Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco

The first railroad to reach San Francisco by land was the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, which commenced operations between its namesake cities in 1864. The initial route into the city closely followed the path that BART takes today into the Mission district, initially terminating at 25th and Valencia Streets with a connection to the Market Street Railway. If you look at the "Bernal Cut" or San Jose Avenue where MUNI travels today, you can see the path that was excavated for that railroad. The interests behind the San Francisco and San Jose incorporated the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1865; this company subsequently received permission (and land grants) from Congress to build southwards from San Jose all the way to the border with Arizona at Needles, CA and connect with the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. The Big Four of Central Pacific fame saw this as a threat to their visions of a railroad empire and bought out SP (along with the SF&SJ) by the end of 1868. The SF&SJ was fully merged into the SP in 1870, and the Big Four set about expanding their new railroad all across California, with San Francisco serving as the company's headquarters. The terminus was extended across town to the area now known as Mission Bay.

The first decade of the 20th century was marked by two major events for the SP in San Francisco: the completion of the "Coast Line" to Los Angeles on the last day of 1900 and the opening of the Bayshore Cutoff in 1907.

Many of the Southern Pacific's passenger trains frequented the city, including the Coast Daylight/Starlight?/Lark? to Los Angeles, the Sunset Limited to New Orleans, the Suntan Special to Santa Cruz, and the Del Monte to Monterey. On top of all these were the Peninsula Commutes serving local stops between San Francisco and San Jose. The SP also ran ferries to Oakland where passengers could board such trains as the Overland Limited and Shasta Daylight.

San Francisco was also the originator of much freight traffic coming from both ships at the waterfront and myriad industries within the city. The SP had a vast network of street trackage serving industries in the area South of Market Street and in the Islais Creek area.

As with railroads across the country, the rise of the airplane and automobile put a massive dent in SP's passenger business. The Sunset Limited was truncated to East of Los Angeles during World War II and service to SF was not restored post-war. The Suntan Special was discontinued outright in 1959, and the Daylight/Starlight? became Amtrak's responsibility in 1971. Amtrak rerouted the train to Oakland. The Del Monte was also discontinued at that time; SP wanted to hand it over to Amtrak but it did not meet the criteria for "long distance" trains that Amtrak was supposed to cover. This left the Peninsula Commutes as the only passenger train to and from San Francisco. The grandiose station building at 3rd and Townsend was demolished and replaced by a more utilitarian building a block back at 4th Street in 1975. In the following years the SP would repeatedly try to rid itself of the Commutes, which were hemorrhaging money, and eventually would settle for operating subsidies from CalTrans? in 1980. CalTrans? funded the purchase of new equipment in 1985 and the operation was rebranded as CalTrain.

Freight traffic on the Peninsula declined, then nearly disappeared at the beginning of container shipment. The four tunnels in San Francisco are not tall enough to support double stack containers, so the ships and railroad began to meet at the Port of Oakland. Depending on traffic destinations, East Bay terminals could save up to 100 miles of railroading down the peninsula and back up the East Bay. Meanwhile, industries were flocking away from the city, drying up another source of traffic. With the rest of the system in none too good of a shape either, the Southern Pacific negotiated the sale of the line up the Peninsula to a new entity known as the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board in 1992. This agency was formed to assume control of Caltrain (lowercase 't' now) from CalTrans?. SP retained trackage rights to serve the few remaining businesses. Four years later, the Southern Pacific Railroad would pass into history when it was merged into the Union Pacific Railroad.

Despite being two decades gone, the mark of the Southern Pacific Railroad is still readily apparent within San Francisco. Caltrain (and to a lesser extent, Union Pacific) still plies the rails into the city. The railroad's headquarters at One Market still stands, with its name proudly etched onto the frontal facade.