Plenty of precedent for passenger rail through Tracy
by Sam Matthews
Jul 11, 2014 | 2040 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The southbound San Joaquin Daylight rounds the bend on its arrival at the Tracy Southern Pacific station — where Central Avenue now crosses the rail line — in 1941. Tracy was on the route between Oakland and Los Angeles for the Daylight from 1941 to 1971.
The southbound San Joaquin Daylight rounds the bend on its arrival at the Tracy Southern Pacific station — where Central Avenue now crosses the rail line — in 1941. Tracy was on the route between Oakland and Los Angeles for the Daylight from 1941 to 1971.
Last week, I talked about traveling on more-or-less high-speed rail in Germany and how plans for high-speed rail in California are going nowhere fast.

I suggested that a hybrid system beginning with regional rail that could be connected into something approaching high-speed rail would

be a more realistic alternative.

Having a dedicated rail line over the Altamont Pass (which qualifies for state high-speed-rail bond funds) that could also serve Altamont Corridor Express trains could be a real plus for regional commuter rail and for the ol’ tank town, too.

Anyway, several Tracyites, in commenting on the topic, asked me about the history of passenger-rail service between the Bay Area and Los Angeles through Tracy.

My answer was yes, we had it for many years, and its names were the San Joaquin Daylight and The Owl.

The Daylight, like its sister train, the Coast Daylight, carried passengers daily in each direction between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The San Joaquin Daylight, a streamliner painted red, orange and black, began Southern Pacific passenger service in July 1941 and continued until April 1971.

The southbound San Joaquin Daylight — No. 52, old “rails” called it — started each day’s 14-hour journey at the Oakland Pier (Mole) at 8:30 a.m., after the ferry arrived from San Francisco, and traveled 78 miles through Martinez to reach Tracy at 10:55 a.m.

The Daylight stayed here a full five minutes — longer than most other stops — so several passenger cars from the Sacramento Daylight could be attached to the main train before continuing on to L.A. over the S.P.’s eastside line through Fresno and Bakersfield and over the Tehachapi Pass. It completed its 479-mile journey at L.A.’s Union station at 10 p.m.

The northbound Daylight, No. 51, left Los Angeles each morning at 8 a.m. and arrived in Tracy at 6:27 p.m., when the Sacramento Daylight cars were detached. It arrived at Oakland at 8:55 p.m., with ferry service to San Francisco ending at 9:30 p.m.

The Daylights were originally powered by steam engines with streamliner exteriors, but they were converted to diesel power in 1955.

Train crews for the Daylights weren’t changed in Tracy, as freight crews were. Engineers and conductors high on the seniority lists worked the Daylights between Oakland and Fresno, often just before retiring. One of the last, and best known, to do so was Tracyite Chester Wampler, who always wore a carnation in the lapel of his conductor’s uniform.

The San Joaquin Daylight made its last run on April 30, 1971, the month the S.P. went out of the passenger-rail business and turned the routes over to Amtrak. The Coast Daylight became part of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight between San Diego and Seattle, but the San Joaquin was discontinued.

And then there was The Owl. Inaugurated in 1898, it was the original overnight train between Oakland and Los Angeles. Not a streamliner, it was equipped with Pullman sleeper cars and was a sister train to The Lark, launched in 1910, which traveled between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the coast route. The coastal trip originally took 12 hours, two hours less than The Owl.

The southbound Owl, No. 58, left the Oakland Mole at 9 p.m. and came by way of Martinez through Tracy at 10:50 p.m. Many Tracyites knew it was time to hit the sack when they heard the wailing of the Owl’s whistle. The 14-hour trip ended in Los Angeles at 10:55 a.m.

The northbound Owl, No. 57, arrived here early in the morning from Los Angeles before heading to Oakland.

Both northbound and southbound Owls traveled between Tracy and Fresno on the West Side line through Los Banos and Kerman. (The line now ends near Los Banos.)

The Owl’s whistles could be heard in towns along the West Side each night and early morning until 1965, when, after 97 years, the service was ended by the S.P.

Today, if a form of high-speed rail were established over the Altamont hills, it’s anyone guess whether Tracy would be one of the stops. It could be, if a new version of the Sacramento Daylight provided connective service from Tracy to and from Sacramento and Stockton.

The main benefit, of course, could turn out to be a dedicated rail line across the Altamont Pass that would be used by both high-speed and ACE trains.

Obviously, there are any number of possibilities and unanswered questions, but if some kind of high-speed rail came our way, it wouldn’t be Tracy’s first time on the main line of Bay Area-Los Angeles rail service. The San Joaquin Daylight and The Owl pioneered that route many years ago.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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