Bakersfield to Taft

The Sunset Railroad

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An abandoned railroad crossing seen along the route. Photo by Bill Steck, April 2006.

This railroad was built in three stages from 1901 to 1908 and ran south out of Bakersfield then northwest into Taft (originally named "Siding Number 2"). It was originally built to haul oil supplies to and haul oil away from the oil-rich area in the southwestern region of the San Joaquin Valley. Interestingly enough, a portion of the line was built atop the existing right-of-way of a former narrow-guage line, the Buena Vista Reservoir Railroad.

In July, 1907, a 12-mile section of the tracks were washed out when the Buena Vista Reservoir overcame its levee. The Sunset Railroad was consequently rebuilt in just 34 days.

The spur between Pentland to Maricopa was abandoned in 1960; the rest of the line between Shale and San Emidio went dormant in 1976, and the track was finally removed in the first part of this century. The eastern-most section of track, out of Bakersfield, is still in use by the San Joaquin Valley Railroad (SJVR), a subsidiary of RailAmerica.

There is some confusion about who owned the line in its later years. Some sources say it was a Southern Pacific/Union Pacific line and in fact the line connects to the Union Pacific in Bakersfield. However, at an abandoned railroad crossing in Taft (see pictures), the electrical cabinet is marked with Santa Fe markings. Any further information about this line will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks to John Sweester for contributing information about this route.

Great job Bill collecting some excellent photos of this route!

Kevin M. Smith
Cicero, NY
1/22/2010

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Thanks for the thumbs up Kevin!

Bill Steck
Bakersfield, CA
1/24/2010

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Great pics! This was a route I had wanted to explore, but it's just a bit too far "out of reach" to get to it. Good to see you obtained pictures of the track before it was removed.

Mike Palmer
Torrance
2/6/2010

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At the last picture, note a damaged cantilever signal

Dequante Bazemore
chesapeake, VA
2/19/2010

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The Sunset Railway along with a few other Bakersfield area branches were operated alternatively by the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. Each railroad would operate the line for somethng like 5 years and then had over the operations to the other railroad. I believe the "official" owner was the Santa Fe.

Rick Kisinger
Fontana, CA
3/21/2010

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The Sunset Railway, as well as the Oil City Branch, were jointly owned by ATSF and SP. Each would operate the lines in alternating years. As you can see from the photos, a lot of the infrastructure on SR was provided by ATSF, including the recycled boiler tubes for the crossbucks. SP did the same for the Oil City Branch. Many other San Joaquin Valley branches had trackage rights agreements, such as the Exeter Branch from Famoso to Ducor and Ultra, on which ATSF ran locals on SP's lines for years. The Exeter was a secondary main up until the 1940s, but was relegated to branch status after CTC on the Fresno Main during WWII, and declined even more in importance after dieselization in 1956. This branch is notable for its first use of Union Switch & Signal Style H-2 searchlights for an ABS installation installed in 1930, the first such installation on the SP. ABS wad cut back to around Ducor in 1952, and was abandoned altogether just before SP spun off the branch to SJVR.

DeserTBoB
Lancaster, CA
4/13/2010

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Your map shows only the portion that has been removed, but the entire Sunset RR extended all the way back to the former SP (now UP) yard in Bakersfield. The track is still in place and they still serve a chemical company about where you have the end of the brown line at Southlake Road.

I farmed at one time out in the area, and remember seeing SantaFe engines moving maybe 5 miles an hour near San Emidio because the subsidence of the ground in that area made the track barely passable. The engine rocked from side to side so badly that I am sure the crew couldn't drink any coffee!

Dave Banker
Bakersfield, CA
11/7/2011

[Thanks Dave, the route highlighted in the map above shows only the abandoned/removed portion of track.  —Greg Harrison]

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This line actually extended beyond Taft to Fellows and then on to McKittrick.

Ivan Garrison
Santa Clara (formerly Taft), CA
11/11/2011

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Lots of misinformation in some of these comments.

Beyond Fellows, the Sunset Railway never extended "on to McKittrick." It only went as far as Shale, a siding 1.8 miles northwest of Fellows.

The Oil City and the Arvin branches out of Bakersfield were operated in alternate years by the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe while the Sunset Railway was operated by the two roads in alternate five-year periods.

CTC was installed on the main line between Bakersfield and Fresno in 1962, not "during WWII." Neither the CTC project or dieselization in 1956 had any affect on the decline of traffic on the Exeter Branch.

John Sweetser
Bakersfield, CA
1/3/2012

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Correction to my previous post: Shale was 2.5 miles northwest of Fellows (not 1.8 miles).

John Sweetser
Bakersfield, CA
1/8/2012

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sorry to break it to you all it was owned, built and property of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railway company this line was never owned by the Union Pacific or the Southern Pacific the SP operated the nothern branchline(Mckittrick)I have studied the line by a former person who used to work out here for Santa Fe

Josh Rodriguez
Bakersfield(Wible Orhcard), CA
5/3/2012

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Did this rail line ever extend west to Cuyama or New Cuyama?

Bill Pyper
Salem, OR
5/21/2012

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I don't think it was extended that far there were rumors it did when it was owned by the BVRR it was possible who knows?

Josh Roriguez
Bakersfield(Wible Orchard), CA
5/24/2012

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According to Don L Hosommer's book The Southern Pacic - 1901 - 1985 commisioned by the SP. "Under agreement dated October 1, 1900 the SP and Santa Fe Railway pledged to own the Sunset Railway in equal shares and to operate independently on alternating five-year periods the properties reaching from Bakersfield into the oil fields.

Bill Boles
Elk Grove, CA
5/27/2012

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The previous poster got it right...SRR was jointly owned by ATSF and SP from 1900, and each would maintain the line on alternate five years stretches up until ATSF backed out in the '80s. It was still active (at least on the TT) until '87 all the way to Taft, although the oil business that caused the line's buliding was long gone. This line, due to the dual ownership, was not part of the Bakersfield Sub; rather, it was part of the Mojave Sub, and connected to the Buttonwillow Branch at Gosford. While "the Button" was a miserable 10 MPH mess, the SRR was better maintained by ATSF, making 20 MPH speed possible.

DeserTBoB
Lancaster, CA
6/12/2012

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There Seems to be a lot of misinformation in most of the comments bellow. First off, The Sunset Railway was jointly built and owned by both Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, each of which own 50% of the stock. Every 5 years or so, the railroads would switch who operates the branch. Secondly, the Sunset Railway does not technically run all the way back to Bakersfield and the better part of it is still in operation, so the map is correct. Finally, The Sunset Railway never extended to McKittrick. SP had a separate branch line that went to McKittrick that was abandoned as far as Buttonwillow in 1960. I am modeling Taft in the 1950's on a shelf layout in HO scale any information on what was carried on the line beyond Taft to Shales in the 50's would be appreciated.

Jarod Black
San Diego, CA
5/21/2013

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Sorry, correction. Taft to Shale

Jarod Black
San Diego, CA
5/21/2013

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The Sunset line depended on the oil fields. When oil production declined during the 1980s doomed the line. What I can remember, the portion that went into Taft was abandoned during the 1980s. The was a facility that cleaned tankers but closed during the 1990s. At one time the city of Taft wanted to purchase the Sunset. This I know: if they ever build the high speed rail line, the right of way (part going north--south) would be used.

Robert Benkelman
Elizabeth, NJ
5/30/2013

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Sorry, but if that High Speed Rail is ever built, it won't come close to this old ROW. The main portion of the true N/S line is still active, and operated by the San Joaquin Valley Railroad.

Bill Steck
Bakersfield
5/31/2013

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currently BNSF works out of Levee now.

Josh Rodriguez
Bakersfield , CA
11/28/2014

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I just want to say, I just love the map you have here. I put it up along with a window of Google Maps up on my computer screen, and then I followed every bit of the right of way through to Maricopa, through Taft, and up to Shale. I can also see how, though the Sunset Railway didn't really include the portions going through Bakersfield up to the train yards there by Sumner and Truxton, that they could haul the oil all that way from Shale to the Bakersfield train yards if they wanted. That is a long way through a lot of desert and farmland. Thank you for putting the map up and this site up.

Fred Herrman
Burbank, CA
12/11/2014

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thanx for the great pictures and work!!!! Did Taft used to be called Moro in the early years? I have a real photo post card of the first Taft depot when it was in a box car. If you would like a copy; tell me how to get it to you.

dennis

dennis hart
independence , MO
4/7/2015

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I'm not sure of the dates but the previous information on the joint SP Santa fe ownership is correct. I was out that way alot in the mid to late 90's doing signal work. I think when we turned it back over to the SP/UP they were last class 1 maintenance responsibility. I believe the SJVR picked it up from them.

J.R. Welsh
Woodland , CA
6/27/2016

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I know the ROW from East Bakersfield to Buttonwillow is still intact, is the branch off that line completely gone? I remember years ago somebody (mayor) wanted to acquire the Sunset Branch but that never did happen.

Robert Benkelman
Elizabeth , NJ
6/29/2016

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Hey y'all, I grew up in Taft, and grew up in the 90's wondering "why aren't there any trains?" Here's the brief history of the line following up the really great article above. The big correction I have is that line was jointly owned by SP and SF for most of it's life.

It was actually considered the "most profitable railroad per square mile" back in the boom days between 1910-1920. During that time, trains were constantly bringing in lumber, metals, food, water and people for construction of the booming epicenter of an oil empire. And, of course, they hauled out lots of crude oil. At around this time, there were said to be 2 0-4-0s switching cars around 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week in downtown Taft.

Of course, this gradually began to decline a little bit with each passing decade; eventually highways made passenger service obsolete. Then the pipelines took away the need to haul in water and haul out oil. Then the highways became better for the transport of building materials, and most everything else. Which was pretty sad. The 50's to the 70's was where the decline was at its sharpest.

Now, the line was not completely dormant west of San Emidio in the 70's. At this time, It was pretty much abandoned from Shale to Hillard St in Taft. There were some businesses along the downtown rail strip that at one time got their goods from the line, but more and more switched to using truck transports over time for the sake of cost. One of the biggest partners of the line, the Sunset Lumber Company in downtown Taft, went out of business during the 70's, and it wouldn't surprise me if that economic era was to blame. The biggest factor, though, is this: In the 70's, the line was beginning to show it's age. It needed repairs, but repairs are expensive. Already, there was fewer profitable rail traffic, with more businesses switching to Semi-trucks, many felt uncomfortable about ordering goods on an old and poorly maintained line where trains had to creep under 20mph. Without the business to pay the costs for overhauling the line, or even having any forseeable profitability, there was just no way to do it.

Still, even as late as the mid-80's the line still had a few supporters. Most notably was the Oil-Dri Corp, or as we call it, "The Johnny Cat Litter Plant", just over a mile southeast of town. It still had at least one train a week drop off and pick up a couple hoppers of refined absorbent shale product. Besides that, lots of folks really wanted the trains to stay, and some petitioning and a campaign were underway to try to salvage it. But, then came the final nail in the coffin. A big storm in 1987 washed out several sections of track between South Lake Road and Pentland. And that was it. It was definitely too expensive to fix, and the one or two remaining businesses that tried to remain loyal were now cut off. There were a few supporters that still fought tooth and nail to see the line refurbished, but that was it. I was told by someone that the last train he ever saw on that line, a month before the storm, was a short weed-spray train creeping along the ancient line at a trepidatious 5mph. It only went a half mile past the Oil-Dri plant in the outskirts of town.

The line was removed in sections. The Maricopa spur and the trackage from Lincoln St in Taft all the way to shale were removed in the early 90's. When I was 8 years old in 2001, I watched construction crews removing much of the downtown tracks and sidings that I used to love to walk along. And in 2006, everything remaining in Taft was stripped out all the way to S Lake Rd, where the line continued to serve a chemical plant. Nowadays SJVR is all owned and operated by Genessee & Wyoming RR, a company that oversees the preservation and operation of many short line railways worldwide.

In recent history, there were stirs of excitement on the line when a new crude oil plant to be serviced by rail was constructed near the end of the line on S Lake Rd, resulting in all of the remaining infrastructure from the UP yard down to the terminus to be overhauled and updated, and the line extended about a mile or two with several sidings prepared to receive 2 trains of 100 tank cars per day. It was completed in 2014, and everything was going smoothly, as the price of crude and certain economic conditions made it foreseeably profitable to ship oil by rail all across the continent. However, in 2016 the price of oil hit an all time low, so now the line is seeing just around 3 or 4 trains per week. Still, that sure beats being dead. We'll remain hopeful that the oil prices will kick up again soon.

Also of note, the spur near Hillard actually went a little further north, following Lincoln St north (the remnants of an old trestle remains today over a ditch by the high school track) and, between Ash and Birch St, cut across to the NW into what was once a Chevron HQ called "11-C Camp" back in the boom days; it was a huge residential area for the families of oilfield workers. That mile-and-a-half spur was abandoned in the early 60's, along with the district. Today, little is left except the fence around the old property, and old scraps of wood, metals and concrete chunks strewn about the field of tumbleweeds.

James Golden
Taft, CA
7/2/2016

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Thank you James Golden for that great history. I love trains and I love old abandoned rights of way of many sorts. It would be a really cool thing to make a video from a drone following the right of way directly out of Bakersfield, through the entire southwest side following the tracks until the disappear and there is just the left over berm of the Sunset Railroad right of way. To follow it through Taft and up to follows if any remnant could be followed that far.

Fred Herrman
Burbank, CA
7/11/2016

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What I enjoy is seeing the remnants left behind like the cross buck at a crossing or signals left behind. I remember seeing a cross buck on Tulare St. In Fresno, from a long rail line. Makes interesting conversation.

Robert Benkelman
Elizabeth , NJ
7/12/2016

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For me, trains will always be mysterious creatures, especially at night. I'm not trying to be too poetic or anything. It's just that trains move through these rights of ways that no other mode of transportation has any access to, and they can move so many thousands of tons of every kind of item that can be manufactured or pulled from the earth. And they connect cities and towns, and in that way, the remnants of old train lines, such as the Sunset Railroad, tell you everything about what was happening decades and even over a hundred years ago through what are now sometimes desolate, forgotten towns that were once the hub of this or that for so many reasons.

Probably THE most comforting thing for me, whether I am in Burbank listening to one going up San Fernando Blvd (the old CA Route 99), or staying the night at my mother in law's house in Wasco hearing one move up the 43, is laying on my pillow and listening to the cool, somewhat muted sound of a locamotive somewhere moving through the dark. It's just fantastic. Where is that train going? How far will it be when I wake up in the morning. It's the sound of what's left of our American industrialization lurking across the night, doing whatever it's doing and going wherever it's going. Just the best!

Fred Herrman
Burbank, CA
7/12/2016

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