Work brought me out to San Diego and, as any model railroader should, I wanted to visit the La Mesa club at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. But I got lucky: not only did I get to visit, but I got to operate and cross that one off my bucket list. I want to share some photos from that visit and also some very important discoveries.

I’m not going to lie: I’m always a bit awed by model railroad celebrities and celebrity layouts. The La Mesa Tehachapi Layout is definitely one of those, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I’ve had the pleasure of operating on a number of layouts and enjoyed a wide range of experiences. From the pure chaos of my friend Eric Payne’s old Milepost One layout to the feeling of, prototypically, walking on egg shells at Steven Mallery’s (who’s crew isn’t afraid to let you know when you mess up, which definitely adds to the fun), each has had their own unique character.

I was joining the La Mesa crew for a Time Table and Train Order session. I explained TT&TO as “model railroad hard mode” to my wife, and so I was doubly concerned about being a productive guest.

I decidedly did not need to be. Despite being world reknowned, the La Mesa folks that I “worked” with made me feel right at home and went out of their way to show a visitor a great time. While I like to think that was just their laid back SoCal vibe, I think it might also because, like most large layouts I know of, they’re really hungry for more participants. They seem to know that the surest way to attract more interested operators and members is to be welcoming and make what they do approachable.

From what I saw, it’s paying off, too. Unlike many ops sessions where I, in my early 40s, feel like a “kid”, I would say I was squarely in the middle of the range of members I saw operating. From veteran operators with plenty of gray hair through a number of students and 20 somethings, the crew I saw was refreshingly diverse.  Maybe the kids are alright.

With that in mind, and before I get to the photos, I wanted to share another important observation: the club absolutely is looking for more members. If you are anywhere near San Diego, and have an interest in operations, DO NOT be intimidated by the scope of what they’re doing. Visit their website and get involved. I wish I wasn’t on the other side of the country, or I would very likely do just that.

So lets start with some general railfan photos.

One of the first views that greets you as a visitor is the scene at Caliente. One of the first things that struck me here was the size of the scene. Wow.
The first traffic I saw moving while figuring out where to mark up (around the back and under the layout, for the record), was this set of light ATSF helpers at Cliff.

There wasn’t much guidance about how to mark up for us visitors. The otherwise great person at the front desk didn’t have much to tell me, and I’ll admit, it still wasn’t clear if I needed to pay for admission. The answer, for anyone who will be in the same shoes, is to go around the “back” of the layout, by the 3 Rail O layout, and find the dispatcher’s office roughly below Cliff.

Once inside you’ll be greeted by this view under the layout. Calling it a multi-deck affair doesn’t do it justice. It truly is a multi-floor layout.

The chief dispatcher’s area. The actual dispatcher desk was behind a locked door. Nobody gets to see the wizard.
A schematic of the railroad showing occupancy. It can be run with either CTC (aka easy mode) or TT&TO, but the hardware is in place and situational awareness never hurts.
Multi-deck, multi-floor, multi-railroad. It must be experienced to be believed.
It’s an NCE house (although I started out with a TCS Wifi throttle). When dealing with a layout of this scope all sorts of things get more complicated. In this case, just keeping track of who’s using what throttle requires an entire log.

I was put under the wing of Alphie, who was able to give me a good orientation and help me get over my “it’s been four years since I last read a train order” jitters. We had plenty of time to kill before being called for a train, so we had the opportunity to do some railfanning while I was getting qualitied.

Walking along, checking out the scenery, and I heard the sound of EMDs around the bend. Just a few minutes later and here was one of Santa Fe’s westbound fleet rolling through Ilmon.
Walking further east, the tracks show up around your feet. Then… this view. Wow.

Talk about timing, an eastbound Santa Fe passenger train was about to show up.


The eastbound Santa Fe passenger train had its SP competition hot on its heals.
It’s a good thing my phone has a zoom lens built in.

Before I realized it, there was another eastbound heading toward the loop, freight this time.

Soon enough it was time to get to work. We were called for an eastbound Southern Pacific reefer block out of Bakersfield. Power was three F7s and an SD9. We were an extra, and so we had to turn to the timetable to figure out our moves. All of the day’s scheduled trains were in the register, so we had quite a bit of open railroad ahead of us. The crew was apologetic that I was going to have a “boring” run across the layout.

One of the things that probably isn’t well known about the La Mesa layout is that much of it is still very unsceniced. The portions visible to the public are almost all done, but the “operators only” sections are all still bare. Next time you think “oh man, those famous layouts are so perfect, I can never get there”, think about the fact that half of my trip across the Tehachapi Subdivision was with nary a piece of static grass in sight. And you know what? I have zero complaints.

I was a bit busy getting my feet back under me in the early stages of the trip from Mojave, but here we are coming out of the speed restrictions in the canyons at Eric. Note the size of the train (a prototypical 57 cars after setting out a bad order car), and how much layout there is around it.
Headed west at Eric. Note how much layout is ahead of us still to the far wall.

We had a red train order signal at Tehachapi proper where we were given an order: we had a meet ahead. At the famous Walong siding. Ok, maybe today’s trip wasn’t going to be so “boring” after all. We were soon on the move again after getting our orders, and crested the grade at summit with no problems.

Cruising down the hill after figuring out which function key turned on the dynamic brakes.

The opposing train that we were meeting had just finished taking water at Woodford and only arrived at Walong a few minutes before we did. Note that, given the size of the operation here, the club does not use a fast clock. One minute is one minute. Even at that pace, I had no time to wait for them. They were in the hole at Walong when we got there.

I wish I could’ve done a couple more takes here, but we had a railroad to run. Here’s the opposing freight train waiting for us as we headed west.
Believe it or not, this was my first live Cab Ahead sighting.
Nobody was wasting any time. As soon as our caboose was clear of the switch the eastbound freight got started moving. I’m sure they were having quite a bit harder of a time at it then we were getting going.
Have I mentioned the immensity of this whole thing? I don’t think I can say it enough.

I figured after our meet at The Loop it was going to be a straight shot, but instead was pleasantly surprised to get a little more TT&TO action in by seeing a red train order signal at Woodford. We received orders to meet an opposing train at Caliente. No problem! Right?

Off we went. Through more gorgeous mountain scenery. I don’t envy modelers of California who can’t just hide everything under trees like even I can. Sure is pretty though.

Passing a now day lighted tunnel east of Bealeville.
Bealville, CA. There’s a photo hanging on the fascia here and it really shows you how faithful to the prototype the layout is. They have nailed this scene.

There was some more scenic running ahead before we approached Caliente.

There was only one problem here. Our train was 57 cars and the siding holds something like 54, excluding power. Uh oh.

Alphie was sent out ahead as a flagman to protect us as I set the first few cars and my power over on the second siding here and waited. Because I had no time pressure here, I had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate using TrainCrew to simulate tying on hand brakes to the other operators. I think they were amused and might even give it a try. I don’t know if they’ll get my favorite “Goin in for coffee” button, but I can hope that it serves to spread the good word of Big Mike.

Once in the clear I dimmed my headlight and waited.

And waited.

Luckily, there was a coffee shop upstairs and I had time to run up for a quick snack and a coffee. One of the challenges I had coming into the ops session was that I didn’t really know what to expect. It turns out that they run 12 hours long sessions with multiple tricks of operators. Those who know bring snacks and drinks to keep them going during their shift. This is why I’m glad that I was in San Diego instead of actual Caliente, because I don’t think the real station had an espresso machine. Somehow, I forgot to use that TrainCrew “Goin in for coffee” button though!

Eventually my nemesis, x6202 showed up. Luckily the helper 3/4 of the way back had enough water to make it to Woodford, so they cleared up the west end of the siding and I got to put the train together.

x6202 finally shows its face in the canyon east of Caliente.
The tail end of x6202, conveniently clear of my switches.
Cruising through Ilmon

From Caliente it was smooth running through Ilmon and into Bakersfield.

Crossing Caliente Creek
Rolling along on the home stretch to Bakersfield.

And finally, pulling up to Bena in Bakersfield. The yard master lined me up into one of the icing tracks in the yard. It was a good thing we set that bad order car out, otherwise we would’ve fouled the crossing here at the east end.

Whew. Just made it.

I thought this was going to be the end of my day, but a very paniced dispatcher was walking around the yard asking “Who has a throttle and is not doing something this very minute?”. Well, I was waiting to get lined up into the pit and fit the bill pretty well. That gave me the opportunity to have one last go: taking a set of SP PAs around the west end balloon track and tacking them onto an eastbound passenger train. Since management was around I didn’t get and photos, but at least I got to say I touched The Daylight!

I want to sincerely thank the whole crew at La Mesa and my friend Gary Hinshaw for making the connection that made this possible. It truly was an incredible experience, and one I hope to have again. Even if not, I now have a new yardstick by which other operating experiences will be measured. Not only because of the scope and what I got to do, but also the welcoming laid back atmosphere that allowed a stranger from the east coast to have a great time.

One thought on “Running Trains over Tehachapi with the La Mesa Model Railroad Club

Comments are closed.