Alta Mesa to Simla Junction

The Vasona Branch

Point of Interest

Map submitted by Paul Carr.

This was a secondary Southern Pacific route that passed through the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, on the San Francisco peninsula. It was abandoned in 1962 to make way for the Foothill Expressway.

The Los Altos passenger depot, located about halfway along the line, still stands and has a Western Pacific caboose on display.

Thanks to Mike Palmer and Paul Carr for contributing information about this route.

Historic ICC Abandonment Filings

Docket Number: 22009 Date: 3/21/1962 Section: 1(18)
Applic. for auth. to aband. that port. of the Vasona Branch, Coast Divn., betw. M.P. 33.932 at or near Alta Mesa and M.P. 46.199 at or near Simla, a distance of approx. 6.267 mi., together with all sidings, spur tracks and appurtenances, located in Santa Clara County, Calif.
Length: 6.267 miles Citation:  

Our family moved to Los Altos in 1953. No interstate 280 nor Foothill Expressway. Single SP track bordered the south side of Fremont Rd with grade crossings at First St, El Monte, and Springer Rd/Magdelena Rd among others. Wig-wag signals predominated, no gates. I vivedly remember the SP commuter trains (one round trip each day between San Jose and San Francisco)with old olive-drab single level coaches pulled by final steam locos then GP-7s or GP-9s painted in black widow colors. Modern double deck coaches soon replaced the old. There was a short spur on the north side of the track which served the now long gone Los Altos Feed and Fuel store. (Mostly tank cars with bulk heating oil). The Los Altos train station (at First and Main) was a thing of beauty. Seemed out of place with so little actual train service. Still stands in the original location having been used by many different local businesses, the first of which was a hamburger restaurant appropriately called The Station House. Many times a week an SP crew would park their loco across from the Rancho Shopping Center and have lunch at then-called Rancho Chuck Wagon restaurant. The restaurant is still in its original location but now renamed. The branch line deteriorated significantly in its final years but the memories live on. The Los Altos Museum has a nice section dedicated to its historical railroad days.

Dennis Shattock
Schaumburg, IL


A couple of comments. The Los Altos branch was abandoned in January 1964 to be exact. It didn't pass through the Stanford Campus either, by several miles.

One correction to the other comment. They were not GP-7s. SP ran GP-9s on the commute trains, as he also mentions. There were never GP-7s on the commute trains. SP only every had one GP7 in the system and it was part of the Cotton Belt Railway.

Redmond, WA


Growing up in Los Altos, I remember that line. A morning and evening commuter train used the line. My Dad sometimes took it to The City. There were a few industrial spurs on the line as well. Mclroy Lumber on San Antonio Road in Los Altos received carloads of lumber and other building materials. I remember a team track in Loyola Corners, as well. I recall the Commuter trains, but don't ever remember a freight, though I was 4 when Foothill Expressway was built.

You can still see the rail bridge over Steven's Creek (now used for a pipeline) of the original wye, and the right of way just to the west of Foothill Expressway right before the I-280 overcrossing. Used to be a crossbuck sign near there too.

Paul L. Noble
Los Altos, CA


I would love any links to detailed track right of ways that were used. Scanned photos too.

A friend told me that Good Year was responsible for convincing Mayors of Los Gatos and Los Angeles to pull up their tracks and light rail systems. How sad.

lewis isbell
Los Gatos/Los Altos, CA


1962 is the date of the filing. The actual abandonment took place on January 27, 1964.

S.P. primarily used Fairbanks-Morse Train Master locomotives for the peninsula commute service.

On Google Maps it is possible to discern some of the old right of way in Palo Alto where it broke off from the main line, crossed Park Boulevard going behind the building that now houses Fry's Electronics, across El Camino and down the dirt path on the west side of McDonald's. As of 1991 there were still vestiges of the crossing hardware at Park Boulevard. The City of Palo Alto has since leveled that section of El Camino which used to be slightly above grade.

Palo Alto, CA


Copy and paste the entire link above and you should get a link to a 1947 map of Palo Alto and vicinity from the University of Alabama's map collection.

Gary Hunter
San Jose, CA


Born in Palo Alto @ the old Stanford hospital, lived close to San Antonio shopping center, close to the Sears warehouse at the end of Del Medio road where Sears had a spur track and we would play in the empty box cars after hours. In kindergarten @ Portola elementry school took a field trip on one of the double decker commute cars, still a vivid memory. I am building a HO train set to mimick the alma run of track. does anyone remember any other industries that had spurs along that route? I can remember also playing around one near the old Maximart store, (now Fry's), but not too much else.

Alan Griffin
Carson City, NV



follow this link for a map of track and industries on the peninsula.


Paul L Noble
Edgewood NM(native Los Altan), NM


A while back, I wrote and article regarding my first train ride. It was on the old Mayfield to Los Gatos (Vasona) branch line. I grew up riding that train with my mom on a regular basis from Monta Vista to "The City" (San Francisco). We rode it about every other month or so for several years on shopping jaunts and would have lunch at any of a zillion restaurants in that city of wonders. That was right after WWII that we began riding the train. We continued though my high school years and I graduated in 1955 from Fremont High School in Sunnyvale. (Yes, I am that old - 78 this year.)

I loved that old train and spent a lot of time riding it. When I wasn't riding it, I was out in the street (a dirt road) next to our house, watching the trains go past the end of the street four blocks to the west. If you enlarge the map the accompanies the Vasona Branch posts to its maximum detail, you can almost see where I lived. I say almost because I lived on the corner of Lowe Avenue and University Way, fancy names for what were then only dirt roads. Where Lowe Avenue was is now the southbound off ramp from Highway 85 to Stevens Creek Boulevard near De Anza College. If you have Google Earth on your computer, open it and type "MONTA VISTA, CA" in the search window. Hit enter and up comes that area as it is today. There is a little clock icon on the toolbar that enables you to go back in time. Click on the clock and a timeline will open to you.

At the far left, you will see 1948. If you click on that year, you will be able to see the old Vasona branch that ran through our town.

Paul Noble doesn't remember the freight trains through Los Altos. There were some but most of them came in from San Jose, running south to the Vasona Wye and then northwest up the branch through Monta Vista to the spur at Simla Junction. They would then switch off of the main onto that spur and run generally south and a little west to the Kaiser (now Lehigh) Permanente Cement Plant. In the early days of San Jose, that plant furnished a great amount of cement for the building of that now great city (where I was born, I might add). They also supplied cement for Shasta Dam, north of Redding, CA.. I vividly remember freight trains struggling up the hill to Permanente on a regular basis. I used to drift off to sleep listening to the old Consolidations and Mikados and other steam engines, sometimes double-headed, pounding their way up the hill to the plant. Gives me chills to think about it. There were other freight trains that came through also. There were two sidings in Monta Vista. One was just south of Stevens Creek Road and it led into the old (now long gone) Woelffel Cannery that was very busy when I was a kid, especially in the summer and fall. The second siding was just north of Stevens Creek Road and it was essentially a team track. Cars were regularly dropped off to unload such things as groceries for Refredi's and Cosci's stores - our 1940's "super markets." There were other businesses in Monta Vista and Cupertino which also benefited from that little siding. We kids used to frequent that siding when cars were in. We would climb up the ladders at one end of the cars, walk the "plank" along the top and climb down the ladder at the other end. Great stuff for a kid.

The tracks between Simla Junction and Mayfield (South Palo Alto) are long gone but the tracks are still servicing the cement plant via the Vasona branch from San Jose, making a turn to the right at Vasona (no longer a junction) and then northwest through Monta Vista to Simla and curving left and up the hill to the Permanente Plant. Those tracks are now part of the Union Pacific Railroad system. I might add that at last check (online), they are in deplorable condition. There are some video clips you can watch of that branch as it is today. Simply Google "Permanente Local" and several choices will become available.

As for the article I wrote a couple of years ago, if you would like a copy of it, I would be happy to email it to you. There are several photos included in it and, as near as my 78 year old mind permits, some 9 year old perspectives of my train rides on that forgotten route.

Bill Sparling

Sequim, Washington

Bill Sparling
Monta Vista, CA


I remember that old line - our family moved to Los Altos Hills in June, 1957 - my dad took it once or twice from San Francisco to the Rancho Shopping Center (Magdalena Ave.) stop in 1960 & '61. We used to put pennies on the tracks for the trains to flatten when we were kids. I seem to remember that the tracks from downtown Los Altos to Loyola Corners were torn up in January of 1965.

Tony Arioli
Guerneville, CA


My friends auto shop was right between the Mayfield wye at Park Blvd. He would tell me about trains going by there in the past. From what I can remember, they still used that branch to service Varian (south of Page Mill rd) and some businesses that were in the building where Frys electronics was up until the 80's. He told me about one tank car they rolled past Park blvd and blew out the rails because the ties were so old and rotten. It sat for a week before they finally fixed the tracks and got it rolling again. That was about the last car to roll on there as far as I know. Also, there is still a hump on El Camino and a small part of ROW next to the McDonalds left (rails have been gone for years)

Tim B
Palo Alto, CA


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