San Jose Sentinels II

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The Big Decline

The Big Decline

SP cupola caboose 1002 sits with an SW 1500
at Sunnyvale, Calif on November 3, 1975.

It was the 1980s that saw the beginning of a troubling decline in Bay Area car freightcar loadings and in the affairs of the Southern Pacific Railroad itself. In the 1920s and 30s, the peak fruit packing season (in October) could see as many as 60,000 cars roll through San Jose's yards; and 7,000 passenger cars could easily be switched in the coach yard. But the once lucrative cannery traffic generated by such South Bay giants as Del Monte and Hunts eventually gave way to a semi-conductor and tech industry so far reaching the area became known as Silicon Valley. None of the products produced by this industry would ever see the insides of a boxcar. Th canneries that tried to stick it out quickly switched to trucks.

Another factor adding to the decline of Bay Area traffic was the consolidation of divisions and crew bases. Inter-division freight pools allowed crews to run-through between Oakland and Watsonville and finally to San Luis Obispo. Few trains were being re-classified at San Jose Yard, with the majority by-passing the yard completely. Traffic generated on the Peninsula and in the South Bay was being forwarded to the Warm Springs yard in Fremont, then to Oakland for re-classification. Finally, the disastrous merger attempt with Santa Fe in the mid 1980s eroded the confidence of those shippers that were left.

By the time College Park and Santa Clara towers closed in 1993, freight traffic had declined to the point where car loadings were in the hands of local jobs. Long distance trains that did pass through town seldom paused, instead using the Warm Springs yard in Fremont to do their work.

This resulted in the closure of College Park Yard and the downgrading of San Jose Yard to an unmanned facility. The yard offices at Newhall Street and Brokaw Road were closed, then razed; and even the huge San Jose yard tower, a constant landmark for motorists on nearby Highway 17, was pulled down. Twenty-four hour switching activity was cut back to a single trick, and during the long night hours operators working the midnight shift found a railroad so quiet that they could literally catch up on their reading.

My Hometown Railroad. In 1971, the author's brother had a friend at school whose father was a San Jose yardmaster. At my urging, Kirk put in a request for a "tour" of SP's San Jose facility. Before long he received word that our request had been granted, including a rare invitation to climb the steep stairs of San Jose's Newhall Street yard tower.

In 1971 Newhall Street Tower really stood out from the surrounding neighborhood, towering over the nearby Highway 17 freeway: It was one tall structure! In fact, it was the tallest structure outside the downtown district, and the view from its huge picture windows was impressive indeed. In those days Newhall Street Yard still had enough work to keep three shifts of switchers busy and there was a constant level of train activity from Sunnyvale to the north to Curtner Ave and Lick to the south.

We began our day at the Cahill Street passenger depot where I got my first glimpse of San Jose Telegraph. Being a good host, our guide arranged for a company vehicle to transport us while on SP property. However, imagine our surprised when we were asked to climb aboard the cab of H24-66 Train Master No. 3072 for a short jaunt to the roundhouse. From there we took a more traditional "carryall," but that mile or so in the Train Master will remain one of my strongest "hometown railroad" memories.

- Ken Rattenne

Next Chapter: "Big Tower"

This document is Copyright ©1996-2012  by Ken Rattenne and KPR Media Services and was last updated in October 2011.