[also published in 3rd Quarter 2022 issue of Steel Wheels]
Vice President-South, RailPAC
(photos by the author unless otherwise noted)
(background map: OpenStreetMap.org, annotations by author)
An exciting prospect for new passenger rail in Southern California is an Imperial Valley extension to the Coachella Valley Rail passenger service, currently under development. As currently proposed, the new passenger trains will go from Los Angeles Union station to Fullerton, Riverside, Palm Springs, Indio, and as far east as Coachella. Some trains of the proposed Los Angeles-Coachella Valley service could extend south from Coachella, to Brawley, El Centro and Calexico. Other possible stops along the line could include Mecca, Niland, Calipatria, Imperial, and Heber. Imperial County has a fast-growing population of 180,000, and the combined population of the bi-national region of Imperial County/Mexicali Municipality is over one million people.
The Imperial Valley has long had some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in California, but the region has great economic potential that would be supported by investment in railroad infrastructure. The region’s economy has traditionally been based on agriculture and international trade, but is also emerging as a hub of the growing clean energy industries. Imperial County is already a center of renewable energy production in the U.S., with geothermal, solar and wind power generation capacity totaling thousands of megawatts, and thousands more in various stages of development. A Salton Sea lithium mining boom may be also on the horizon.
In 2021, the Calexico West Port of Entry saw about 6 million passengers in northbound personal vehicles, and over 2 million northbound pedestrian crossings. By both measures, it is the fourth-busiest land border crossing into the United States. This works out to an average of over 21,000 people per day, well over 5,000 of which are pedestrians. Travelers from all parts of Mexico (and beyond) take buses and airplanes to/from Mexicali, and walk across the border to connect to intercity buses originating in Calexico. Mexicali International Airport saw over one million passengers in 2021. The border crossing is in downtown Calexico, adjacent to the railroad border crossing and walking distance from the potential/historic rail passenger depot site. While Calexico and other Imperial Valley communities are served by Greyhound Lines and other private intercity bus and shuttle operators, public intercity transportation options are limited. Imperial Valley Transit provides local bus service between Imperial County cities and to Yuma. The county’s only regularly scheduled airline service is four round trip flights per day from Imperial County Airport to Los Angeles, subsidized by the Essential Air Service program. These Southern Airways Express flights are on 9-passenger Cessna Caravans. While one way airline tickets on this route are advertised as low as $60, there are at most 36 passenger seats available each way daily, or less than an average bus. Passenger rail service would provide a valuable new intercity transportation option and international connection opportunity, providing congestion relief, economic and environmental benefits to Imperial County by shifting traffic from road to rail.
The first trains came to what is now Imperial County with the completion of the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Route between Yuma and the Coachella Valley in 1877. The “Inter-California Railway” line, constructed by the Southern Pacific between 1902 and 1911, branched from the Sunset Route at Niland, going south through the newly-created towns of the Imperial Valley and crossing the border at Calexico/Mexicali. Upon entering Baja California, the track went eastward for about 50 miles to cross back into the U.S. at Los Algodones. From there it rejoined the Sunset Route at Araz Junction, about 5 miles west of Yuma. The mostly Mexican section of track between Mexicali and Araz Junction was abandoned in the late 1950s. Union Pacific’s Calexico Subdivision, running 41 miles between Niland and Calexico, is the remaining part of the “Inter-Cal”.
The Rock Island and Southern Pacific’s joint Imperial passenger train connected the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas City and Chicago between 1932 and 1967. The Imperial was a unique trans-continental that diverted from the Sunset Route mainline at Yuma into Mexico, making stops at Los Algodones and Mexicali, and then crossed back into the U.S. at Calexico. From there, the train split into the Los Angeles Section (stopping in El Centro, Brawley, Niland, Indio and Palm Springs), and the San Diego Section which took the San Diego & Arizona Eastern from El Centro back into Mexico. This service had its roots in a local train between San Diego and Yuma, and made stops in Tecate and Tijuana before crossing back into the U.S. at San Ysidro to terminate at San Diego’s Santa Fe Deport. A section of sleeper cars on the famed Golden State also used this route to San Diego, which split from the main train at Yuma.
A little more than two decades after the last passenger train stopped in the Imperial Valley, there was renewed interest in passenger rail in the region. Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC)’s 1991 Los Angeles – Coachella Valley – Imperial County Intercity Rail Feasibility Study proposed one round trip per day between Los Angeles and Calexico along what was then the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Yuma Subdivision (part of the Sunset Route mainline) and Calexico Subdivision branch line.
The 1991 RCTC study proposed new stations at the same sites as demolished historic Southern Pacific depots in El Centro (between Main Street and Commercial Ave.) and Brawley (Main Street). [The Brawley depot was demolished relatively recently, in 2015]. Three site alternatives for stations in downtown Calexico were examined, including two within a few blocks’ walking distance of the border port of entry (and roughly the site of yet another demolished historic Southern Pacific depot). Most of the anticipated demand for passenger rail service was expected, as it would be today, to be people crossing the border to and from Mexicali on foot, with an addition goal of displacing some automobile trips. Thus, it would be desirable to locate a station as close to the international border as possible. The 1991 study also described track and grade crossing improvements needed along the 41-mile Calexico Subdivision between Niland and Calexico (then owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad).
(Table from 1991 RCTC Los Angeles – Coachella Valley – Imperial County Intercity Rail Feasibility Study )
RCTC’s current Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Pass Rail Corridor Service Project environmental and design studies cover a corridor as far east as Coachella. RCTC certified the final Tier 1 program-level environmental impact statement (EIS)/environmental impact report (EIR) on July 13, 2022. With Federal rail infrastructure grant funding available, it is now timely to re-investigate passenger rail service extending past Coachella to Calexico. A new rail study is needed to determine costs, passenger demand, service plan, and capital projects needed to support passenger operations on the Calexico Subdivision, while also providing sufficient capacity for Union Pacific freight service. Railroad equipment technology (locomotive-pulled trains or ‘multiple unit’ trains) and sources of power (diesel, electric, others) are fast-evolving. A cost-benefit analysis of the Imperial Valley service options is needed to determine the train equipment configuration.
Track owner Union Pacific would surely demand public investment in track capacity and other infrastructure before allowing passenger trains on the Calexico Subdivision. Upgrades and refurbishment of existing tracks, and adding new sidings and possibly double track in sections, would improve freight rail service as well.
The Calexico East Port of Entry is where all truck traffic entering the United States from Mexicali is inspected. In 2021, Calexico East saw over 400,000 trucks cross into the U.S. (or more than 1,000 per day), making it the nation’s 8th busiest land port of entry for trucks. Mexicali is a major manufacturing center, with most of the goods produced exported to the U.S. though the Imperial Valley. With track infrastructure improvements, much of this freight could be shifted from truck to rail, which would greatly reduce truck traffic and pollution. An inland port is now in development between Niland and Calipatria; and UP-delivered containers are already being stored along a loop track at rail-served container storage yard in Calipatria. UP has also been promoting development of the rail-served Imperial Valley Industrial Park on the Northeast side of El Centro. If the Salton Sea geothermal lithium mining industry takes off, sufficient freight rail capacity and reliability will be needed to support the industry. Moving bulk lithium by rail is much safer and more environmentally friendly than shipping it by truck, and should prove more economical.
The Coachella Valley town of Mecca in Riverside County has a population of nearly 9,000 people, and should be investigated as a stop on rail service between Coachella and the Imperial Valley. The town is now benefiting from RCTC’s Avenue 66 grade separation project, which opened to traffic in March 2022. Pedestrians and vehicles going to and from Mecca are no longer blocked by trains on the Sunset mainline at the 4th Street at-grade crossing. The nearest alternative crossing is over two miles away in either direction, so the town had been effectively cut off each time a train goes by or stops. UP trains often stop and hold for many minutes on this part of the mainline.
It is important to see a new passenger rail service to the Imperial Valley as being part of a larger network. The map below shows proposed needed rail infrastructure improvements along the UP Sunset Route (and branch lines) that are supported by the advocacy organizations RailPAC and All Aboard Arizona, including an Niland-Calexico passenger line extension to the Imperial Valley. Amtrak’s Sunset Limited between LA and New Orleans travels through Imperial County, but with no scheduled stops- the closest being Yuma. A future passenger train station at Niland would serve as a connection point for train passengers changing between the Imperial Valley and interstate trains such as the Sunset Limited and future California-Arizona regional services. Imperial County should pursue Federal and state grants for a feasibility study of LA-Calexico passenger rail service. The mobility, economic and environmental benefits of a new passenger train to the Imperial Valley are likely to be huge.
Proposed rail infrastructure improvements along the UP Sunset Route supported by RailPAC and All Aboard Arizona, including an Niland-Calexico passenger line extension to the Imperial Valley
(background map: OpenStreetMap.org, annotations by author)