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Company Plans to Re-Open Railroad Line to El Centro

The Desert Line—opened by John D. Spreckels in 1932—links San Diego to El Centro through northern Mexico and East San Diego County.

A former New York investment banker is finishing plans to revitalize the railroad line between San Diego and El Centro, a twisty, short line that has been beset by fires, floods and tunnel collapses over the past 40 years.

Ernest Dahlman, chief executive officer of the Pacific Imperial Railroad, said he is raising funds to improve 130 miles of track from the San Ysidro border crossing through Tijuana, Tecate, and the rugged Carrizo Gorge in East County.

Two months ago, his railroad company signed a 99-year lease with the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railway Company and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System to operate the Desert Line tracks through northern Baja California and the mountains and deserts of San Diego and Imperial counties.

Dahlman said he is in negotiations with transcontinental rail companies to connect them to the 800 or so factories and warehouses near his tracks in greater San Diego and Tijuana.

“We want to get these tracks up and running,” he said. “There is really an enormous demand for this service.”

The rail will link with California’s rail system via MTS tracks along the San Diego Trolley lines, and on the east will connect to the Union Pacific transcontinental route near El Centro.

The old tracks were built as an alternative to Santa Fe freight and passenger service, which detoured to the east via Fullerton or Los Angeles. The tracks through Baja California and San Diego’s mountains and desert were built by industrialist John D. Spreckels and were opened to great civic acclaim in 1932.

In addition to the detour up the Tijuana River valley in Mexico, the tracks used tunnels and a spectacular 600-foot-high curving wooden trestle to traverse a canyon at Carrizo Gorge, the boulder-strewn chasm chosen for the railroad grade between the mountains and desert floor.

The San Diego and Arizona Railroad was eventually taken over by Southern Pacific. It suffered a series of calamities starting in 1970, when a tropical storm wiped out the tracks in the desert. Trestle fires and tunnel collapses have also bedeviled several smaller railroad companies that took over the tracks under leases from the San Diego MTS.

The Pacific Imperial Railroad has been lining up engineering data and financial partners to work toward upgrading the line to modern standards. The company named Ernest J. Dahlman as CEO this month. He is a former investment banker from New York who concentrated in short-haul railroads.

“We have the capability to run this thing at full capacity, but we need to put some money into this thing to make it safer and more efficient,” he said in an interview Sunday.

“Car parts, commodities and other loads need rail access,” he said. “There is really an enormous demand for the use of this rail line.”

-City News Service

CosasChaparitas February 18, 2013 at 03:48 PM
I promise to take it! I absolutely love the idea of a private investor taking over rather than more tax payer dollars!
Shorebird February 18, 2013 at 04:12 PM
I have wanted to take that trip for years, yay. It is now a possibility again.
Jay Berman February 18, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Great project ... private funds ... freight is profitable .. will get a lot of truck traffic off the freeway ... I'm just concerned about the border security at the crossing points and for the entire train while in Mexico ..
Ralph Wiley February 18, 2013 at 09:28 PM
It will take an enormous amount of work and money to rebuild the rail line through Carrizo Gorge. Several of the tunnels or approaches have collapsed, and at least some of the trestles will have to be rebuilt. The still-standing tunnels look as if an entire forest was leveled for the timber to build them. They are spectacular!
Jose Ruiz February 26, 2013 at 09:23 AM
They should use this for freight and industry. to bring industry back to san diego. it will benefit our economy. It would be nice if freight service can be restored throughout San Diego's South Bay area as well as Imperial Beach. Imperial Beach used to have track that ran there but has been cut. Bring jobs back. Bring industry back.

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