Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Notes from an accidental railfan

I hope everyone is having a pleasant holiday season. While returning from our Christmas visit to the ancestral homeland in Southern California, I had the chance to do a little accidental railfanning.

I grew up in Palmdale, less than a half mile from the SP (now UP) line from L.A. over Tehachapi *. As a kid, I often listened in the night to the passing trains blowing their horns for the crossings of Sierra Highway and Avenue P (yep, just a letter). During the summer we'd ride bikes into town and sometimes wait at the Sierra Highway crossing for a train to pass.

Then, as now, I wasn't much of a railfan. I do enjoy seeing real trains in their natural environment, but I generally have spent my hobby time in other ways. So much of what I like about railroading has passed out of existence that railfanning today's rail scenes doesn't generally hold a lot of interest.

But I thought it might be neat to travel home from Palmdale to the Bay Area along a different route than our usual path up Interstate 5. And what better path to take than to follow the passing trains to Tehachapi? (Sorry, no pictures, just words -- remember, I'm an accidental railfan. But here are some others on the web.)

We started out on Highway 14, which quickly leads to Mojave. Now made more famous by Pelle S√łeborg's articles in the model press, Mojave is a bit grittier and larger than suggested by his well-done layout. Most of the neat railroad buildings of my youth are gone, but the small yard was full of UP and BNSF trains, including some Norfolk Southern run-through power in a BNSF consist. The yard may have been more crowded than usual since we were traveling the day after Christmas.

Turning onto Highway 58, we were treated to our first train, running Westbound (roughly compass Northwest) through the sweeping curve near Warren. Double stacks and trailers-on-flatcars, with a four engine head-end consist including three different variations of the disappointing (in my view) orange and green BNSF livery and one glorious Santa Fe super fleet unit still in silver-and-red warbonnet. (Nope, still no photos)

The big cement plant at Monolith (others' photos here and here) provided the opportunity for me to share details of its history and function with my wife and daughter, whose complete silence indicated their rapt attention. Or not.

Through Tehachapi, we passed another BNSF train of stacks and pigs, again Westbound. Near the fabled loop at Walong, a very long UP train auto carrier train came into view, including some of the giant "Auto Max" cars I had not seen before in real life. Armour Yellow everywhere, no heritage power on this high-priority movement. And yet another Westbound UP container train just beyond the loop. A great show on a beautiful clear day. Since I am working on a design project right now that includes the loop, it was fun to have a reminder of how spectacular the area is in real life.

Eastbounds were in the hole all along the way -- obviously the Dispatcher was fleeting the Westbounds to get things moving on this day after the holiday.

A quick stop for lunch in Bakersfield (geez, those Happy Meals are sure an effective marketing gimmick!), then over the (compass) west end of the former ATSF yard. As we were working our way across the San Joaquin Valley on 7th Standard Road, we encountered the neat small industry (shown at left in a view from Google Maps) along the former ATSF line south of Shafter. This is a place called "Crome" by the Santa Fe, and "Hights Corner" on other maps.

I don't happen to have the Santa Fe CLIC Book for this area and my auto mates didn't seem so keen on a stop, so I'm not sure what industry is located here now, but there was still rail activity. Definitely a modelgenic size and the angled intersection of the streets and rail lines made for an interesting configuration. There also seems to be a bulk unloading facility running along the aptly-named "Santa Fe Way" road slanting from top-left to bottom-right in the view.

Our travels then took us briefly on Interstate 5 until we could leave the hordes behind for a scenic jaunt through Coalinga (no search there for remnants of the SP, though) and on to the west on Highway 198. Just before joining Highway 101, I took a side trip through the burg of San Lucas on the former SP Coast Line. A large concrete elevator had attracted my eye in the past, but the industry seems now dormant. One forlorn and rusty covered hopper was spotted at another industry in town, so perhaps there is still some rail activity here.

Night and the rain began falling at about the same time, so that put an end to even my (very) casual railfanning. With relatives and friends in So Cal, I've traveled from north to south and back again many times in the past. I've sometimes focused on areas along the way that represented specific modeling interests, like the SP/ATSF Sunset Railway and the route of my proto-freelanced Midland Pacific. But my experience this week suggests that maybe I should have a slightly more open mind on my next trip …. and get out the camera! That is, for any trip I make without my family of reluctant railfans.

*For more on railroads in the Antelope Valley, I recommend Phil Serpico's book Railroading through the Antelope Valley. John Signor's fabulous Tehachapi book, along with Serpico's, gave me a real appreciation for what was passing by through those years of my youth.