Cuesta Pass Railroading: Return of Freight

During August of 2021, Union Pacific began a bridge replacement project along the Santa Barbara Subdivision near Narlon, California (Vandenberg Air Force Base; between Guadalupe and Santa Barbara). The original bridge, built in 1896, spanned the San Antonio Creek and was 720-feet long. Due to the age and condition of the bridge, replacement was necessary in order to prevent future, unplanned service disruptions along the Coast Route. 

Blueprint for the new San Antonio Creek Bridge. Courtesy of the California Coastal Commission.

During the replacement project, a hard closure of the Santa Barbara Subdivision was in effect at Narlon. No trains, including Amtrak’s Coast Starlight or Pacific Surfliner could traverse the route. Amtrak trains were annulled (canceled). Fortunately for Union Pacific, there is only one regularly scheduled freight train that travels through Narlon. The “Guadalupe Hauler”, or more simply “The Guad”, runs twice a week between Van Nuys and Guadalupe. It services many agricultural and industrial customers in the Santa Maria region. Some shipments include time sensitive, refrigerated produce cars. 

With the line shutdown at Narlon, Union Pacific needed to detour The Guad. The only detour option was to send the train north towards San Luis Obispo (SLO). Once in SLO, The Guad would head north over the infamous Cuesta Pass. 

Cuesta Pass is a 16 mile stretch of track which crosses the Santa Lucia Mountains between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita. Cuesta Pass is commonly known as the most difficult stretch of railroad on the entire Coast Route. It highlights five tunnels, many tight curves and a maximum grade of 2.2%. 

During the Southern Pacific era, it was common to see freight and passenger trains traversing Cuesta Pass. Unfortunately, today is a different story. Union Pacific rarely utilizes Cuesta Pass for freight traffic, opting to send “thru trains” (from the Bay Area to LA) via the Central Valley and Tehachapi Pass. No local trains service this region either. Therefore, the only regularly scheduled rail traffic on Cuesta Pass is Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. 

Cuesta Pass is home to some of the last remaining searchlight signals in California. These signals, installed in the 1940’s, were part of the second CTC (Centralized Traffic Control) project on the Southern Pacific network. SP installed CTC on Cuesta Pass due to an increase in rail traffic during World War II.

In April of this year, I drove to San Luis Obispo to photograph the searchlight cantilever located at North Serrano. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight was the only train in a 24 hour period. I was fortunate to capture an image but felt as if there was more. When I heard The Guad was detouring, I knew I had to make a trip. 

On a cold and rainy April afternoon, Amtrak’s southbound Coast Starlight passes the searchlights at Serrano as it tackles the infamous Cuesta Pass.

Leaving my home in Northern California, I decided to take the scenic route via Highway 1 between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. I arrived in San Luis Obispo a day early so I would be in position to shoot The Guad the following morning. On Sunday, August 15th, 2021, I hiked up to the Serrano cantilever. The cool temperatures and scenic hike through the golden California hills made for a picture-perfect morning. 

Within 15 minutes, the whine of two EMD locomotives echoed throughout Cuesta Pass. Soon after, the UP 1139 appeared, dragging nine cars passed the searchlight signals at North Serrano. The UP 1139 was recently assigned to the El Segundo Local in South Los Angeles, where it picked up a unique assortment of graffiti tags. 

Union Pacific 1139 leads The Guad passed the North Serrano Searchlights.
UP 1139 sporting a South Los Angeles paint job.

As The Guad headed north for McKay, I repositioned to above Tunnel 11 near Chorro. Within a couple hours, the sound of dynamic brakes broke the peaceful silence. The Guad reappeared, hauling an impressive 28 cars down the steep Cuesta Grade towards San Luis Obispo. 

Union Pacific 4101 prepares to enter Tunnel 11 as it guides a 28-car train down the Cuesta Grade.

Once the train arrived in San Luis Obispo, it tied down for the night. The following morning, a fresh crew came aboard and took the train to its final destination of Guadalupe. 

Union Pacific 4101 passes the Oceano Dunes as it heads south along the Santa Barbara Subdivision.
After a lengthy detour, The Guad arrives in its namesake destination.

Photographing freight trains on Cuesta Pass can be a difficult assignment. The rarity of freight traffic combined with historic searchlight signals and beautiful scenery can make for unique images. I am looking forward to the next opportunity to photograph trains along this unique stretch of railroad. 

Thank you for reading my blog! If you have a question, please leave me a comment below. 

jakemiillephotography.com © 2021 

What Do You Think? Drop a comment here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s