Published May 21, 2013
Volume 21, Number 5

Niles Canyon Railway Offers Passage to a Different Era

Niles Canyon Road winds through what is undoubtedly one of the most scenic corridors in the East Bay. A carefree way to take in the lush greenery, meandering Alameda Creek, and twisted topography is an excursion on the Niles Canyon Railway. Operated by the all-volunteer Pacific Locomotive Association, the railway has a pedigreed legacy as part of the original right-of-way of the Transcontinental Railroad, authorized by the 1864 Railroad Act signed by President Lincoln.

The first passenger train rolled through the canyon on October 2, 1866. After almost 120 years and multiple changes in ownership and usage patterns, the railroad hit the end of the line when, in 1984, then-owner Southern Pacific stopped running trains on the route. The company removed the tracks and gave the land to Alameda County.

It was good timing for the Pacific Locomotive Association, an organization started in 1961 by six train buffs who “got together to purchase an old steam locomotive to save it from going to scrap,” according to member Rich Alexander. The group expanded and eventually began offering rides at Castro Point in Richmond on old Navy property. An expiring lease prompted the search for a new location.

Negotiations with the county and more than a year of track reconstruction brought railroad passenger operations back to life in Niles Canyon on May 21, 1988.

The association reached another landmark in 2005 when a string of the 22 vintage locomotives and cars it had been collecting chugged from the old Oakland Army Base to the railway site with a long-time member as the engineer. 

Today, the Niles Canyon Railway runs year-round on weekends and for special occasions. The excursions between the Sunol Depot and the Niles Station in Fremont are a journey back into local and national history. Alexander points out that the right-of-way is probably the least changed across the entire Transcontinental Railway system “because in the canyon there is no place to reroute the track.” Many of the cut-stone bridge abutments, culverts, and retaining walls from the original, circa 1865 route can still be seen today, according to the Railway website.

The trains include a mix of enclosed coaches, open cars, and covered open cars. Special events range from spring wildflower excursions and summer wine tastings to the eagerly anticipated Train of Lights, which runs evenings from the day after Thanksgiving to just after Christmas. “It takes our volunteers three months to decorate the train,” Alexander comments.

The holiday train is the association’s largest fundraiser, contributing not only to operations and train car renovations but future expansion. A major project is completing the track and extending rides to Pleasanton. “This project is currently underway but is slow going,” says Alexander. “All the rails are laid by our volunteer members, and money is needed to pay for the ballast around the ties and rails.”

In the planning stage are projects to rebuild the first Southern Pacific depot that was in Niles and adding a round house in the area to display old steam locomotives.

For schedules, reservations, and information about special events, including group caboose rentals, visit www.ncry.org

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