The heart of the layout in terms of freight train operations is Bakersfield, with a truly large SP yard (and now coming into operation, a smaller but vital Santa Fe yard as well). Here is a view looking westward along the SP yard.
In this view can be seen Don Mitchell, long-time leader and inspirational operations expert of the club, standing at right; at left, Bob Hanmer, acting as Kern Junction operator; and Henry Freeman, standing, Bakersfield yardmaster. The long structure toward the right of this photo is the ice deck. A long perishable train is about ready to depart for the climb up the north slope of Tehachapi.
One switching job run out of Bakersfield is the Arvin local, which does the switching for the potato packing sheds on the Arvin Branch. I have often volunteered to do this job, which has about as much switching as anyone could want, even a switching enthusiast like me. Typically the job heads from the Bakersfield yard to Arvin with thirty empty reefers, and proceeds to switch out loads and set empties to the sidings of every packing house. This first switching cycle will typically take two to three (actual) hours to complete.
The Arvin Branch was jointly owned by SP and Santa Fe, and the arrangement was for each railroad to operate the branch in alternate years. The Tehachapi historic operating sessions are set in 1952, and that was a Santa Fe year on the branch, so all refrigerator cars and locomotives operated there are Santa Fe-owned. To learn more about this, and for that matter about all of Tehachapi, I cannot recommend anything better than John Signor’s outstanding book, Tehachapi (Golden West Books, 1983).
I will show an impression of what the Arvin job entails. The photo below shows the far or Arvin end of the switching district, with Gold Ribbon Potatoes against the backdrop and Arvin Potato Packers in the foreground. Both have triple-track sidings and can load reefers three abreast. The road-switcher doing the work is coupled to a cut of empties, about to be spotted, in the foreground. And a switchlist being compiled is sitting on the benchwork (more about that in a moment).
The rest of the Arvin district has White Wolf Potatoes along the backdrop, and Diamond Potato Packing along the front, both with triple-track sidings. A switchlist is propped against the backdrop, and the engineer’s throttle is in the foreground. Obviously none of the sheds has been modeled yet, but door numbers and spots are identified for switch crews to observe.
And at the far end of the benchwork is the town of DiGeorgio, where we find Trino Packing and the DiGeorgio shed of Arvin Potato Packers, again situated along the backdrop and in this case only having a single siding (the six cars nearest the camera are empties not yet spotted).
Just to illustrate that the triple-track sidings at these packing houses are prototypical, here is a Santa Fe Railway photo of a potato shed at Arvin.
As I said, the first cycle of switching usually takes two to three hours (actual time; this layout is sufficiently big that a fast clock is not needed, and actual time is used throughout). Then another turn arrives at Arvin with thirty more empty reefers, and picks up the loads already pulled. By this time, the cars spotted early in the morning, or left over from the previous night, have been loaded, and once again, loads have to be pulled from all the packing houses, and more empties spotted.
In a session which goes smoothly, in midafternoon still another turn then arrives at Arvin, picking up all the loads just pulled and providing another batch of 30 empty reefers to spot for evening loading. You can well imagine that this job readily consumes an entire day, actual time, to complete.
Let me say a little more about how this works, an interesting scheme devised by Jason Hill. Not one of the 90 empty reefers which are delivered to Arvin are destined to any particular packing house; after all, they are all 40-foot cars, identical inside, and are entirely interchangeable (aside from a few express reefers, likewise interchangeable with each other). Instead, the conductor on this job works from a car order list for all the packing houses, stating at what time empties are needed, and at what time loading will be completed and the corresponding load ready to pull. Moreover, most cars are destined to go into particular perishable trains at Bakersfield, and these are shown in the order sheets (in lieu of waybills). So the conductor has to make up a switchlist, and write the car numbers corresponding to each of those picked-up cars and their outgoing train assignments, for use of the Bakersfield yard crew. It’s a complex and engrossing job of switching, and one I enjoy greatly.
But of course for many visiting operators (and spectators) the real attraction of this layout is moving prototype-size trains over a stretch of mountain railroad. An extra like this eastward Santa Fe train at Caliente, with big cuts of perishables and probably including a group of cars from the Arvin potato sheds, is receiving orders (note that the order board at the depot is set to “stop” so orders can be delivered).
As this train departs Caliente and heads around the loop there, the sheer size of the train is evident. Note the mid-train helper in the foreground; there is a second one 14 cars ahead of the one in the foreground, and each has its own engineer.
Of course, SP trains are as numerous or maybe a little more numerous on Tehachapi than Santa Fe ones, and watching them traverse the curves, for example here at the lower end of Allard siding, is pure pleasure. This is a view only train engineers and conductors will see, as it is largely concealed from the viewing public.
I hope this brief and cursory presentation conveys a little of the excitement and pleasure of operating on the La Mesa Club’s Tehachapi layout. Even if you don’t have a chance to operate there, be sure to make time for a visit to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum if you are anywhere in the San Diego vicinity.