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Caltrain: The Peninsula Before the Wires

Caltrain Train 138 is only a minute into its run to San Jose as it makes a hard left turn at Seventh and Townsend in San Francisco, Calif. Engine 922 is one of three (920–922) F40PH-2Cs built from the ground up by MPI in 1999. PHOTO BY C.N. SOUTHWELL

Caltrain: The Peninsula Before the Wires

June 2018By C.N. Southwell/photos as noted

Nearing midnight, nearing Christmas. It’s Saturday night in San Francisco. The sun has long since sunk into the Pacific Ocean as the crew of Caltrain 444 hangs train indicator boards on the forward side of the rearview mirror and prepares for departure five minutes into Sunday morning. A signal at CP Fourth Street beckons the train forward under a cantilever signal bridge of SP heritage and around the sweeping bend at Seventh and Townsend. A Nathan P2 air horn blares for the crossing at 16th Street just before the train bends into Mission Bay curve beneath Interstate 280 and into Tunnel 1.

A quick stop is made in the Dogpatch neighborhood at 22nd Street. Not long ago I’m told you wouldn’t want to be here after dark. Today, even in the middle of the night, the platform entertains mostly quiet young people clutching their iPhones waiting for a ride home from the city. The 645 prime mover of an F40 is howling in the eighth notch as the train accelerates away from the station and through Tunnel 2. A headlight appears from the south; Train 443 is the last train you’ll oppose the entire trip. Cranes and grain silos fly by toward the bay just before you disappear into the darkness of Tunnel 3.


Nowhere along the line is the current state of gentrification more apparent than Hayward Park and Hillsdale. The Route 92 overpass provides a perch to watch Train 152 departing Hayward Park station on its 95-minute run to San Jose. Photo by C.N. Southwell

Clearing the bore, you’re in the Bayview neighborhood and out nearly as quickly into Tunnel 4. A signal to diverge at CP Tunnel routes you to Main 4 for your stop at Bayshore. Emptiness lies before you, the remains of SP’s main yard serving San Francisco when it was still a steel and shipping city. Five miles and ten minutes into our trip, we’ve seen our last tunnel. The city is behind us; it’s brakes and gas on a screamer the rest of the way down the peninsula…

The first published thought of a railroad linking San Francisco and San Jose was seen during the height of the Gold Rush in 1849, and the Pacific & Atlantic Railroad was chartered in 1851 but was unable to raise funds for construction. In 1860, the second San Francisco & San Jose Railroad Company was chartered, the first starting in 1859 and lasting only months. Grading and construction of the line began in 1861; the first train was run from San Francisco’s Mission Station to Mayfield on October 17, 1863, shortly after work had begun on the first transcontinental railroad.


Caltrain commutes line up at 4th and King in downtown San Francisco preparing for the southbound evening rush. The sounds of HEP-equipped diesels reverberate against a backdrop of big-city sounds on a beautiful, clear spring day. Photo by Brian Rhoads

San Jose was first reached by train on January 16, 1864. It would be only four years before Collis P. Huntington’s Southern Pacific acquired the line. In the early 20th century, SP President E.H. Harriman had a reroute constructed, the Bayshore Cutoff. The Cutoff left the mainline just north of the present-day station at San Bruno and stayed relatively close to the shore of San Francisco Bay to avoid steep grades encountered between San Francisco and Daly City and provide easier access to the State Belt Railroad and the 50-plus piers it served along the San Francisco waterfront. Eventually, parts of the Bayshore Cutoff would be rerouted to make way for U.S. Highway 101, bypassing Tunnel 5 at Sierra Point. The SP still had an incredible amount of freight moving on the peninsula through the 1960s to go along with its long-distance passenger trains and 27 commutes each way every weekday…

June 2018Read the rest of this article in the June 2018 issue of Railfan & Railroad!

This article was posted on: May 18, 2018