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Amtrak California San Joaquins "Valley Views" Route Guide

Valley Views
Along the Route of the San Joaquins


Trains have played a significant role in California's transportation system since 1855, when the Sacramento Valley Railroad first opened between the Sacramento waterfront and the city of Folsom. Soon thereafter, rail lines were extended up and down the Sacramento - San Joaquin Valley and into the Sierra foothills, making the critical connection between mines, farms and factories.

Today, Amtrak California's San Joaquin trains and Thruway Motor coaches, the product of a partnership between the country's national rail passenger system and the State of California, extended almost the entire length of California. Patterned after the Santa Fe Railway's Golden Gate trains introduced in 1938, and operating primarily over the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad, the San Joaquin trains are the backbone of a transportation network that extends, via coordinated motor coach, to communities throughout the state.

As just noted, for most of their runs the San Joaquin trains use the main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. This line was constructed from Stockton to Bakersfield between 1895 and 1898 by the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley (SF&SJV) Railroad, a company organized by local valley interests to provide competition to Southern Pacific's line down the Valley. Once it was completed, the SF&SJV was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in December 1898. The Santa Fe extended the line west into the Bay Area, reaching Richmond in 1900 and Emeryville in 1904. In 1995, the Santa Fe merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad to form today's BNSF. Amtrak, however, uses Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) tracks to serve Bay Area stations from Oakland to Martinez, and to reach Sacramento.

This guide highlights some of the major attractions and points of interest along the train route. It is written in the perspective of a trip from Oakland to Bakersfield, that is, from north to south (or west to east, in railroad parlance). If you are traveling in the opposite direction, start at the end and read toward the front; and remember to look to the left if we have indicated right, and to the right if we have indicated left. Station stops are indicated by the boldest names (also underlined), with the distance from each end of the route.


Does your train look as if it's going "backwards"?
If it goes, it's because the train is operating in "push" mode, with the locomotive at the rear of the train, pushing instead of pulling. In this direction the locomotive engineer controls the train from an operating compartment at the front of the first coach (also known as a "cab car"). Although not a necessity on the San Joaquins (like it is on some other corridors), operating in "push-pull" style can simplify operational procedures in Bakersfield, since the train doesn't have to be physically turned around for its return to Oakland.

How does the locomotive engineer know the location of other trains before he sees them?
The Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) system allows the dispatcher to control hundreds of miles of train traffic from one remote location. The engineer operates the train in accordance with the signals set by the dispatcher, and the crew can communicate with the dispatcher by radio if necessary.

What do the signals mean?
Signals on the railroad are similar to highway or road traffic signals. The position and the of the lights tells the engineer whether he should stop, slow down or move onto a siding because of an approaching train. A single green light indicates all is clear ahead.

315 miles from Bakersfield

Oakland is California's sixth largest city. Hundreds of years ago "Oak-land" was composed of rolling hills dotted with oak trees. The Spaniards used to call it "Las Encinas," meaning "The Oaks."

Oakland's Jack London Square Amtrak Station opened in 1995. The station honors the vice-president and founder of the Sleeping Car Porter's Union, C.L. Dellums.

JACK LONDON SQUARE Popular Jack London Square is located across the tracks from the Oakland station. The square is named after author Jack London and houses many interesting shops, restaurants and hotels, plus a Jack London Museum.

The Jack London Square area offers easy access to ferry rides across San Francisco Bay and to the Alameda - Contra Costa Transit bus system. Always a popular destination in the Oakland area is the Oakland Museum, with fascinating exhibits on the art, natural history and history of California. The Museum can be reached from the station via AC Transit.

PORT OF OAKLAND After leaving Oakland station, trains pass by the West Oakland yard (on the left) where Amtrak trains are maintained, serviced and supplied. Union Pacific's freight yards are also located here. Beyond the yards the Port of Oakland, one of the largest containerized freight shipping ports on the west coast, is visible on the left side of the train. The Port handles 90% of Northern California's container traffic.

5 miles from Oakland
310 miles from Bakersfield

Emeryville was named for Joseph Stickney Emery of New Hampshire, who came to California in 1850 and bought the land on which the city now stands. in 1904 the Santa Fe extended its main line into Emeryville, which became the actual western end of the Santa Fe Railway system, although the railroad's main Bay Area yard and terminal facilities remained in Richmond.

In 1938 the Santa Fe began operating motor coaches across the then-new Bay Bridge to carry passengers between its downtown San Francisco terminal and train side in Emeryville, replacing its San Francisco - Richmond ferry boats (Southern Pacific did not replace its ferries with motor coaches until 1957). At the same time Santa Fe also introduced the forerunner of today's coordinated rail - bus service between San Francisco and Los Angeles: the Golden Gate streamliners between Emeryville and Bakersfield with railroad operated motor coaches from Bakersfield to Los Angeles as well as across the Bay Bridge.

The Emeryville Station was constructed by the City of Emeryville after 1989 Loama Prieta earthquake forced Amtrak to abandon Southern Pacific's historic Sixteenth Street Station in Oakland. This is the transfer point for passengers traveling to and from San Francisco on Amtrak's special Thruway motor coach shuttle.

The name "Berkeley" was chosen by the committee that selected the site for the first campus of the University of California. The name pays homage to Bishop George Berkeley, who wrote the famous stanza that begins, "Westward the course of empire takes its way..." The campus is east of the tracks, at the base of the hills.

The former Southern Pacific station building on the right was converted into a restaurant some years ago. Amtrak's Capitol Corridor trains stop at an adjacent passenger shelter beneath the University Avenue overpass. The Capitols provide direct service between Berkeley and Davis, home of another U.C. campus.

13 miles from Oakland
302 miles from Bakersfield

In Richmond, Amtrak stops at the BART station, using facilities that were especially constructed to allow for a direct connection between the two systems. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system serves San Francisco and much of the East Bay area. One of the BART's two major maintenance facilities is just beyond the station on the right. The Amtrak station is not staffed.

The city of Richmond takes its name from nearby Point Richmond, which in turn was named for Richmond, Virginia, birthplace of Edmund Randolph, who represented San Francisco at the first session of the California legislature at San Jose in 1849.

Richmond's deep water port and rail connections provide excellent shipping terminals for many oil refineries in the surrounding area. It was a major ship yard center in World War II, building 20% of the Liberty ships (freighters) used during the war; by adapting assembly - line techniques, a ship could be built in only 48.5 days.

THE TUNNEL Between Richmond and Crockett is Tunnel Number One. At 604 feet long, it is the only tunnel on the San Joaquin route.

CROCKETT At Crockett, Interstate Highway 80 passes far overhead on the twin Carquinez Bridges. These two bridges are among the longest of their type in the world. The original cantilever span opened in 1927. Though built by a private company, it soon became part of the State's highway system. The second span (on the left when facing the water) was added in the 1950's.
Across the Carquinez Strait to the left, almost underneath the bridges, are the buildings of the California Maritime Academy. The Academy's training ship Golden Bear can sometimes be seen tied up there.

Just beyond the Carquinez Bridge, Crockett's most famous feature, the massive California and Hawaii (C & H) Sugar Company refinery, extends for some distance along the left side of the tracks. The oldest buildings in the complex were built in the 1880's as a flour mill. Special tankers carry raw cane sugar to the refinery from Hawaii for processing. Once refined, the sugar is shipped to market by rail and truck.

PORT COSTA The town of Port Costa can be glimpsed on the right a few minutes after passing through Crockett. Port Costa was once a major ferry terminal for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Entire trains were carried across the Carquinez Strait on immense ferryboats which held up to 48 cars and one locomotive per voyage. Before the Benicia Martinez bridge was constructed, Port Costa was where the San Joaquin Valley line separated from the "Overland Route."

In the late nineteenth century Port Costa was also one of the busiest wheat shipping ports in the world, as grain from California's great Central Valley was brought here by train and loaded into ocean - going ships for distribution around the world. The vast maze of pilings sticking out of the water on the left are the only remnant of Port Costa's once extensive waterfront facilities.

BENICIA - MARTINEZ BRIDGE Looking ahead on the left side of the train, the Benicia - Martinez Bridge can be seen crossing Carquinez Strait. At 5,603 feet long, it is the longest and heaviest double track railroad bridge west of the Mississippi River. The tracks are 70 feet above the water, and the 328 - foot long lift span provides 135 feet of clearance for ocean going ships and can be raised in 90 seconds. The bridge was built in 1928 to carry the "Overland Route" main line across the Strait, replacing the cumbersome Port Costa - Benicia ferry operation. The adjacent highway bridge was not opened until 1964.

32 miles from Oakland
283 miles from Bakersfield

The city of Martinez was named in honor of Ignacio Martinez, a Mexican officer who was comandante of the Presidio of San Francisco for several years. He was granted the Rancho El Pinole, extending from Pinole Point eastward to the site of the present city. Martinez is the seat of Contra Costa County, and many county officers are within walking distance of the train station. Also within walking distance is the downtown shopping district, famous for its many fine antique shops.

Martinez was the residence of famed naturalist John Muir from 1890 until his death in 1914. Many of his writings were penned in the "scribble den" of the house, which was declared the John Muir National Historic Site in 1964. It is open daily to visitors and is easily reached by local transit.

Martinez is the transfer point for Amtrak Thruway connecting motor coaches to Marine World Africa USA, Napa, Santa Rosa and Redwood Empire points as far north as Eureka/Arcata. At Martinez travelers can also connect with long distance Amtrak trains to the East and Pacific Northwest.

At Martinez the San Joaquins leave the "Overland Route" and head down Union Pacific Railroad's "Mococo Line" toward a connection with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad at Port Chicago.

THE MOTHBALL FLEET Prominent in Suisun Bay, and visible in the distance on the left, is the "mothball fleet" of retired U.S. Navy ships. Dating back as far as World War II, the ships are stored here because the low salinity of the water resists the accumulation of barnacles on ships hulls. Northbound passengers also get their first look at the Benicia - Martinez Bridge (see above) beyond the fleet.

PORT CHICAGO At Port Chicago the San Joaquins switch from the Union Pacific Railroad to the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which they use for the rest of the trip to Bakersfield.
PITTSBURG STEEL PLANT After passing through the industrial city of Pittsburg, the sprawling buildings of the former United States Steel Company fabricating plant can be seen on the left side of the train. Part of the plant is still used for the manufacture of steel products, while portions of it have been converted to other industrial uses. Final assembly of the "California Car" equipment used on the San Joaquins and Capitols was done here.

50 miles from Oakland
265 miles from Bakersfield

Originally called Smith Landing, the residents in 1852 decided to name the community Antioch, after the Biblical city. The station, which was not staffed, was constructed by the city to serve the growing east Contra Costa County region. A number of heavy industries are located close to the shore of Suisun Bay, but the rest of the region is a mixture of traditional agriculture and new residential development. The Contra Costa Company fairgrounds are located a few blocks from the station. Terrain - wise, Antioch is where San Joaquins enter the great valley for which they are named. The landmark Mount Diablo is prominently visible on the right after leaving Antioch.

SAN JOAQUIN RIVER DELTA Twelve miles after leaving Antioch, the tracks curve to the left and head due east across the Delta of the San Joaquin River. The Delta is a region of channels, sloughs, marshes and below-sea-level islands ringed by high levees. The islands contain some of the richest farmland in the country, and the entire region teems with wildlife.

The huge pipes parallel to the tracks on the right side of the train belong to the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD). They carry fresh water from the Sierras to the urban communities of the Bay Area.

ORWOOD At Orwood the San Joaquins cross the Old Rover (a former channel of the San Joaquin River) on the only regularly operating drawbridge along the route. Trains occasionally have to wait as the bridge is opened for recreational boats on the river.

HOLT Until recently a siding and now east end of a short section of double track, Holt was named for the adjacent ranch of Benjamin Holt, who founded a forerunner of the Caterpillar Tractor Company after he developed the tracked method of propulsion for tractors and other machinery.

49 miles from Stockton
283 miles from Bakersfield

Sacramento is not actually on the route of trains operating between Oakland and Bakersfield, but since 1981 California's capital city has been linked to those trains by special Amtrak bus shuttles to and from Stockton. Finally, on February 21, 1999, the fifth San Joaquin round trip was inaugurated as a direct train between Sacramento and Bakersfield, joining the established Oakland - Bakersfield route a mile east of the Stockton Amtrak station.

Although the permanent route of the Sacramento trains will be on the former Southern Pacific main line to Stockton (constructed in 1869 as part of the original transcontinental railroad), for an interim period they will often run on the former Western Pacific main line while rehabilitation work is underway on the former SP line. Both lines are now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.

81 miles from Oakland
234 miles from Bakersfield

Stockton was founded in 1849 by Captain Charles M. Weber, who named the city in honor of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, California's first military governor. As a major river port, Stockton quickly became the primary "jumping off point" for the southern part of the Mother Lode. In 1869 it also became a railroad town, when the original transcontinental line was extended from Sacramento to the shores of San Francisco Bay. Stockton is the seat of San Joaquin County, one of the most diverse agricultural counties in the U.S. It is home of the University of the Pacific, California's first co-educational college.

Several prominent Stockton residents were involved in the organization of the San Francisco and San Joaquin Valley Railroad, and construction of what is now the BNSF main line began in Stockton on the shores of Mormon Slough in the summer of 1895. The present station building (on the left side of the train) was constructed in 1900, shortly after Santa Fe acquired ownership of the line. It is the second oldest station building still in use on the route.

Trains to and from Sacramento (see above) do not stop at this station, as the Sacramento route diverges from the BNSF main line about a mile to the east (toward Bakersfield). The Sacramento trains stop in Stockton at the unstaffed ACE commuter train station, which is located adjacent to the former Southern Pacific station building about a mile north of the junction.

ESCALON Escalon is the Spanish word for "step or steeping stone." The town was supposedly so named by its founder James W. Jones because he liked the sound of the word.

RIVERBANK Coming into Riverbank the San Joaquins cross the Stanislaus River and enter the county of the same name. The name is derived from "Estanislao," and baptismal name given to a local Indian chief. Riverbank at one time was the division point separating the Second and Third Districts of Santa Fe's Valley Division, and it still hosts a small local switching yard. It is also the origin of a 6.5-mile branch line that runs east (left) to Oakdale to connect with the fabled short line Sierra Railway. From 1974 until 1999, Riverbank served as the Amtrak stop for the nearby city of Modesto.

111 miles from Oakland
204 miles from Bakersfield

When the Central Pacific Railroad was building the original line down the San Joaquin Valley, the name "Ralston" was suggested for the town planned at this site. William C. Ralston, a San Francisco financier and associate of the railroad's builders, declined the honor. When a local caballero commented that he was very modest, Mr. Ralston is reported to have replied, "That's a good name; let's call it 'Modesto' [the Spanish word for modest]."

Modesto, the seat of Stanislaus County, is the third-largest city in the San Joaquin Valley. Although the original SF&SJV route passed by to the east of the city, Modesto has grown rapidly in recent years, and its boundaries have expanded to include a portion of the BNSF main line. On October 31, 1999, the City opened a new full-service Amtrak station in a developing suburban area northeast of downtown. Financed jointly by the City and the State, this striking facility features spacious public areas, modern amenities and ample parking. It is also served by the Modesto transit system.

EMPIRE The community of Empire was once the head of navigation on the Tuolumne River and the seat of Stanislaus County, but it was overshadowed by nearby Modesto after the Central Pacific established the latter town in 1870. Empire later became Santa Fe's station Modesto, and the interurban Modesto and Empire Traction (M&ET) was built to connect the two towns.

Now known as Modesto-Empire Junction on the railroad, Empire is a major freight hub for the BNSF. A large, modern inter modal terminal can be seen on the right, and the M&ET provides a significant amount of inter-change traffic to and from industries in the area.

Immediately south of Empire, the San Joaquins cross the Tuolumne River on a new main line span constructed in 1996. The older bridge on the right now carries a switching lead for the yard.

123 miles from Oakland
192 miles from Bakersfield

Turlock is an important poultry-processing center and the home of the Stanislaus campus of the California State University system. The city was named by H.W. Lander after a lake in Ireland called Turlough, meaning "dry lake." The San Joaquins began serving Turlock in 1984, when an unstaffed station facility was constructed at Denair.

The unincorporated community of Denair developed around the siding on the Santa Fe line that was nearest to Turlock. It was named for John Denair, former Santa Fe Division Superintendent at Needles, who purchased to the town site in 1906, shortly after his retirement.

MERCED RIVER A pair of sweeping curves and a broad lush flood plain mark the BNSF line's crossing of the Merced River.

This is a marked contrast to the canyon-like crossings of the other major rivers flowing out of the central Sierras. Captain Gabriel Moraga named the river for the Virgin Mary ("our lady of Mercy") because of the relief it provided his exploring party after crossing forty miles of arid country.

CASTLE AIR FORCE BASE On the left side of the train can be seen the interesting museum of historic military aircraft of Castle Air Force Base. Although the base was recently decommissioned after years of service as a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber facility, the museum remains open to visitors.

147 miles from Oakland
168 miles from Bakersfield

The city of Merced, and the county of which it is the seat, took their names from the nearby Merced River. Merced has always considered itself the "Gateway to Yosemite" (until 1945 there was train service to the Park's entrance), and deluxe motor coaches meet several of the San Joaquins to transport visitors directly into the Park.

In 1998 Amtrak moved into temporary facilities in Merced, so that a new station could be constructed on the site of the former Santa Fe station building. Although the Santa Fe building was the newest railroad-built (i.e., pre-Amtrak) station in use along the BNSF line, having been constructed in 1918 to replace the original wood structure, it had structural deficiencies and could not be rehabilitated. The temporary facilities are on the site of one of two Harvey House restaurants in the Valley, which was torn down some years ago.

183 miles from Oakland
132 miles from Bakersfield

Madera is the Spanish word for wood or timber. The city was so named because it was at one time the terminus of a 63-mile long flume which carried lumber products down from the Sierra Sugar-pine forests.

The Santa Fe main line was built slightly to east of Madera, which was served by a short spur line running west (right) from the location of the present unstaffed Amtrak station.

SAN JOAQUIN RIVER Nearing Fresno, the San Joaquins cross their name-sake river on the highest and longest bridge on the route. Going south the crossing is quite dramatic, as the flat valley floor drops away suddenly at the cliff-like north bank of the river; going north the ground slopes down gradually to the river. The San Joaquin River and its valley take their name from Saint Joaquin (Joseph), father of the Virgin Mary.

205 miles from Oakland
110 miles from Bakersfield

Fresno is the largest city in the San Joaquin Valley, with an urban area population of 555,000. It is the seat of Fresno County and the home of Fresno State University. Its name derives from the Spanish word for ash tree, reflecting the abundance of mountain ash in the area. Fresno is the world center of dried fruit and sweet wine industries.

The newest suburban developments in Fresno start appearing just after crossing the San Joaquin River, while downtown is still about ten miles ahead. Closer in, the trains pass through the campus of Fresno City College, then for the last mile to the station they run right down the edge of city streets. The large modern building on the right just before arriving at the station is Fresno's new City Hall, opened in 1991.

Fresno became Santa Fe's Valley Division headquarters in 1905. The passenger station constructed at that time was converted to office use prior to the institution of Amtrak service in the San Joaquin Valley in 1974, so Amtrak uses the first floor of the former freight office building. Fresno is the busiest stop on the San Joaquins, and the city is planning to build a new station immediately to the south of the existing buildings.

CALWA BNSF's major Fresno yard and terminal facilities (visible on the right) are located south of downtown at a place identified as Calwa. The name is actually an acronym for the California Wine Association, a major industrial organization at the time the line was built.

Calwa is the actual dividing point between today's Bakersfield and Stockton Subdivisions; and the former branch lines to Visalia and Porterville, now operated by short line San Joaquin Valley Railroad, diverge to the left just beyond the station building (also on the left). Although not a passenger stop, the San Joaquins do occasionally pause here for operational reasons.

At the south end of the yard, the San Joaquins cross the Union Pacific (former Southern Pacific) main line and duck under old Highway 99; the SR 99 freeway then passes overhead half-a-mile farther south.

235 miles from Oakland
80 miles from Bakersfield

The City of Hanford was laid out in 1877 by the Southern Pacific Railroad and named for James Hanford, a local railroad official. The Amtrak station, now owned by the city, was built in 1897 by the SF&SJV Railroad when it arrived in Hanford. It is the oldest station building on the San Joaquin Route and the only station on the BNSF line that predates Santa Fe acquisition of the SF&SJV in 1898. It was recently renovated by the city for use as a multi-modal transportation terminal. An Amtrak Thruway bus connection is available here for San Luis Obispo and central coast points, and inter city buses link Hanford to Visalia and other nearby communities.

252 miles from Oakland
63 miles from Bakersfield

Corcoran was named in honor of H.J. Corcoran of Stockton, who was a leader of the Stockton Commercial Association and one of the original stock holders of the SF&SJV Railroad. North of the station the other end of the former Visalia branch (now the SJV RR) heads off to the left: at one time this secondary line from Corcoran to Fresno was considered the main line, but the original line through Hanford soon regained that distinction.

Corcoran was established as an unstaffed San Joaquin stop in 1989. In 1999 a new station building, constructed by the City in the style of the former Santa Fe station, replaced the original passenger shelter.

ALLENSWORTH Allensworth was founded as an experimental farming community for former black slaves. It was named in honor of Colonel Allen B. Allensworth. Today the community is a State Park. The San Joaquins can stop at Allensworth when arranged in advance for groups visiting the park.

290 miles from Oakland
25 miles from Bakersfield

Wasco is noted for its commercial rose growers, and acres of rose bushes can be seen on both sides of the train south of town. The city sponsors a well-known Rose Festival every September. Wasco was named by William Bonham, an early settler who came from Wasco County, Oregon.

315 miles from Oakland

Bakersfield is the southern terminal of the San Joaquin trains. At this point the majority of the passengers transfer to or from Amtrak Thruway motor coaches serving Los Angeles and a number of other Southern California cities and towns. This coordinated rail-motor coach service was pioneered by the Santa Fe Railway in 1938, when it inaugurated the Golden Gate streamliners in the Valley.

Bakersfield in the second largest city in the San Joaquin Valley and the seat of Kern County. It was named for Colonel Thomas Baker who entered the Valley in 1865. The name derives from "Baker's Field," referring to an early horse quartering and feeding station.

The Bakersfield station complex, which include a Harvey House and extensive bus transfer facilities, was torn down after the end of Santa Fe passenger service in 1971. When Amtrak reestablished Valley passenger service in 1974, a temporary trailer was set up as a ticket office. The present station building was constructed by the State in 1985. The City of Bakersfield is constructing a new multi-modal passenger terminal about a mile to the east, adjacent to their Convention Center. It is scheduled to open in July, 2000. (TrainWeb Editor's Note: The new Bakersfield station opened without a hitch on July 4, 2000.)

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