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  • Modeling your way to San Jose

    SP/Caltran's commute fleet offers the modeler variety, diversity and just plain fun


    Left: Two SP commute trains empty themselves of passengers on a cold winter evening in the late 1970's at San Jose, Calif. The steam-generator GP9 at right has a solid string of Harriman-style cars while the borrowed Amtrak P30CH is hauling a combination of Harriman and bilevel cars.

    Right: Diesel-era SP commute service was probably best known for its fleet of Fairbanks-Morse Trainmasters, which were retired in the mid-1970's. Commute 124 is at Menlo Park, Calif., on May 3, 1972.

    SDP45 3201 makes a rare off-peak holiday appearance on commute train 53 into Santa Clara on Dec. 23, 1984. Often the SDP's worked freights in off-peak hours. Note the height of the SDP's they're nearly as tall as the bi-levels. But those icicle breakers won't do much good in the three tunnels on the temperate San Francisco Subdivision!
    Prototype Modeler - July 1986 - Page 34 Prototype Modeler - July 1986 - Page 35

    The scene is a familiar one to those from the urban Northeast and Midwest: A platform clock indicates the afternoon has all but drawn its last dying breath, and eve ing looms as legions of so-called "yuppies" (Young Urban Professionals) clad in conservative hues of gray and blue shuffle off in various directions at an accelerated rate, intent upon finding a comfortable spot on the evening commuter train in which to nurse their scotch and soda and WALL STREET JOURNAL or to simply catch a much-needed catnap. They scurry aboard railway cars which at one time or another can resemble a cocktail lounge, a Christian Science read ing room or a tightly packed can of sardines.

    But this is not Chicago Union Station at 5:30 p.m., nor is it the start of the evening flee from Manhattan. And the commuter-laden trains are not headed for the "Land of the Burlingtons" or upscale Westchester County, N.Y. -- the palm trees outside the station and the Western look of the clientele tell us that. The trains in question are indeed Western animals, operated by Southern Pacific Transportation Co. under the auspices of Caltrans (California Department of Transportation).

    Not often modeled, the SP/Caltrain "commute" (as opposed to commuter) fleet offers the prototype modeler considerable variety, diversity and operational challenges. Remember, modeling a commuter operation affords maximum passenger action in relatively little space. And commuter trains needn't be long to be accurately portrayed.

    The "today" look for Bay Area commuter rail includes snazzy silver F40's

    and new stainless-steel bilevels. But in this Portfolio we'll turn the clock back a mite and look at an era of the not-too distant past -- one which included classic Harriman-style heavyweight cars, newer bilevels and a surprising variety of diesel power. Fortunately, most equipment which operated in Bay Area commute service is readily available in model form, either on the open market or at swap meets or similar second hand outlets.

    Operations and rolling stock

    SPI Caltran's Peninsula Caltrain commute service is fairly representative of American commuter rail systems, providing residents of both San Francisco and San Jose with a high capacity transportation system for trips to and from their work areas during morning and evening peak travel periods.

    The service operates approximately 18 hours per day, with two two-hour "windows" provided by contract to SP for freight service during off-peak periods. During weekdays, 46 trains are operated (23 in each direction) over the full 46. 9-mile San Francisco Subdivision between the stub station at Fourth and Townsend (Third and Townsend before the station was rebuilt and cut and moved back a block) in the sub's namesake city and San Jose, half of which are concentrated within the two 2 1/2-hour morning and afternoon peak periods. Saturdays see the operation of 24 trains and Sundays see 18 movements. Special train movements hap pen occasionally, particularly during horse racing season and days on which Stanford University's football team plays.

    During rush hours, headways be tween trains can be as little as four minutes. Although train intervals vary, in no case does the headway be tween trains exceed two hours (except between 10 p.m. and about 5 a.m.). Train lengths vary between three and six cars. Before the purchase of "push pull" bi-directional passenger equipment, locomotives were required to lead all consists; present operations call for the locomotive to be placed on the outward (southward) end of all consists (facing San Jose). The Cal train bi-levels now simply pull to San Jose and push back.

    Before the arrival of the new equipment in 1984-85, operations were a little more complex. We'll need to delve further back in history to better understand operations.

    Steam-era commute operations presented a grand display presided over by SF's P-class 4-6-2's (particularly the P-8's) and MT-class Mountains, as well as other classes of steam including the famous GS-class 4-8-4's. Picture these machines marching from Third and Townsend with strings of arch-roof heavyweight commuter coaches dat ing from the mid- 1 920's and you'll have an idea of what the commuter rush was all about until the early 1950's.

    What happened then? Diesels arrived. Not just any diesels, mind you, but hefty-hefty-hefty Fairbanks-Morse Trainmasters. Although they had been intended for freight service, SP found them to their liking after trial runs in commute service. I guess if steam had to go, replacement by the appealing Trainmasters softened the blow.

    The modernization continued in 1955 when SP took delivery of ten bi-level or "gallery" cars from Pullman Standard, cars 3700-3709. Such cars had already bumped many heavy weights from Chicago-area commuter operations. The double-deck concept was gaining wide acceptance from Chicago roads because more people could be hauled in one car. And this, of course, meant fewer cars had to be maintained and train consists could be shorter.

    Page 36: SDP45 3207 and its nine sisters were delivered in 1967 and originally worked intercity passenger trains. The units are now retired from com mute service, but the 3207 and an other SDP have been retained for officers' specials. In 1986 the 3207 wears the joint SP-SF paint scheme. Note in this 1984 view that the assignment base for the unit ("SAY AREA") has been stenciled below the number on the cab.

    "Torpedo boat" steam-generator GPge's 3195 and 3189 pose at San Jose fuel racks. The 1955-built units are among four GP9's delivered to SP without dynamic brakes, and thus the air tanks have been located on the roof to allow for larger water tanks (for the steam generator) under the locomotive. On those passenger Geeps with dynamic brake blisters, the air tanks are mounted crosswise under the locomotive, which restricts water-tank size.

    GP40P 3197 donned Bicentennial colors not long after delivery in 1974 and remained in the commemorative scheme into the early 1980's. Broadside view emphasizes the special elongated back end housing steam-generator equipment. Also note the SD45-style flared radiator vents.

    Page 37: Bilevel 3724 was built by ACF in 1957; in later years all bilevels wore SP's monotonous solid gray scheme.

    Only GP9e 3187, ex-Texas & New Orleans 280, and three bilevels (not shown here) received this experimental Caltrain scheme of blue and silver. Train 32 is at Santa Clara on Dec. 23, 1984. The locomotive was repainted into SP gray and red in 1985.

    Page 38: An upsurge in freight traffic in the late 1970's caused SP to temporarily reassign its passenger units into freight service. To fill the void thus left in commute diesel operations, SP leased 15 General Electric P30CH's from Amtrak for about a year and a half starting in the summer of 1978. "Amboat" 711 leads a rush hour train out of Fourth and Townsend. (Left) Twin "Cadillacs" -- SD9e's -- lead a San Jose bound commute out from the tunnel near the Paul Ave. stop in May 1984.
    Prototype Modeler - July 1986 - Page 36 Prototype Modeler - July 1986 - Page 37 Prototype Modeler - July 1986 - Page 38

    Page 37: Harriman coach 2101 has just received a cosmetic overhaul at the 4th Street coach yard in San Francisco. New paint and a freshly tarred roof will ensure a few more years of leak-proof service. Date: Dec. 24, 1980; the car was built in 1924. A second batch of bilevels, this time from American Car & Foundry (but built to the specs of the first P-S cars), arrived in 1957. The 21 cars were numbered 3710-3030. Meanwhile, the Harrimans, most of which had been built in 1924, were being retired, although some would remain in service unbelievably to 1985! A final batch of smooth-side bilevels, Nos. 3731-3745 (15 cars), arrived in 1969 from Pullman-Standard. This batch differed from the first two in that they had a solid gray paint scheme, fluorescent lighting and green-tinted windows. The earlier bilevels were delivered in the two-tone gray so-called "Lark" paint scheme, which was also applied to the Harrimans for a time. In addition, the earlier bilevels had incandescent lighting and clear windows. By 1973 all rolling stock wore the conservative solid dark gray scheme.

    Steam-generator-equipped GP9's Nos. 3186-3196 supplemented the Trainmasters as well as later diesel power that replaced the Trainmasters. These passenger Geeps were delivered with dual controls for bi-directional operation, thus they had SP's red "wing" design on each end. After they were rebuilt in the mid-1970's with single controls, the red emblem appeared only at the "front" (short hood in SP practice) end. Of note was Geep 3187, which was an ex-Texas & New Orleans unit and was the unit repaint ed into an experimental blue/gray/red Caltrain scheme in 1982. Before rebuild, the Geeps carried the Nos. 3000-3010. Rarely photographed was one ex-St. Louis-Southwestern (Cotton Belt) FP7, No. 6462 (ex-SSW 306), which worked commute service into the 1970's.

    The demise of the Trainmasters was hastened by ten SDP45's (Nos. 32003209, delivered in 1967) and three GP40P's (3197-3199, built in 1974). Initially the SDP45's worked SP's intercity passenger trains, such as the Coast Daylight and Cascade. The units continued to haul SP-operated Amtrak trains after 1971, but by early 1975 they had been completely relegated to commute service. The SDP's and the GP40P's-the latter had been ordered specifically for commute operations spelled the end of the Trainmasters in February 1975. Incidentally, GP40P 3197 wore Bicentennial colors from 1975 into the 1980's. All other units, of course, wore SP's durable gray-and red scheme with white lettering and numbers.

    After the Trainmasters had been retired, two steam-generator SD9e's, Nos. 4450 and 4451 (the only diesels on the SP in recent times that did not fit into the block of numbers -- 3186-3209 -- assigned to units in passenger service), became the notables of the commute diesel fleet. Their ample size, handsome proportions and six-axle trucks led to them being nicknamed "Cadillacs."

    The Geeps tended to protect non-peak service, usually in singles. When working peak service, they often worked in pairs, and such was also the case for SD9e's. At times, non-passenger service locomotives showed up in commute service, but they were almost always m.u.'ed to a steam-generator-equipped unit. Usually these were freight GP9's, but in 1975 GP35 No. 6535 did a stint in commute service.

    Since none of SP's commute equipment had control cabs, locomotives had to pull all consists. This meant power had to be turned at MIssion Bay wye at the San Francisco end; at San Jose, power was turned on the turntable at San Jose engine terminal. Control cabs on the new bilevels permit push-pull operations, which completely eliminates the need to turn locomotives at either end. In addition, all new equipment is HEP (Head End Power). A generator in the F40 locomotive supplies electrical power to the new bilevels for climate control and lighting. The old bilevels and the Harrimans were principally steam heated from boilers (steam generators) in the locomotives and had self-contained alternator/generator/battery lighting. All of this made the older equipment relatively imcompatible with the new (although new F40's hauling old cars was not at all unusual for a time), and the older bilevels had been retired from service. SP still owns the 1920's-era Harriman cars which, at presstime, away uncertain disposition. Caltrans now own the old bilevels and is looking for a purchaser(s).

    Article Details

    • Original Author James E. Humbert and Mike Schafer
    • Source Prototype Modeler
    • Publication Date July 1986

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