Fifty years of the Palmdale cutoff

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, October 30, 2017

SP's Palmdale Cutoff, the longest stretch of new railroad in a quarter century, takes shape as rails and ties advance across the desert east of Palmdale on February 22, 1967. Tom Gildersleeve photo
A random search the other day through back issues of Trains magazine brought me up short. There, on page 8 of the October 1967 issue, was a photo of Southern Pacific SD40 No. 8478, about to punch through a banner at Palmdale, Calif., heralding the opening of the brand new Colton-Palmdale Cutoff, a shortcut around Los Angeles via Cajon Pass.

Fifty years! It’s a bit hard to believe. I can remember when news coverage of the opening was proof that at least some railroads could embrace the future, and even today the cutoff looks like something a railroad would build today.  

The construction of the Palmdale Cutoff (as most refer to it now) was emblematic of the era of Donald J. Russell, the legendary railroader who led SP as president from 1952 to 1964, and thereafter as chairman until 1972. Russell thought big and acted big, gradually turning SP into a leaner and more profitable railroad with big improvements in motive power, emphasis on piggyback, and diversification into pipelines and communications, along with his much-criticized reduction in SP’s vaunted passenger services.

SP’s industry profile improved so much in the mid-1960s that, at one point, Trains Editor David P. Morgan was moved to ask, “Is SP the new standard railroad of the world?”

Something as big as the Palmdale Cutoff would indicate an emphatic “yes.”

It was obvious SP needed the cutoff. Before it opened, all of SP’s freight trains moving from the Sunset Route north to the San Joaquin Valley were obligated to traipse through Los Angeles, then go twisting and climbing northward to Palmdale and Lancaster along the Saugus Line, which included the picturesque but tortuous Soledad Canyon.

Four units head out of Palmdale to begin the 78-mile trip down the cutoff to Colton on May 1, 1980. David Lustig
The solution would be a bypass running from Colton, near the site a few years later of SP’s sprawling new West Colton yard, north through Cajon Pass alongside the Santa Fe, then heading northwest for Palmdale across the Antelope Valley north of the San Gabriel Mountains.

In today’s atmosphere of NIMBY protests, protracted environmental investigations, and lawsuits, it’s hard to imagine something as audacious as what SP did. From the perspective of a half-century, it looks like a miracle.

But in those days, a railroad could do those things. SP committed $22 million to the project, building 78 new miles of single-track railroad, plus six 8,000-foot sidings, supported by 18,400 tons of welded rail, 285,000 ties, and 300,000 tons of ballast.

News photos from 1967 of the construction show the sheer size of SP’s project, which included new right of way through massive new cuts in Cajon Pass, all within a stone’s throw of the Santa Fe’s track. The SP said it had to move 6 million cubic yards of earth, enough, Morgan said, to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum more than five times.

An SP sugar beet train has just about completed its climb out of the L.A. Basin via Cajon Pass at it approaches Hiland siding on July 2, 1972. In the right distance is the Santa Fe's line over Cajon, soon to be realigned. R. T. Sharp photo
The cutoff would be, considering the terrain, a super railroad. No curvature would exceed 6 degrees, and no grade would be steeper then 2.2 percent. There wasn’t a tunnel in sight. Most important to the railroad, it saved SP freight trains 46 miles in running, along with 1.44 percent less of eastbound gradient, 769 fewer feet in elevation, and 2,950 fewer degrees of curvature. The investment was bound to pay off.

No one was more proud of the cutoff than Russell. For years he had tangled and negotiated with Santa Fe over whether both railroads would share the Santa Fe’s main line through Cajon (also used by Union Pacific), and he was consistently rebuffed. Santa Fe’s decision “left the SP with nothing to do but build its own line,” he later said. He couldn’t help adding that “we built a line of such quality that our freight trains pass their [Santa Fe’s] passenger trains.” Take that, John Santa Fe!

From the beginning, the cutoff was never a line of high train density; in its first years it saw an average of five trains each way a day, a pattern that persists 19 years after SP was merged into UP. SP’s bread and butter was east-west to traffic to Southeastern and Midwestern gateways via the Sunset Route and the Cotton Belt. When it opened for business, the cutoff was dark territory served by train-order offices. The line was converted to CTC in 1980.

The Palmdale Cutoff was never a route for passenger trains, although over the years it has hosted the occasional excursion, always a boon to collectors of rare mileage. (You can ride the old Saugus Line every day of the week courtesy of Metrolink’s Antelope Valley Line trains to Lancaster.)

A few years ago I rode an L.A.–Bakersfield round trip sponsored by Amtrak, and although Tehachapi and its famous Loop were ostensibly the real prizes, I was drawn just as much to the prospect of seeing the Cutoff out the window. It turned out to be a non-scenic, no-nonsense piece of high desert railroad. But viewed in the context of SP in those bold days of the 1960s, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

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