Jan. 15–In Jacumba Hot Springs, less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, Robert Smith lives in an old stationmaster’s house that once serviced the so-called Impossible Railroad, stretching from Imperial County through perilous desert cliffs to the Pacific Coast.
Built by entrepreneur John D. Spreckels roughly a century ago, the 148-mile rail line still partially operates today, moving freight from the city of San Diego into Tijuana and as far east as Tecate.
Smith was hired this summer by Baja California Railroad — the latest company to set its sights on cashing in on a currently inoperable stretch of the railroad known as the desert line.
“This line is always a challenge for the rockslides, sand over tracks, a lot of dry rot in the bridges,” said the 54-year-old diesel mechanic. “There’s a lot of rehabilitation required.”
Driving a pickup equipped with steel guide wheels called a hi-rail, Smith said he regularly chauffeurs the company’s architects and engineers, sometimes U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, to inspect the 70-mile section of track, which continues north from Tecate across the border into Campo through the rocky hills of Carrizo Gorge and eventually connects in Plaster City with Union Pacific Railroad’s system.
For months, the company has been assessing what it would take to restore and maintain the route, including its 17 tunnels and 57 bridges, many of which need structural repairs. In at least two places, boulders and rocks cover the history-laden tracks.
A tantalizing opportunity
Since the days of Spreckels, people have dreamed of running freight through the desert, bypassing Los Angeles and more efficiently connecting the San Diego-Baja California region to eastern markets.
However, everything from fires to floods to prickly politics has plagued the route.
Baja Rail wouldn’t be the first company to attempt to revive the aging desert line, but it could be the most well-funded. At the helm is one of Baja California’s most powerful and politically connected businessmen, the wealthy boxing promoter Fernando Beltran.
Beltran and his team have vowed to invest tens of millions of dollars to conquer the treacherous terrain and more efficiently connect manufacturing plants in Tijuana to U.S. markets. Such a feat could provide an economic boost to the region, as well as dramatically reduce the number of trucks that travel every day in San Diego County on Interstate 5.
His team isn’t stacked with railroad experts, though. It’s composed mostly of former owners and operators of Tijuana factories known as maquiladoras. That includes childhood friend Roberto Romandía Tamayo, who oversees day-to-day operations as Baja Rail’s executive director.
“We’re very familiar with the maquiladoras and the needs that they have, and one of them is a train, obviously,” Tamayo said recently at the company’s newly constructed operations headquarters located in Tijuana at the San Ysidro border. “We are very aware that a state without the infrastructure of a train is not an industrial state. That is one of the main issues why we decided to go into this business.”
Technically, the maquiladoras can move goods via rail through San Diego up to the Port of Long Beach and into Los Angeles County. But it would be significantly more expensive than shipping by truck, which they do now. In large part, that’s because the overhead electrical wires used by trolley cars prevent the double-stacking of rail containers.
Industry boosters north of the border are excited about the idea of a cost-effective alternative to moving freight in semi-trucks from the factories, which assemble goods such as Toyota pick-ups and electronics.
“It would be a game-changer for our region,” said Paola Avila, vice president of international business affairs at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It would be another border crossing for us to help alleviate our cross-border wait times, which gravely impact commerce.”
Freight trucks queue up daily for hours at the Otay Mesa and Tecate international border crossings. The delays cost the binational economy roughly $6 billion and about 51,000 jobs a year, according San Diego Association of Governments data.
If two-hour processing times at the border for big rigs could be reduced, San Diego County could see annual economic activity increase by as much as $455 million and 2,400 jobs, according to SANDAG.
For Baja California, the stakes are even higher, with wait-time losses totaling about $1.3 billion and nearly 7,000 jobs.
Overhauling the desert line, however, is far from a done deal.
A troubled past
Since the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, power players in the San Diego region have desired a rail line to eastern states, said Bruce Semelsberger, archivist for the library of the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association.
“As early as two years after statehood, the first attempt was made by merchants in Old Town to bring in a rail line to San Diego,” he said. “That would have been 1852 when they started talking about it.”
By the late 1800s, what would become the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, or BNSF, would connect San Diego to Los Angeles and to a growing network of rail lines throughout the country.
Still, Spreckels dreamed of connecting San Diego using a rail line through the desert to Yuma to establish a more efficient route to eastern markets. He and his brother, Adolph B. — sons of Claus Spreckels, known as the Sugar King of San Francisco — incorporated the San Diego and Arizona Railway Company in June 1906.
“There had always been rivalries between San Diego and Los Angeles, and San Diegans, for one thing, were galled at having to go through Los Angeles to get anywhere,” Semelsberger said. “The other part of it is if you could go straight to Yuma, you could save hundreds of miles.”
The Spreckels brothers teamed up with the president of Union Pacific Railroad, Edward Henry Harriman, who wanted to extend his line directly into San Diego.
Harriman had become interested in exploiting the agricultural potential of the region after finishing a job for President Theodore Roosevelt plugging the Colorado River, which had broken through its banks in the Imperial Valley and created what would come to be known as the Salton Sea.
“Spreckels agreed to front for them,” he said. “They were to supply the money, Spreckels was going to supply the name and the fame and the local connections.”
A year after forming the San Diego & Arizona, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sept. 7, 1907, in downtown San Diego.
The bad luck started almost immediately, as the county fell into depression and funding for the project dried up.
Eventually, the project got back on track, only to have Harriman die in 1909 and the railroad company nix the agreement. Spreckels was disheartened but determined to raise the money to continue.
Then violent flooding in January 1916, including the collapse of Lower Otay Reservoir Dam, damaged the recently constructed tracks, especially along Campo Creek.
A year later, the U.S. entered World War I. While Spreckels was able to navigate bureaucratic red tape triggered by the conflict, labor shortages and an inflated cost for materials slowed progress.
By December 1919, Southern Pacific Locomotives were running between San Diego to El Centro, only to be held up a few months later by a major rock slide in Carrizo Gorge and the threat of others.
After Spreckels died in 1926, flash floods and fires would continue to impact the line. In 1932, Spreckels’ heirs sold their share of the company to Union Pacific Railroad.
The renamed San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway would continue to run on the line, eventually transitioning to passenger service until 1950, when the company filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission to abandon operations.
“Despite shipping products fairly consistently, they never made a profit most years,” Semelsberger said. “When you write down all the maintenance costs for operating the railroad and other expenses, it only paid for itself and made a profit for the stockholders a couple of years.”
In 1978, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System bought the railroad company in restored condition for $18.1 million. A few years later, freight briefly resumed between San Diego and Plaster City until fires destroyed two bridges on the desert line.
The last time cargo was transported along the desert line was in 2008 when MTS leased the line to private company Carrizo Gorge Railway only to have the route embargoed pending tunnel and bridge rehabilitation.
In 2012, shareholders Charles McHaffie and Dwight Jory seized control of the lease under the name Pacific Imperial Railroad. The company routinely missed deadlines imposed by MTS and racked up lawsuits by investors alleging the company defrauded them. Last year, Pacific Imperial Railroad was thrust into bankruptcy with unsecured debt of more than $7 million.
McHaffie indicated a willingness to be interviewed for this story but didn’t return a request for comment by press time.
A needed nod
In 2012, the Mexican government granted Baja Rail the concession to operate the 44-mile section of the Impossible Railroad between Tijuana and Tecate. Since then, the company said it has invested nearly $9 million, along with about $11 million in public matching funds, to upgrade the short line.
Officials with the company have said they’re now ready to spend upwards of another $60 million to repair the desert line and resume freight operations. If everything goes as planned, they said they’ll also spend an additional $20 million on a multimodal facility to transfer cargo from trucks to railcars.
“They’re describing the vision I brought into when I came out to run (Pacific Imperial Railroad) and invested in the company,” said David Rohal, a 30-year railroad veteran who invested $750,000 into the now-bankrupt company.
“Any investment carries the risk of natural disasters, and I don’t know if they have the wherewithal to do it, but there is certainly a commercial opportunity from providing a more efficient route,” he added.
First, Baja Rail wants approval from U.S. Customs and Border Protection in San Diego to build a joint inspection station at the border near Campo. Right now, the company only imports goods from the U.S. through San Yisdro into Tijuana, mostly natural gas and raw materials for the Tecate Brewery in Tecate.
“Customs authorities need to figure out how they’re going to work together,” said Jorge Izquiendo, in charge of strategic planning and communication for Baja Rail. “This needs to be guaranteed for us to start building on the desert line. If we don’t have a crossing, why are we going to build on the line?”
So far, there has been disagreement about where such an inspection station would be located. Baja Rail would like to build it in Mexico just south of the border before the tracks go through a tunnel and head east to Campo.
Customs and Border Protection would like to build the facility in the U.S., according to Baja Rail and transportation officials in San Diego.
“The limiting factor in all this, the thing that has to get done is a customs inspection facility at the border, and that’s probably going to have to be built on the U.S. side of the border,” said Paul Jablonski, executive director of MTS.
“I think that’s a big stumbling block that if we can get over, the path will be clear. But I don’t want to minimize the height of that fence,” he added.
There’s no specific deadline for officials to make a decision, although Baja Rail officials have said they plan to have details ironed out by summer with freight running from Tijuana to Plaster City by 2020.
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