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Tracing Tracy Territory

Making sense of possible ways through Altamont Pass

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Proposed ACE route

After the column of a couple weeks ago told of plans moving forward to establish a rail line for self-propelled passenger cars from Lathrop — through Tracy — to BART somewhere in the Tri-Valley area, several readers asked about the route over the Altamont Hills.

A good question, since the column didn’t include any details about how the Altamont Hills would be crossed.

Anyway, the brief answer is that current plans call for the diesel or electric trains to use the original Southern Pacific right of way.

That right of way, first put to use in 1869, has been barren of tracks since 1984, when the S.P. abandoned the line after working out an agreement with the Union Pacific for joint use of the U.P. tracks.

At that time, the S.P. deeded the right of way in Alameda County to the County of Alameda, which still holds title to the land. Public ownership of the right of way is an important consideration in using it again for the new rail line.

In recent years, using the right of way for dedicated tracks for the Altamont Corridor Express trains, or even possibly high-speed rail, was discussed — but because of tight turns and changing elevations, it wouldn’t work, requiring several new tunnels to be bored and other route changes.

The lighter cars in the new proposal, however, could make the turns and climb the grades, and there is an existing tunnel under Interstate 580 and through the hill nearby that could be used.

While most of the Altamont right of way is in Alameda County, there are several miles of right of way needed for the proposed new rail line in private ownership in San Joaquin County.

The original S.P. line, with tracks, still exists from Tracy westward to the Owens-Illinois glass-container factory. That stretch of track was used to transport glass-making sand to the O-I plant when it first opened in 1962, but no longer.

A connection between that railhead and the old SP right of way would be required to complete the Altamont section of the proposed rail line.

Acquiring the right of way to the Alameda County line could be a potentially expensive, time-consuming proposition, but not out of the question, according to Tracy Mayor Pro Tem Veronica Vargas, a member of the committee supporting the new train system.

I mentioned that the original railroad route over the Altamont carried the Southern Pacific name. It did eventually, but originally it was the Western Pacific.

No, not the Western Pacific line that is now the Union Pacific line that skirts the south side of Tracy and carries U.P. freight and ACE trains today.

The original Western Pacific was controlled by a roughish entrepreneur named Charles McLaughlin, who, after running into financial problems, sold the route to the Central Pacific, which became the Southern Pacific in 1885.

The Altamont route came through the coaling station of Ellis, beginning in 1869, past Banta (no Tracy until 1878) and over the San Joaquin River to Lathrop, where it joined the C.P.’s main San Joaquin Valley line.

When the first train passed over the Mossdale Bridge on Sept. 8, 1869, that marked the actual completion of the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco. It wasn’t at Promontory Summit in Utah when the Golden Spike as driven on May 10, 1869, but unceremoniously four months later at Mossdale that a coast-to-coast rail system became a reality.

That same bridge is in use today by the U.P., and who knows — it could be used in the not-too-distant future for the new rail line connecting our area with the BART system.

Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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