It’s an interesting development, for me at least, that 129 years after the Central Pacific Railroad founded Tracy, people here are debating whether trains should pass through our town.
As railroad activity has ratcheted down over the past couple of decades in the onetime Southern Pacific division point, periodic conversations have surfaced about the possibility that trains will once again carry freight and passengers through Tracy.
The most recent was an effort by Tracy’s former city manager, Mike Locke, to promote an increase in the flow of rail freight between the Bay Area and San Joaquin County.
Mike, Tracy’s city manager for 22 years until the mid-90s, is now president of the San Joaquin Partnership, the public-private nonprofit agency charged with promoting industrial development in our county.
He has suggested that if the old Southern Pacific line over the Altamont Pass is reopened to handle Altamont Commuter Express trains, the line should be available to handle freight trains as well.
The parallel Union Pacific line, which now handles a growing number of freight runs and also the ACE trains, is getting more congested, especially since the amount of container cars being transported between the UP’s major yard in Lathrop and the Port of Oakland continues to accelerate.
A first step in increasing rail capacity, first proposed several years ago, would have ACE using the still-operational SP line between Stockton and Tracy. As part of that scenario, the SP Altamont line that now dead-ends near the Owens-Illinois glass-container plant west of town would be reopened over the Altamont after new tracks are laid on the abandoned SP rail bed. That’s the line Locke would like to see freight trains using, too.
That may or may not occur, but another scenario seems even more likely, at least to me. That would be reopening the old SP Macoco line from Tracy north to Brentwood, Antioch and Martinez. That would provide another route for freight between Oakland and Stockton on a sea-level line that would move trains at a faster clip than traversing the Altamont hills and winding through the Niles Canyon.
There is a historical preference for the Macoco line as a freight corridor. The Central Pacific completed the Altamont line between Livermore and Lathrop in 1869, establishing a coaling station, Ellis, just west of Corral Hollow Road, at the base of the Altamont hills to add and subtract “pusher” engines needed to move the trains over the hills.
Nine years later, in 1878, the CP (later the SP) through a subsidiary, San Pablo and Tulare Railroad Co., laid some 45 miles of track from Martinez southeast to a junction with the existing Altamont line. That junction became Tracy.
That new sea-level rail line, later extended south along the west side of valley to Fresno, soon became a favored route for freight trains connecting the San Joaquin Valley with the SP’s main terminal in Oakland. It eliminated delays encountered in running trains over Altamont hills and through winding Niles Canyon, greatly reducing the amount of freight traffic over the Altamont.
I can’t help but think that the stretch of rail between Tracy and Martinez, now part of the UP system, will spring to life again sometime in the future. Right now, it holds a long line of parked boxcars, but its advantage for moving freight trains with relative ease between San Joaquin County and Oakland could become a factor again as the UP line over the Altamont becomes more congested.
And, of course, the Macoco line also could be used by ACE (or BART) commuter trains, bringing those trains in and out of Tracy’s soon-to-be-built multimodal transportation station in the “bow-tie” area.
Tracy was established in 1878 because of its geographic importance to rail transportation. Now that importance is coming into focus again. It’s something Tracyites, especially those living close to rail lines, may well have to get used to.
Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at email@example.com.