San Diego MTS determined to rehab ‘Impossible Railroad’ despite latest setback in the desert

Despite repeated delays, transit officials from San Diego still believe that the crumbling and sand-covered set century-old railroad tracks and wooden crossings connecting Tecate and Plaster City can be saved.

The so-called Desert Line, if they succeed, would eventually transport freight from Mexico to eastern markets of the United States. Instead, railcars would connect directly with the Union Pacific Railroad outside El Centro.

A Tijuana-based business recently abandoned repeated promises of restoring the tracks and its 17 tunnels as well as 57 bridges. It had made little to no progress since leasing the line back in 2017.

Sharon Cooney, CEO of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which owns the rail line, said she’s not giving up.

“We still think the project has real potential,”Cooney said. “We’re really working toward finding an operator, a construction partner that would be able to make the project work.”

This stretch of Desert Line shows “The Seven Sisters,”A series of seven trestles, clinging to the mountainside east and north of the Goat Canyon Trestle.

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union Tribune)

The 148-mile stretch of railroad runs along the 70-mile dilapidated, largely obsolete section. “Impossible Railroad”John D. Spreckels, a well-known entrepreneur, started the construction in 1907. Many of the lines are still in use today. They transport freight from San Diego to Tijuana, and as far east as Tecate.

However, the rail line’s desert section hasn’t moved freight since 2008, when MTS leased the line to Carrizo Gorge Railway. Due to bridge repairs, the resurrection was not sustainable. The line has a long, troubled history that includes repeated fires and floods as well as cave-ins.

MTS, which took over the Desert Line in 1978 has in recent years leased it to several investors. The conditions included biannual payments in the amount of $500,000 and regular progress updates on upgrades completed.

Baja California Railroad was most recently acquired. Fernando Beltran, Tijuana’s boxing promoter, founded the company with a vision of restoring the tracks. After several years of little to no progress, the company abruptly stopped making lease payments last year to MTS.

Friday’s request for comment was unanswered by the company.

Cooney stated that it would likely take MTS at least a year to find a new leaseholder. Caltrans is seeking funding to investigate the feasibility of rehabilitating the line. This would involve digging out tunnels that are covered in boulders and other debris like at the Goat Canyon Trestle.

“I do believe it’s an asset for the region, and if we have any opportunity to make the project work, we owe it to the public to try,”She spoke.

Robert Smith stands near a cave-in on the Desert Line at a tunnel just east of the famous Goat Canyon trestle.

Robert Smith, who worked at Baja Rail, stands in front of a cave-in along the Desert Line at a tunnel east of the Goat Canyon trestle. This is the longest curved wooden, curved trestle in all the world.

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune).

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