Now out of legal limbo, Fillmore & Western is well worth a trip

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Saturday, September 16, 2017

I reported in Trains News Wire today on a major victory for the Fillmore & Western Railway, a southern California tourist railroad that’s been locked in a seven-year dispute with the county authority that owns the track it uses, but relies on the railroad’s workforce to maintain the 35 miles of track and perform day-to-day tasks. Excursion train crews are all volunteers with the railway's partner nonprofit, the Santa Clara River Valley Railroad Historical Society. One of those volunteers is a friend of mine. I finally had the chance to take my first ride on the F&W three weeks ago with my friend as assistant conductor.

Alco S6 no. 1059 prepares to lead the Aug. 26 Weekend Scenic westward from the F&W's Fillmore depot. Photos by Malcolm Kenton.
Every tourist and excursion railroad is a unique creature with its own quirks and charms. These lines tend to be defined by their geographic location and surrounding landscape, by the local people who work on the trains and at the stations, and by the often motley array of equipment each has acquired, each piece with its own back story. A sampling of American tourist railroads gives one a broad picture of the story of the railroad in American life, more so than taking an Amtrak trip or watching freight rail action on a main line or at a busy yard.

The best tourist railroads combine a friendly and enjoyable on-board experience with good scenery and an interesting destination. The F&W has all three in spades. The railroad is also famous, though most don’t know it by name, thanks to its cameo appearances as backdrop for a number of movie scenes and TV commercials. Traditionally, the railroad’s excursions, starting and ending in downtown Fillmore, have had the downtowns of nearby Santa Paula and Piru as destinations, but temporary track closures prevent trains from reaching these points. 

The F&W Weekend Scenic stops for 30 minutes at Bennett's Honey Farm in Piru, Calif.
Luckily, the F&W has partnered with interesting intermediate destinations that remain accessible. On the west end of the available trackage lies “The Loose Caboose,” an eclectic nursery, art and souvenir shop whose owner has family ties to the F&W. On the east is Bennett’s Honey Farm, which produces an amazing variety of organic honey in its entirely solar-powered apiary. Passengers are allowed 30 minutes to wander around and sample the wares at each spot within the 4-hour round-trip excursion.

The scenery, which is best enjoyed from an open-air flatcar with park bench-style seating covered by a canvas canopy at the leisurely pace of 10 mph, encompasses many facets of the southern California landscape. The valley of the Santa Clara River, much less populous than the better-known valleys to its south and east, showcases rugged scrub-covered mountains in the distance with lush farmland in the foreground, with everything from apple, almond and citrus orchards to a nursery whose fields present a rainbow of colors from flowers. Traveling along the river, the land gently undulates, presenting an even mix of uphill and downhill grades. You also wind through thickly vegetated riparian areas along the mostly dry streams that flow from the mountains into the river.

Aug. 26 Weekend Scenic passengers enjoy views of the agricultural 'Heritage Valley' of Ventura County.
When you need a break from the fresh air, which often gets hot in the summer, you can step into the heavyweight Powhatan cafe/parlor car, the standard consist’s only air-conditioned car. Built in 1928 for the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and remodeled for the Royal American Shows circus train in 1982, the brightly painted interior presents a jovial atmosphere for enjoying the selection of sandwiches, chips and beverages (including California beer and wine) offered for sale.

The fact that the F&W, perhaps more than any other tourist railroad thanks to its proximity to Hollywood, hosts movie and television shoots means that the variety of equipment on display on its yard tracks in Fillmore is particularly intriguing. Included are well-preserved historic boxcars with a variety of paint schemes, mostly Southern Pacific, and at least three cabooses. The variety of passenger cars of mixed vintages includes a streamlined train set used for the railroad’s dinner trains and everything from heavyweights to an ex-Santa Fe Hi-Level crew dorm car still in Phase II Amtrak paint. Among the equipment being used in screen productions now was a fanciful heavyweight-style observation car lettered for the “Trans-Eternal Railway.” And just east of Fillmore, the train travels through a short artificial tunnel built to replicate more mountainous terrain on the screen. More on the F&W’s history and current operations can be found here.

A trip on the Fillmore & Western is well worth the 90-minute drive from downtown L.A. on a Saturday, or on a weekend evening for the dinner train. If you’re in L.A. without a car, you can either rent one or use a carshare service, or ride Metrolink’s Ventura County line from L.A. Union Station to Moorpark or East Ventura and take a short taxi or ride-hailing trip to Fillmore. With a frustrating legal tussle behind it and some extra cash in the bank, we can look forward to the railroad continuing to draw and delight visitors for decades to come.

The Aug. 26 Weekend Scenic on one of its three grade crossings of State Highway 126, the main road through the 'Heritage Valley.'

Two cars being used in screen production at the F&W's Fillmore yard. The closer car is lettered for the "Trans-Eternal Railway."

A 'haunted house' built for screen production visible from the train near Bennett's Honey Farm just west of Piru.

The Weekend Scenic passes through a lushly vegetated part of its route.

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