interchange – but could not navigate around roadway traffic and construction zones fast enough. Earlier that morning, Sam and Danylo took Mike, Davis, and me on a quick trip down the street running segment.

Before leaving the yard limits, any train the travels on this section of trackage must get clearance to cross a double track light rail system on Third Street. This diamond is governed by signals on timers. If there are no light rail trains in the area, the Bay Railroad is given a clear signal and the light rail system is given restricting signals on each main.

While waiting for he UP local to return, we camped out on the corner of Quint Street and Davidson Avenue. We met quite the interesting character in our downtime, who wanted to wait for the train after making a delivery at a local industry… Yes, the land of fruits and nuts… it very well seemed. After an intense political debate with our newly made acquaintance, the delightful sound of an air horn got our attention and we rushed to our positions. Before jumping back onto the main, we caught the train from the Oakdale Avenue overpass with the city as a background. We were shooting through a fence at this location and it can be extremely difficult for anyone with a video camera.24867143886_7dd7ae4ace_o

Above: The South City Switcher slowly rolls down Quint Street after picking up a long train of loads from the SFBR.

After shooting the Union Pacific local, we grabbed lunch in a San Francisco pizza joint. It was delicious and gave us energy for a busy afternoon of watching trains. After stuffing our faces with pizza, we paid a quick visit to the Cable Car Museum in the Nob Hill neighborhood. This museum was a great look into the city’s amazing public transit system with a history spanning over 130 years. Here, the giant cables that move the cars are still in operation and can be seen from a viewing platform. After our visit to the museum, we drove about forty minutes across town to see the Richmond Pacific Railroad. This included a trip over the world famous Golden Gate Bridge.IMG_0693

Left: Richmond Pacific’s GP15-1 #424 at the Levin Richmond Terminal Port.

The Richmond Pacific Railroad is the successor of the Parr Terminal Railroad and its primary function is to serve the Levin-Richmond Terminal (port of Richmond). The railroad acquired a large amount of SP trackage that they were no longer interested in serving and expanded from just the port trackage. They interchange with both BNSF and UP and are heavy in chemicals and export Rocky Mountain region coal to South America. Unfortunately, when we arrived, the crews had just finished their work for the day and were tying down the power. We visited with the management for a little while and left with some souvenirs, including hats and t-shirts.

Right upon leaving the yard, we caught a BNSF light power move with heritage from both the BN and the Santa Fe. Later on, at Crockett, California we shot several Amtrak trains by the C&H Sugar Plant. The line we are on is the old SP, referred to by local area buffs as the ‘Cal-P’ which is short for California Pacific Railroad, which is the fallen flag that a section of the line was built off of. Its officially Union Pacific’s Martinez Subdivision (pronounced Mar-tee-nez). The line sees Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor Service which runs primarily between San Jose and Sacramento but two trains per day extend as far as Auburn, so its really an Auburn to San Jose service.IMG_0695

Right: Mike, Davis, and Danylo admire the sunset as we grabbed our last train of the day at Hercules, CA.

The Capitols are used heavily as long-distance commuter trains and have enjoyed surging ridership since their inception and have some of the highest on time performance in the Amtrak system (its somehwere in the high 90% range, you can look it up Im sure). The line also sees San Joaquins which run between Oakland and Bakersfield and serve the Central Valley. In addition it sees the California Zephyr and Coast Starlight. The line is extremely Amtrak heavy and while a major corridor for UP, it is relatively freight-light.

Moving to the pacific coast, we shot one last train as the sun sank below the horizon. It was a fantastic two days in west central California and it wouldn’t have been possible without our friends at Iowa Pacific and the San Francisco Bay Railroad. These two shortlines put on quite a show and are on the top of our list for the next time we visit the area.

Watch the video below:

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Delay in Block productions is a video production company company specialized in high-definition railroad photos and videos.

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