“The Santa Fe has a reputation for speed.”
That phrase from a business article rings true. The BNSF habitually attaches a great many units to its freights, so that they blaze out of the starting blocks. A few weeks ago, I had to take Amtrak home from Stockton after failing to catch two 20-mph westbounds. Not wanting to end 1997 on such a note, I popped up in Richmond one morning.
The Richmond-to-Stockton leg extends for 69 miles. My real goal was only the first 26 miles out of Richmond, a freight-only segment that joins the familiar Amtrak-served mainline at Port Chicago. I expected to have to ride all 69 miles to Stockton, and if my train did not slow down enough there, I would be forced to hold her down until the Calwa crew change, 190 miles away.
There were a few unpleasant surprises in Richmond. The yard fence had been repaired. Most jolting of all, the barricaded street where I hid nine months earlier had been engineered out of existence.
But everything worked out on this day, which must have been cosmic compensation for my many previous struggles with the Santa Fe. Too fast … too hot … I loitered for less than an hour before a string of tankers, gondolas, and empty autoracks made its appearance. A car inspector was sitting in a nearby pickup truck, so I jogged several hundred yards ahead. Hoping to have run out of sight, I tore my pant’s leg scaling the fence and nailed the fourth-from-last car.
The freight-only segment rewarded my efforts; pastoral green hills splashed with late-autumn colors coaxed me to the top of the coke-laden hopper for a better view. Soon enough, we stopped dead in Pittsburg’s yard for a meet with an Oakland-bound Amtrak.
Though initially bewildered by this stroke of luck, I seized it. I’d covered 34 miles, only 8 more than originally sought; hoboes rarely hit their goals with such surgical precision. The easternmost BART station, Pittsburg/Bay Point, was 3 or 4 miles away. I headed out of the unmanned yard and into the nearby neighborhood. Before I could request directions from the wary residents, another improbable stroke of luck came to the rescue: a bus was rumbling toward me. The marquee read PITTSBURG BART. I flagged it down — the driver was nice enough to pick me up on the corner — and arrived home in time for dinner.
Thirty-four miles hardly qualify as a hoboing getaway. But I hadn’t been seeking one this time, and ended the year with a successful and scenic seventh ride at the BNSF’s expense. Sometime next summer I’ll get back in the saddle.
Abdul Rahimov has a Ph.D. in Russian history from Stanford. He studied earlier at Harvard and grew up in Illinois in a railroad-dominated town.Rahimov prefers to use a pen name to avoid attracting unnecessary attention from railroads. He lives on the East Coast when he’s not living in a train.