Economy, Modernization Quiet Rail Yard
For the first time, Carlos Castro has an unobstructed view from his Mount Washington home of the repair shop in Southern Pacific Railroad’s Taylor Yard where he works. But that does not make him at all happy.
The view had always been cluttered with row upon row of boxcars and engines and cabooses--symbols that Taylor Yard was still in the business of moving vegetables, automobiles, beer, missile parts and just about everything else in and out of the Los Angeles area. Last month, however, Southern Pacific closed what had been its largest rail terminal in the West. Company officials said business was declining and trains were shifted to a more modern yard near San Bernardino.
500 Miles of Tracks
As a result, almost all of Taylor Yard’s 500 miles of track are now empty, from its eastern boundary on San Fernando Road in Glassell Park to the concrete banks of the winding Los Angeles River. Only the diesel engine shop and a few offices remain open.
“It’s an eerie sight,” said Castro, who has worked as a laborer in the diesel shop for six years. “It’s pretty sad.”
Taylor Yard was established in 1911 on the site of the old Taylor feed mill and, after rebuilding in 1949, became the principal staging area for all Southern Pacific rail traffic through Los Angeles. Boxcars were not loaded there. It was where already loaded trains would be broken into single cars or blocks of cars and rearranged by destination.
The heart of the yard was an incline called the Hump. There, as orders were barked from control towers, cars were uncoupled, rolled down switched tracks into new trains and sent on their way.
Until the mid-1950s, more than 50 trains a day were assembled in the yard and as many as 5,000 people worked there. It was a gigantic, crowded, dirty and noisy place. But people with railroad grease in their blood say they loved it.
“The yard had noises that were their own symphony, like music for a railroader. The trains, the bells, the steam, the whistles, the shouts,” said George De Lellis, who began working at Taylor in 1953 as a switchman and rose to the top job. “It was really something. Now, when I go there, it’s quiet as a cemetery.” De Lellis was superintendent of all the yards in the Los Angeles area from 1975 until his retirement in August.
De Lellis, who comes from a family of railroad men, said he fought with management to try to get Taylor Yard modernized and fought with unions for contract concessions to keep the yard alive. But he did not succeed.
‘A Luxury We Can’t Afford’
“It just cost too much to run that bugger,” he explained. “I’m a traditionalist as long as tradition is making money. But, when it starts losing money, that’s a luxury we can’t afford.”
Competition from trucking has badly hurt railroads since the 1950s. More recently, erosion in American heavy industry made things worse. Taylor Yard’s traffic was cut by the 1982 closings, for example, of the General Motors assembly plant in South Gate and Bethlehem Steel’s mill near Vernon, union and company officials say.
Meanwhile, the railroad’s efforts to keep up with the times basically skipped Taylor Yard. Cranes to load piggyback trailers and containers--transferable to trucks and ships--were built in yards closer to downtown Los Angeles or at the ports.
Then, in 1973, Southern Pacific opened the fully automated, computerized West Colton switchyard near San Bernardino for the boxcars usually handled at the comparatively antiquated Taylor Yard. The newer yard can process seven cars a minute, twice the speed of Taylor Yard, said Southern Pacific spokesman John Tierney.
“Economics and efficiency dictated the non-use of Taylor yard,” Tierney said. “I think people understand the changes. It’s like changing from steam to diesel. A lot of railroad people, of course, will talk about it, and they’ll miss the place. But you have to keep up with the times.”
Workers and union leaders say they suspect that a controversial plan for a merger between Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe Railway also contributed to the closing. The proposed merger was sharply criticized last week by the U.S. Justice Department but was endorsed the next day by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A final decision by the Interstate Commerce Commission is expected in 1986. The non-rail units of Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and Sante Fe Industries have already merged, but the railways are still supposed to be independent.
“They are supposed to operate as competitors. But one would have to be very naive to believe that is taking place,” said Darrell Davis, chairman of United Transportation Union Local 1770, the union for switchmen. “Obviously they are doing some planning together. But to what extent, I don’t know.”
Tierney denies that. “We always figured Taylor Yard would be phased out even before the merger was discussed,” he said.
The size of the work force at Taylor Yard has dropped steadily during the last few years--with transfers to the West Colton yard and other yards, attrition and layoffs. Operations went from around the clock to one shift a day by last year, with employment down to 2,400. Now 580 people work in the repair shop and offices, Tierney said.
About 35 switchmen and carmen from Taylor Yard were added to the furlough list last month, but the company and the unions say they may eventually be called back to work someplace else.
It is difficult to estimate how many people have been put out of work in the past year because of the slowdown and closure. Complex seniority transfer rules differ among the 10 or so unions representing the workers.
Some contracts allow an employee to get work at any Southern Pacific rail yard as far away as Seattle or Tucson if his seniority is good enough. That means that some switchmen from Taylor probably moved to other cities and, in a domino effect, bumped workers out of work there, union officials say.
Camp De Lellis
Such bumping during the last recession created what its inhabitants jokingly call Camp De Lellis--an informal community of campers and motor homes on a parking lot next to the river at Taylor Yard. When layoffs came in smaller yards, men left their families and homes to seek work in Los Angeles. They couldn’t afford second homes. De Lellis was one of the few Southern Pacific officials to allow them to camp on company property.
Last week, about 50 campers and trailers were in the lot. But most are there for storage now and some appear decayed and abandoned. Only about a dozen men still live there. And, Tierney said, it is likely that they will be asked to leave soon.
Rob Bishop, Jerry Faller and Steve Owens--on-board trainmen in their 30s--say they have shared two campers at the yard for much of the past four months. They already moved their families to San Luis Obispo from homes in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, in search of Southern Pacific jobs. But work dried up in San Luis Obispo, too. So the men came to Los Angeles without their families.
They cook in their campers, shower in the yard’s locker rooms and wait for the foreman’s call for train crews. The foremen know they can knock on the doors of the campers when they need men.
In between jokes about their “riverfront property” on the dried concrete riverbed, the men discussed how expensive it would be to rent an apartment together in Los Angeles if the camp is closed. And, they said, they worry about what the demise of Taylor Yard means for railroading as a career.
“If you can’t work in L.A., you can’t work anywhere in the railroads,” Bishop said.
Morale is also bad at the repair shop remaining on the property, said workers interviewed last week outside a liquor store where they stopped after picking up their checks on their day off. One machinist, who worked at the yard for 12 years, asked how morale could be good when workers look out at a “ghost town.”
Even some people who have secured transfers are unhappy. Some carmen transferred to the West Colton yard complain that they have very long commutes and, because of seniority rules, have been given the worst shifts.
“It’s unbelievable. One of my men with 12 years’ experience is lucky now to hold onto a job working Saturdays and Sundays,” said Leroy Vigil, chairman of Local 601, Brotherhood Railway Carmen, whose members inspect and repair boxcars and whose seniority is not transferable out of the Los Angeles area. “My feeling is that we lost the backbone of our craft with Taylor Yard.”
Vigil said some carmen are so worried about the future that they don’t know whether they should invest in new automobiles. “I tell them to buy a new one anyway, and, if they lose the job, the worst that can happen is that the car gets repossessed.”
Rumors of Sale
The yard and the union halls, meanwhile, are bubbling with rumors of plans to sell the yard property, which is about 2 1/2 miles long and nearly half a mile wide. If the company moves its still-operating north-south main line away from San Fernando Road and closer to the river, and closes the repair shop, the property would be ripe for housing or an industrial park, some employees say. After all, the yard is next to three freeways: the Golden State, the Glendale and the Pasadena.
“The land is very, very valuable,” De Lellis said. “It is an ideal location for a population boom. It is only 10 minutes to anything downtown, 10 minutes to Hollywood, 10 minutes to Highland Park and Glendale.”
Tierney, however, dismisses such talk as uninformed. “When the company does something like this, they don’t just abandon a property and sell it off,” he said. The yard might still be used again if the economy improves, he said, and the company has no intention of moving the recently rehabilitated main line.
The surrounding neighborhoods of Glassell Park, Atwater, Cypress Park, Elysian Valley, and Highland Park used to be heavily populated by railroad families. But the freeways and suburban boom changed that. Now only a few stores and restaurants depend on railroaders’ trade.
Roger Watcharporn, who owns Ray’s Beverage Mart on Fletcher Drive near the yard, said his business has dropped about 30% in the last month because fewer men from the yard stop by for a beer. Watcharporn, a Thai immigrant who bought the store six years ago, says he can survive as long as the entire yard doesn’t shut down.
“It’s slow now,” he said. “But it’s better than nothing.”