Just 30 minutes south of San Diego lies the sprawling city of Tijuana in the Mexican state of Baja California. While not necessarily known as a railroading mecca, Tijuana is actually home to one of North America’s most colorful and friendly railroads. The Baja California Railroad (BJRR) has been bringing modern rail service to the industries in the most northwestern corner of Mexico since taking over the Tijuana & Tecate rail line in 2012. BJRR is building new infrastructure, adding customers, and are even working on reactivating the famed Desert Line that runs back across the U.S. border from its eastern end, across Carrizo Gorge Trestle, and on to a connection with the Union Pacific in Plaster City, Calif.
Today’s Baja California Railroad runs on right-of-way originally laid out as part of sugar mogul John D. Spreckels’ San Diego & Arizona Railway. Spreckels, who had retired in San Diego, saw an opportunity to build a competitor to the town’s only rail connection, the Santa Fe, by forging south to Tijuana and then east back to a connection with the Southern Pacific.
Construction began in San Diego in 1907. In 1909, under an agreement with the Mexican government, the SD&A formed the Tijuana & Tecate Company, which constructed the 44-mile Mexican segment and held a 99-year lease. The entire line, to the El Centro connection with the Southern Pacific, was completed in 1919. The rugged territory the line traversed resulted in it being dubbed the “Impossible Railroad.”
The BJRR train passes through one of the tunnels that make up the area around Gonzales Dam. Note the new platform and fencing, which comes into use when the tourist train stops here for views of the dam.
In 1933, descendants of the Spreckels family sold the railroad to the Southern Pacific, which reorganized it as the San Diego & Arizona Eastern. The line was owned and operated by SP until 1979 when it was purchased by San Diego Metropolitan Transit System for use as part of the new San Diego Trolley light rail system then under construction. By this point, the Mexican portion had been turned over to the nationalized railway Ferrocarril Sonora Baja California, which took control in 1970.
Kyle Railways operated the SD&AE until 1984 when two trestle fires on the Desert Line severed its connection at Plaster City. RailTex launched San Diego & Imperial Valley to take over and began regular operation in San Ysidro in 1986. The Carrizo Gorge Railway was subcontracted by SD&IV in 2000 to complete repairs to the Desert Line, and resumed train service in 2004.
Following embargo of the Carrizo Gorge Railway in 2008, the short-lived Pacific Imperial Railway was organized with the goals of rebuilding the railroad and resuming international freight service. What resulted was several months of confusion and disagreements with owner San Diego MTS. In 2012, the Mexican portion of the old SD&AE became today’s Baja California Railroad, resulting in a successful rebirth and an exciting expansion of service that continues to this day.
A road job that just left Estación Tijuana ten minutes earlier heads over a grade crossing with part of the city’s skyline behind it.
A day on the BJRR begins at 7:00 a.m. Monday–Friday in the Tijuana Station, which is located in the Libertad Colony neighborhood at Avenue Ferrocarril and the U.S. border, and which now includes a modern office building that pays homage to railroad architecture and houses much of the company’s operating team of approximately 35 employees. The station also includes the original Tijuana & Tecate depot, which is being transformed into a museum.
There are three crews who work staggered schedules. Most days require only two to be called. The first crew builds the interchange train in the yard. Once the train is ready and the border authorities give the okay, the gates are opened and the train shoves north into the San Diego & Imperial Valley yard in San Ysidro, Calif. SD&IV is now a Genesee & Wyoming subsidiary that operates freight service on the northern end of the original SD&AE between San Diego and San Ysidro. It acts as a bridge, allowing Baja California a connection to BNSF Railway.
Once in the SD&IV yard, the BJRR crew has both a drop and pickup to make. An hour or two later, with permission of the border control, they pull back through the gates into the Tijuana yard. Then they begin the often large job of building the Redondo Valley Turn, which generally includes adding a second locomotive…