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Field Trip: Cajon Pass.

May 13, 2008

Over this last weekend, I went along with a group of my closest railroad buddies on an 1100 mile trek across the Central Valley in California, through the Techapi Mountain Range, and into the Mojave desert. We decided to also go on a bit of a detour to visit some of the best in western mountain railroading: Cajon Pass.


The Pass is spectacularly beautiful, and this time of year (May) it’s 80*F Degrees and sunny. It’s SO nice to be somewhere in California so remote that there aren’t ANY buildings in view from where we were. The Pass itself is only 20 miles from San Bernadino, yet it’s really untouched, almost pre-historic, except for the obvious attraction: these 4 (Four!) mainlines that run through Cajon (Box in Spanish) Pass. Three of the Mainlines are owned by the BNSF, and one by the Union Pacific. Because of the varied intensity of the grades between the alignments, one track is used only for ascending the grade (from San Bernardino) and one for Descending (From San Berdoo) with the UP and secondary BNSF main bi-directional, it seems.

BNSF Stack train descending downgrade into San Bernadino while BNSF TOFC trailer-train ascends the grade towards summit, only a mile or two east of my location.


We saw mostly double-stack container trains on Saturday, with a healthy mix of TOFC. We only saw a handful of mixed freight, but certainly enough, considering that there’s a train about every 10 (ten) Minutes!

A rare consist of locomotives on this mixed freight, including an EMD Oakway SD60, an ATSF GP60, and the usual power, a BNSF GEVO/ AC6000.

The Colorful history of the Pass is written in a nutshell below:

The Following is an excerpt from

The first railroad to operate over Cajon Pass was the California Southern Railroad, completed in 1885 with Santa Fe backing. From 1897 until 1902, the railroad was known as the Santa Fe Pacific. Starting in 1905, trains of the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad (now the Union Pacific) began operating over Santa Fe rails through the Pass via a trackage rights agreement which is still in effect.

The original single-track line was built on a 2.2% grade from San Bernardino to Cajon Station. The final six mile climb to Summit was a 3% grade. When the line was double-tracked before WWI, the new track was built on a 2.2% grade the whole way. This resulted in a track that was two miles longer than the original route. This longer, yet gentler grade was used for eastbound, uphill trains, while downhill trains headed westbound on the original route. It was therefore necessary for trains to run left-handed, opposite of the usual practice.

In 1967 the Southern Pacific Railroad built a new, single-track line from West Colton to Palmdale. This line runs fairly close to the Santa Fe alignment between Devore and Summit.

In an attempt to revive passenger rail service, Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970. That Act created Amtrak, which on May 1, 1971 began a nation-wide passenger rail system, including routes through Cajon Pass.

In 1996, Union Pacific merged with Southern Pacific, and the Palmdale Cutoff was now part of the UP and AT&SF trackage agreement.

In 1997, Burlington Northern and AT&SF merged into the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The railroad has over 33,000 route miles covering 28 states and two Canadian provinces. The UP has over 38,000 route miles covering 23 states. 



That brushy field between each track lends to some striking desert scenery! I didn’t run into any animals other than a couple of ground squirrels, but I’d imagine these hills have snakes, other reptiles, and some mammals. 

The highlight of the day was this consist of locomotives charging upgrade. From front to rear; BNSF AC6000, CN SD50F(!), BN SD60 “Whiteface”, BNSF C-44-9W.

What really sets Cajon Pass apart from a variety of good locations out in the Mojave Desert is that they frequently use Helpers. This pair of C-44-9W’s drifts almost silently downgrade ready to help a variety of trains upgrade today. They worked hard pushing the rear of at least 4 trains we saw that day.


This being my first trip to Cajon, I was floored at all the trains we had seen from 12-5. TRAINS magazine says that in a 25hr period, 100 trains travel over Cajon, and now that I’ve seen it, I can believe it! If you have a chance to go in the spring, I’d recommend it over any other time of the year. The Ground is still cool, not baked like it inevitably will be by June, July, August, September & October. The temperature is ideal, and the trains, as always, spectacular.

Obviously there aren’t any bathrooms out in the middle of nowhere, so please keep that in mind. Also bring LOTS of water, you’ll need it. Sunscreen is NECESSARY, and an umbrella, a cooler full of drinks and some folding chairs would be welcome additions.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Orlyn Glover permalink
    May 23, 2008 4:19 pm

    Excellent Photos of Cajon Pass and the TEHACHAPI LOOP.
    I model the area in G scale and Operate by timetable.
    Thanks, Orlyn

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