Freight Car Friday – Railroads Around the Bay

1 03 2013

We’re setting up for our final World’s Greatest Hobby Show of 2013 today in San Mateo, California. The San Francisco bay area has been a transportation hub for California since its earliest days. As both an important port and railroad hub, that tradition continues today.

Since we’ve covered many of California’s historic railroads through our previous stops in the state, let’s take a look at what the railfan might find today in a trip around the Bay.



BNSF stack trains are a common sight around the Bay.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe came to San Francisco in 1995. It’s local tracks are all from the Santa Fe side of its family tree.

The Santa Fe was the Southern Pacific’s biggest competitor in the Bay Area. The railroad had some very interesting operations including tug boats and ferries across the Bay itself.

Today, BNSF trains serve the busy port of Oakland and other large local industries. Double-stack trains are common, as are autoracks, tank cars and other general freight.

From the Bay Area, trains can travel North, South or East. Many of the trains travel southeasterly over the famous route across the Tehachapi mountains. Thanks to shared trackage rights, it is not at all uncommon to see trains of both BNSF and Union Pacific on the same lines.

Union Pacific

The Union Pacific has many historical routes into the region including trackage from the Western Pacific and Southern Pacific. Most of UP’s Bay Area operations can be traced to the Southern Pacific, acquired in 1996.

Tank Train Car

The famous Tank Trains were once a common sight over the nearby Tehachapi Mountains. Tank cars of oil and other commodities are still common.

The Southern Pacific had some of the most extensive trackage in the Bay Area, including electrified operations. The Southern Pacific mainlines led north and south from San Francisco. Union Pacific trains can head north and east to Sacramento and the original transcontinental route, north to points in Oregon and Washington, or southeasterly over Tehachapi to connections to eastern and southern points.

The UP can also has former Western Pacific tracks serving local industries and stretching easterly through the Feather River Canyon and connections with the former Rio Grande.

Like BNSF, intermodal trains dominate the traffic. Not only will you see lots of international containers arriving from the ports, but domestic container and trailer traffic for these busy markets. There is also plenty of general merchandise variety as well.

San Francisco Bay Railroad

CR Autorack

Autoracks are a common sight around the port, with both imported and export vehicles.

This five mile shortline serves local industries and connections with both BNSF and Union Pacific in Richmond and the Port of San Francisco. Like many shortlines, this carrier has a lot of character. Motive power includes a trackmobile and two Alco switchers. And these venerable locomotives haul everything from containers to general freight.

This line is the last remaining active element of one of San Francisco’s first railroads, the State Belt Line. The Belt Line’s first rails were laid in 1889, and served customers around the region. With the Port of Oakland taking on more shipments, service dwindled following World War II. The state sold the railroad to the city in 1969 and it was subsequently sold into private hands for the first time in 1974.

The two Alco S2s running today date to this original line in 1946. The railroad also prides itself on its environmental record. They were the first railroad to convert their entire roster to biofuels. Perhaps even more interesting, they use a herd of goats as opposed to herbicides to keep the weeds at bay.

Mass Transit


Amtrak and others offer regular passenger service around the region.

San Francisco has long been one of the most famous cities in America for its mass transit. From the classic cable cars to trolleys to buses to the modern BART trains, the San Francisco area has a lot to offer mass transit fans. Add to all that the CalTrans and regional and long-distance Amtrak trains and you have lots to see. (You can even watch the CalTrans commuter trains from our Lionel booth at the show!) Whether you’re looking for a historic ride on a cable car or just a fast way to your next railfan location, this region’s mass transit has you covered.



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