Timeless Tehachapi

Posted by Bill Stephens
on Thursday, September 19, 2019

Seen from the historical marker overlooking Techachapi Loop, a BNSF Railway bare table train ascends the California landmark.
If you love art, you visit the Louvre. If you love beer, you head to Munich. And if you love watching trains, well, you have to go to Tehachapi.

I’ve longed to see this rugged mountain railroad in Southern California since I was a teenager, when the pages of Trains Magazine introduced me to Tehachapi Loop. Over the years circumstances always prevented me from visiting. I was in Long Beach, Calif., this week to cover the Intermodal Association of North America’s annual Intermodal Expo and while I was nearby I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see one of the greatest shows in railroading.

With its distributed power units trailing along overhead, a Union Pacific manifest train descends the Tehachapi grade at Bealville.
On Saturday I finally checked Tehachapi off my bucket list – and it did not disappoint. In fact, it surpassed my expectations. A steady stream of Union Pacific and BNSF Railway trains tackled the grade, corkscrewed around curves, and plunged through tunnels on the route that Southern Pacific civil engineer William Hood so masterfully laid out in the 1870s.

You have to admire the 3,000 Chinese laborers whose backbreaking work carved out the line through the Tehachapis between 1874 and 1876, creating the first rail route to link San Francisco and Los Angeles.

While much has changed since the SP and Santa Fe battled gravity here, the way UP and BNSF move tonnage safely up and down the pass today is as timeless as it is impressive.

Trains wrap around themselves at Caliente curve. Moments after passing you at the Bealville grade crossing, they pop out of Tunnel 5 and seem impossibly high on the mountainside. And from overlooks above Tehachapi Loop, you can see trains wind their way upgrade forever, heading in every direction on the compass before finally crossing over themselves at the loop itself.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight, detouring around track work, rounds Caliente curve.
A friend describes Tehachapi as someone’s bad model railroad, with grades that are too steep, curves that are too sharp, and tunnels that are too numerous. Yet truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. And Tehachapi’s extremes are what makes this mountain railroad so alluring.

You can reach Bill Stephens at bybillstephens@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @bybillstephens

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