San Francisco’s Fourth Railroad

Muni, BART, Caltrain--and then there's the San Francisco Bay Railroad

One of the railroad's 75-year-old diesel-electric locomotives. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted
One of the railroad's 75-year-old diesel-electric locomotives. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless noted

San Francisco’s economy is surging. Construction is booming. But whenever a building goes up, huge holes have to be dug for the foundation. So where does all that dirt go?

“This load is from the project at 1066 Market,” explained Nick Kendall, Manager of Rail Operations and an engineer at the San Francisco Bay Railroad in Hunters Point, pointing at a rail car. “If you factor the truck returning empty from the closest landfill, 250 miles from SF, the roundtrip would mean each railcar takes 10 trucks off the highway.”

The railroad currently operates some 350 “high-sided gondola cars,” carting off dirt from all the construction projects going on in the city, including the Chase Arena.

Each of these gondola cars takes ten polluting trucks off the road.

Every day, trucks shuttle bins of dirt and debris from San Francisco construction sites.

Trucks shuttle construction debris from all over SF.

The bins are lifted off the trucks and dumped into the giant gondola train by rolling cranes, as seen in the pictures below:

White pickup machine
These giant “mi-jacks” pick up the bins from the truck, dump them out into the train gondola cars, and then puts the empty bin back on the truck so it can go get the next load.
Pickup machine
Another load of dirt going into the train, bound for Utah.

Once the gondolas are filled, the railroad uses two small locomotives to create unit trains that can be as much as 70 cars long. The Union Pacific will then pick them up in the late morning or early afternoon with larger, long-haul locomotives. They also drop off empty cars from the previous load. The Union Pacific takes the trains down a connector track to the Caltrain mainline to get rid of all that dirt in a location outside of Salt Lake City.

Union Pacific’s locomotives come every day to return empty gondola cars and pick up a new load of dirt. Photo: Nick Kendall

The round trip is about 2,000 miles, explained Kendall, and takes 55 hours each way. At the other end of the run, a giant machine picks up the rail cars and spills the contents out. “There’s now a whole lot of San Francisco in Utah,” said Kendall.

Work starts early for the Bay Railroad. At 4 a.m. the freight short line’s 15 employees start getting trains ready for the day’s drop-offs of dirt. This is often hard, manual work–with lots of running around.

Conductor Ben Margherone and Kendall first meet and go over a list of what train cars have to be put on what track. Then Margherone throws switches, connects and disconnects cars, and instructs Kendall how far to back up and go forward with the train, to make sure everything ends up where it’s supposed to be.

Conductor Ben Margherone radios train movement instructions to the engineer, throws switches, and makes sure the trains are assembled to get full trains ready to be picked up and empty trains ready to receive more dirt.
Kendall driving the train. He communicates with Margherone through a combination of radio calls, hand signals, and blasts of the horn.
Train car
Kendall backing a load of cars onto the correct track.

A point of aggravation for the railroad: at the far end of the yard, there’s a grade crossing where Recology garbage trucks drive to their facility. Even though there are big signs that say not to drive on the tracks, they often do.

The truck drivers and other motorists frequently ignore bells and warning horns and drive right in front of the oncoming train. Yard operations are slow–the train only goes about 10 mph–but every time Kendall has to brake and stop it can take “30 to 60 seconds to get moving again.”

So far there hasn’t been a collision, but the scofflaw truck drivers and motorists cost the railroad money. “A significant amount of time is wasted,” said Kendall, who also said he has “talked to” some of the drivers about it.

Meanwhile, the railroad isn’t satisfied with just taking polluting trucks off the road. They run their locomotives on bio-diesel. They are also in the process of purchasing a new, “Tier 4” cleaner burning locomotive, in part using a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality District.

And, rather than use chemical herbicides to keep their tracks free of vegetation, they found a far more environmentally friendly (and furry) solution–they maintain a heard of goats.

These furry weed disposal units are now a side business for the railroad.

In fact, as part of the railroad’s morning ritual, the trains stop to let the goats out of their corral and up to a nearby pasture. The goat heard is now more than big enough to keep the railroad clean, so it’s turned into a side business called “City Grazing,” which is hired out to clear vegetation.

Back in its heyday, the railroad’s precursor, the Belt Railroad, used to stretch all the way to Fort Mason. Back then, the railroad offloaded cargo ships at San Francisco’s main piers. But as shipping moved over to Oakland and the SF waterfront was developed for offices and residences, that business dried up.

But with the recent building boom, the Bay Railroad is growing again, even adding more tracks in the yard. Kendall said the railroad shipped 3,800 rail cars in 2017, 2,200 in 2016, and 1,700 in 2015–that’s a hell of a lot of trucks taken off the highway.

That said, the railroad faces a huge challenge moving forward. In its deal with Caltrain, Union Pacific plans to abandon the corridor after it is electrified. A new operator is supposed to come in and take over, but Kendall is worried that may not pan out–in which case the Bay Railroad would have no way to get its trains out to the rest of the country’s rail system.

But the Bay Railroad has found a way to survive up until now and considering its significance in reducing truck pollution from construction projects, one has to hope the Bay Area will find a way to keep it running.

A sense of the scale of the Bay Area Railroad’s operations.
  • Kieran

    Interesting story..If anything, since Union Pacific is leaving once Caltrain’s electrified, then The Bay Railroad should electrify their locomotives so they can still survive. Never knew they used biofuel locomotives and I also didn’t know they are the ones who are behind the goats that clean Twin Peaks, Laguna Honda, (they used to clean near City College before Phelan Loop was redone)etc

  • jonobate

    You can run diesel locomotives under the wires; that’s not the problem. The reason for the change in operator is that Union Pacific doesn’t make any money on running the short line and used the electrification negotiations with Caltrain as an excuse to abandon it. The railroad should indeed be worried about finding a new operator – if UP don’t want to run the line, why would anyone else?

    It would probably be a net benefit if the short line was abandoned and this railroad went out of business. Removing freight from the Caltrain line would simplify the problem of adding positive train control, and would greatly reduce the amount of concrete required for grade separations as gradients could be increased from 1% to 3%. The freight business could easily be moved to Oakland, adding just a few miles to the distance the feeder trucks have to travel before reaching the trains.

  • Kieran

    I’m fully aware that by Union Pacific leaving it’s their excuse to abandon it. I understand why they’re worried…Though, since things are uncertain, I threw it out there that maybe they might electrify, say, if the new company who’d be there after Union Pacific leaves wanted to convert the locomotives..

    Yea, it makes sense financially if the railroad shut down and the vehicles/business moved over to west Oakland. At the same time being that stranger things have happened, maybe the railroad will survive for the time being..

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Shouldn’t they be dumping all this soil in the bay for use in the soon-to-be-badly-needed levees?

  • davistrain

    Regarding using electric locomotives to replace the diesels–Presumably the Caltrain electrification will operate at 12,000 or 25,000 volts AC. Electric versions of the SF Belt locomotives usually run on 600 volts DC. Electric freight locomotives for high-voltage AC operation are usually about twice as heavy and are not well suited for local switching work.

  • SuperQ

    Even in the Netherlands where most of the passenger rail routes are 1.5kV DC, there are dedicated 25kV AC freight routes. 25kV AC can deliver > 6MW of power, vs a diesel that can only deliver ~3-4MW. Also, according to what I’ve seen on wikipedia, electric locomotives weight about half that of diesel.

  • p_chazz

    City Grazing started out as a side business for the railroad. In 2017 it was spun off as a 501 (c)(3).

  • When counting railroads, don’t forget the Little Puffer!

  • artnouveau

    “A new operator is supposed to come in and take over, but Kendall is worried that may not pan out–in which case the Bay Railroad would have no way to get its trains out to the rest of the country’s rail system.”

    Then, the Bay Railroad should become the new operator. Moreover, train service should be resumed over the Dunbarton Bridge and an additional track installed along the Caltrain right of way if need be to feed traffic from and to the Dunbarton Bridge line in Redwood City. Another rail line is being constructed between Manteca and Modesto/Ceres used to extend Altamont Corridor Express service. I’m not sure of the distance, but the cost is – I think – $400 million.

    It would be sadder if said dirt had to be trucked or ferried to Oakland for transloading to trains to satisfy requirements for the rest of the journey.

  • A new operator is supposed to come in and take over, but Kendall is worried that may not pan out–in which case the Bay Railroad would have no way to get its trains out to the rest of the country’s rail system.

    Aren’t they already getting a new locomotive? Just pick up a couple more and then they can move the stuff out to the UP mainline on their own.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    Yeah, save it to raise Treasure Island up a few feet.

  • artnouveau

    As to the bottom photo, kind of a contradiction in terms, don’t you think. Track is “blue-flagged” with the “safety first” admonition and Kendall has one foot positioned on the rail head. Good one!

  • Roger R.

    As the guy who manages the rail operations and drives the locomotives, I think Nick is probably the only one qualified to judge when it’s safe to take a pic on the tracks. That said, you make a good point: track-selfies are a now a big safety hazard and I don’t want to encourage it, so I took the pic down.

  • But then Utah might try to sue the State of California over the loss of business.

  • crazyvag

    But beyond Caltrain, it’s all UP track where getting permission to turn will be harder. Plus, their business is creating long trains for UP, so it’s best to let them focus on their core business.

  • crazyvag

    These guys are a small industry and have no interest in being a mainline operator. It should be noted that there are other small businesses in SF that use UP services. Port of SF, South SF has a cement plant and port of RWC come to mind.

  • crazyvag

    Their needs are very small, so they’re right to use small Tier 4 diesels. However, whoever replaces UP to connect these guys (and others) with UP yard in San Jose, could (and should) get dual-mode locomotives that can run with 25KV AC on Caltrain tracks and in diesel mode for the last mile.

  • Everyusernametaken

    It’s actually the fifth – there is a still a local UP freight.


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