Tehachapi Loop (Tehachapi, California)

Tehachapi Loop
Photo by Orionpozo

A feat of engineering ingenuity used to raise or lower trains in elevation over a short distance, the Tehachapi Loop was completed in 1876 and virtually unchanged is still used today. The 0.73 mile (1.17 km) long spiral encircling a hillock on the Union Pacific Railroad Mojave Subdivision through Tehachapi Pass connects Bakersfield and the southern San Joaquin Valley to the Mojave Desert. Rising at a 2.2 percent grade, the track gains 77 feet (23 m) in elevation along the loop and any train more than 4,000 feet (1,200 m) long has the pleasure of being able to pass over or under itself as the case may be. The track passes through Tunnel 9.

Built by Southern Pacific Railroad to ease the grade over Tehachapi Pass, construction of the loop began in 1874, and the line officially opened in 1876. Between 1875-76 approximately 3,000 Chinese workers cut a path through mostly solid granite with little more than horse-drawn carts, blasting powder, and hand tools. Under the leadership of James R. Strobridge and William Hood, both Southern Pacific civil engineers, the Tehachapi Loop took less than two years to complete and actually features 18 tunnels and 10 bridges.

In 1882 the line was extended through Southern California and the Mojave Desert. Once again the work was done by Chinese men with hand tools and back breaking labor. More than 8,000 Chinese men in this case.

Southern Pacific passenger trains were allowed to run on the Loop for almost one hundred years but when passenger travel in the state switched to Amtrak in 1971 the trains were banned from using the track. As a result of this strange ownership feud, Amtrak’s San Joaquin train is unable to directly serve Los Angeles.

A large white cross known as “The Cross at the Loop” was placed in the center of the loop atop a small hill to honor the memory of two Southern Pacific Railroad employees killed in a May 12, 1989 train derailment in San Bernardino, California.

Tehachapi Loop Facts

  • Tunnel 9 at the end of the loop was the ninth tunnel built as the railroad moved away from Bakersfield.
  • Anywhere from 36-40 trains pass through the loop every day.
  • The overlook of Woodford-Tehachapi Road near Keene is 3.2 miles off of California highway 58.
  • An exception to passenger travel is made only for the Coast Starlight, which must sometimes use the Loop as a detour when its normal route is closed.
  • The Loop has been the property of Union Pacific since 1996, when the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific systems merged.
  • In 1998 the loop was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and is designated as California Historical Landmark #508.