Sunday, May 11, 2008

Train Rides

We were getting pretty blasé about riding the train, regularly going down on the Tecate run into Mexico for the day, and on the long, once a year trip nearly to Tijuana. Last weekend, we got the ride of a lifetime.

The RR that the museum runs on connects San Diego with the Union Pacific in El Centro. This rail line is known as the impossible railway as the terrain is difficult, to say the least. El Centro is actually below sea level, and San Diego is at sea level. In between are a lot of steep mountains and valleys, very little flat land, and all of it strewn with rocks, and lacking water. The path of the railway through this looks like over cooked spaghetti, squiggles and loops, there are 18 tunnels and 20 or so trestles, rising to 3660 feet and back down. The line had to go into Mexico on its western end to avoid the San Ysidro Mountains. I-8 crosses this territory with 23 miles of 6% grade.

The most spectacular part of the line goes through Carrizo Gorge, hugging the steep sides, passing through tunnels, over trestles including the Goat Canyon Trestle, the tallest wooden trestle in the US. Railroad buffs dream of going over this, but the whole eastern end of the line is not certified for passenger traffic, nor could we afford the insurance. We have many visitors asking wistfully when we will run a train there, and could probably fill a one time train at $500 a seat.

There is a small freight train company that runs over the whole line, usually only one or two trains a week, and a museum member drives for them on occasion. Don and I were invited to go along!! WOW. This is huge, and there are many members who would give their eye teeth to go through here, so we keep it quiet.

We drove east down in the desert to Coyote Wells to pick up the engine, and spent most of the day moving cars around, a time consuming and bewildering process. We sat in the cab of the diesel engine, with earplugs on and watched our friend and the other RR employees do their thing.

The first excitement is plaster dust on the rails where we pass US Gypsum’s drywall plant. The load is heavy, dry hopper cars, and the engine comes to a halt, slipping on the dust, sanders not working very well. So we go back and leave half of the cars, go up to a siding, and then back to get the second half.

After some more switching we head up for the gorge, throttle on Run 8, which means flat out, past an old water tank, climbing up through the desert hills and then turning into the gorge. With the engine roaring and throbbing with the effort, we are going about 10 miles an hour.

It is now late afternoon, and the mountains are pale blues and lavenders, the air is softly hazy, and we go out to stand on the very front of the engine. The sides of the gorge drop away blue on our right, we can see palm trees at a spring down below, and cactus and yucca and tough bushes on the sides. On our left, the rocks and cactus soar upward, lit up all yellow-orange by the last sunlight. It is all loose rock, decomposing granite, and the tracks weave along the edge, ducking onto tunnels, and shooting out on trestles. Building this rail line was pretty nearly madness, in many places you can’t take a step without climbing from rock to rock, summer daytime temperatures go well over 100, and it snows regularly up at this altitude. I worried that my fear of heights was going to send me scurrying back to the cab, there is a rail for only part of this bowsprit place and when the engine starts into a curve, it goes alarmingly straight for a little ways. But it is all too beautiful to be scary.

The next excitement is mud on the tracks in a tunnel, which make the wheels slip again. We have been obeying the speed limit, 5 mph, but we back up and take a run to get past the mud. I wondered if we would get stuck out here, no way to communicate, I never thought trains had trouble like this, I thought they just went on, saying I think I can I think I can.

And then, coming out of another really long tunnel, in the distance, there is the BIG trestle! It curves along the side of the gorge, made of massive redwood (steel can’t take the temperature extremes) a spider bridge spanning the canyon that enters the gorge. There is a lot of visual tension between the steep sides of the mountains all around and this thin rail line that tries to stay as level as it can. It’s almost like a reversed roller coaster: the ground is swooping up and down and we are trying to stay still, at least in the vertical plane.

Another two tunnels and we are going out on the big trestle. Oddly, it doesn’t seem all that high off the ground, and not scary compared to the abyss of the gorge. It is a gorgeous structure, a sculpture stretched across the canyon, and on a tight curve as well. We are whooping with the sight of it, and the thrill of the ride, and also that we are seeing something most folks will never see. A slightly insane engineering marvel.

Gradually we come up out of the gorge, up on the shoulder of the grade, and pull into the little town of Jacumba as the sun falls. The train guys have to stop here because they have been working for 12 hours, which is the legal limit. We are still, even after all that climbing, not at the 3660-foot top of the westbound grade.

I still get a buzz remembering those depths and heights with our train running along the shoulders, plunging inside the mountains and then flying over the trestles. We weren’t going very fast, but we surely were high up and it was just stunning.


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