The Santa Fe's Cajon Pass

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway's Cajon Pass was a vital link to the railroad's connection with Los Angeles and remains an important artery of successor BNSF Railway's enormous system in the west. The pass's second line once contained two tunnels but today they have been "daylighted" with large cuts. The railroad line across the pass itself was built in the 1880s but despite the updates it has received over the years and additional tracks built it remains a very difficult route to navigate and one of the steepest main lines in the country, which is a primary reason it draws so many railfans and visitors each year (along with its close proximity to the big cities).

Two Southern Pacific SD45T-2 tunnel motors and a standard SD45 (wearing the never created Santa Fe-Southern Pacific livery) power a manifest freight along Cajon on September 15, 1991.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, distinctively known as the Santa Fe, likely is not only this country's but also the world's most recognized and famous railroad. It has had its own movie, song, and numerous model trains and other purchasable gifts created in its honor. The railroad's renowned Warbonnet livery has been made in several variations ranging from the more popular silver and red with yellow trim to the blue and yellow. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, albeit no longer an operating company, is truly a railroad whose name is as common as that of Coca Cola or General Electric.  Cajon is located just northwest of San Bernardino, California and less than 65 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The pass is the result of the San Andreas Fault, which splits two mountain ranges, the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains.

By the 1870s the Santa Fe was looking to expand westward and into California, which it had reached at Needles in 1883. Through ownership of the California Southern Railroad the AT&SF sought Los Angeles, although to do so meant crossing the rugged mountains which lay to the east of the city.  The California Southern was organized in July, 1880 to begin building north from just south of San Diego and eventually connecting to Barstow. While the railroad never reached Los Angeles, it was able to breach the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains at Cajon Pass, determined to be the lowest available grade in the region (in actuality the route had already been surveyed earlier by the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad). 

Three Union Pacific SD40-2s roll through the pass at Sullivan's Curve as they head up an empty autorack train on the morning of September 15, 1991.

Work to build the route over Cajon was overseen by Jacob Nash Victor who was general manager of the California Southern. To conquer the steep grades Victor, who was also an engineer, used long, sweeping curves and deep cuts to complete the original route.   Near the summit is a long, horseshoe-like curve which featured a tortuous near-3% grade (quite steep for a main line railroad), and was over 2% on both sides of the mountain sloop.   The original route opened for rail traffic on November 9, 1885 and in 1913 to help accommodate growing traffic levels a second line was built over the pass, which originally featured two tunnels.

However, over the years to help somewhat alleviate maintenance costs both of Cajon's tunnels were "daylighted," meaning they were dug out into deep cuts.  This second line is not as steep featuring only a 2.2% maximum grade but the original line, now known as the westbound track, remains a real challenge with its 3% grade.  In 1967 the AT&SF received competition over the pass when the Southern Pacific completed its Palmdale Cutoff through the area, which sits a bit to the east and is somewhat steeper. However, it remains in use by owner Union Pacific. Also, today, owner BNSF has constructed a third track along the original AT&SF grade to further help keep up with growing traffic demands.

Because of the route's steep grades it has been the scene of many runaways, the most famous of which occurred in May, 1989 when a Southern Pacific freight train lost control and hit a residential area of San Bernardino, killing two civilians as well as the engineer and conductor. Today, with the breathtaking scenery, numerous daily trains, and tough work required to move freight over the pass it is a big attraction for those who like to watch and film trains (aka, "railfans"). The pass has also been featured in a number of books, videos, and magazines over the years.


Santa Fe SD40-2 #5047, SD40u #5007, and B40-8 #7422 run elephant-style (nose-to-tail) along the pass at milepost 57 as they power an intermodal freight on October 19, 1992.

For more reading about the pass you might want to consider the book The Cajon Pass from Arcadia Publishing's "Images of Rail" series. Authored by Alice Hall the book gives an excellent pictorial history of the pass and its railroad operations covering 128 pages.   I have many of Arcadia's "Images of Rail" books within my collection and they are very interesting (albeit fully presented in black and white) offering historic photos of whatever subject they cover.  If you're interested in perhaps picking up a copy of this title please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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