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Southern Pacific commute train, c1947-1956

Southern Pacific commute train, c1947-1956

Fred Klein, 2013, 2015

The Southern Pacific ran commuter trains along the peninsula route (San Francisco to San Jose) from the 1890’s until the service was taken over by Caltrain in 1980. SP operated about 24 round-trip “commutes” on weekdays to fast schedules. Reliable locomotives with fast acceleration were required. In 1985, new push-pull corrugated stainless steel cars and new locomotives took over the Caltrain service, which continues to this day.


The dates for the model commute train pictured extend from about 1946, when “Southern Pacific” replaced “Southern Pacific Lines” on cars and locomotives, until 1956 when the gallery commuter cars were introduced and diesel locomotives had replaced steam. Trains had from 2 to 8 cars depending on demand and time of day. A fleet of 4-6-2 Pacifics was the backbone of the commuter locomotive pool, but 4-8-2 mountains and 4-8-4 GS northerns were sometimes assigned, especially after they were replaced by diesels on SPs long distance trains and re-assigned to commuter service to replace aging Pacifics. See the companion page with a train of SP 60’ coaches.


Southern Pacific purchased 78’ coaches (72’ inside space) in 1923-27 from Pullman Standard, calling them class 72-IC-1. Their appearance with the arched roof was very similar to the Harriman design. A total of 111 of these 96-passenger coaches were purchased by the SP. The 78’ coaches were used on commuter trains even after the gallery cars arrived in 1955, and were more numerous on trains than the older 60’ coaches in the 1940s and 1950s. Although it was rare to see solid trains of 78’ coaches after 1956, they were often included in trains of gallery cars to extend the train capacity. The 78’ commute coaches were painted two-tone grey in the 30s and 40s but most were repainted the simpler solid dark grey in the late 40s and 50s. The model train is solid grey because that is simpler to model and suits the time period. The coaches were not air conditioned, but passengers could open windows, and each of the roof vents had a fan underneath in addition to naturally sucking air outward as the train moved forward. They were also steam heated, for the cooler times that were necessary in Northern California.


My grandfather often took me on trains like this to San Francisco in the early 1950s. As a little kid, I remember the fun of a train, swinging the seats back and forth until someone told me to stop, and the disappointment of finding the toilets locked while in the station because they just dumped directly on the ground and could only be used while the train was moving. I am not a Southern Pacific modeler, but I could not resist modeling a prototype train that I rode as a kid.


The 78’ SP coach cars are not available commercially, so I painted a set of Microtrains heavyweight coaches. SP had both paired-window and single-window coaches, though most of the commute cars appear to be single window. The Microtrains coach is paired window. I replaced the clerestory roof of the Microtrains car with a round roof available as a new 78’ casting from The distinctive roof vents are also available there. See the modeling notes section for more on the coaches.


The model train has 8 cars, which is near the maximum platform length for many peninsula stations. The model locomotive is labeled “Southern Pacific Lines” as it was before 1946, so it strictly predates the 1946-1956 era. The cars are labeled “Southern Pacific” as they were after World War II. The locomotive model is a USRA 4-6-2 Pacific which differs in many details from the SP prototype, which was a “common standard” Harriman design.


A long commuter train of nine 78’ coaches on Southern Pacific’s Los Gatos branch on the San Francisco peninsula. The first coach has open vestibules and a banner on the side recruiting for the Marine Corps. After WWII a few SP commuter coaches were affixed with banners recruiting for the armed services in a spirit of patriotism. The other coaches were built by Pullman in 1924. This Los Gatos line branched off the San Francisco-San Jose mainline in Palo Alto. The line is single tracked and only carried three inbound (heading northwest to S.F.) commuter trains in the morning and three outbound late-afternoon trains per day. The location is in Los Altos not far from the present day Rancho shopping center. This line was abandoned in the early 1960s and is now occupied by a four-lane county expressway. The location is familiar to the author because it is ¼ mile from his house. The time is also familiar: the author was born in 1948 the same year this photo was taken, and my family moved to the area in 1949. Photo by Reg McGovern from Janet McGovern’s Caltrain and the Peninsula Commute Service.


A commuter train heading south with San Francisco skyline in the background.


A commuter train #149 with Pacific 2424 and 3 Harriman coaches at San Jose California in 1946. The coaches are the 78’ (72’ passenger space) coaches of 1924 rather than the 60’ coaches of the teens. The locomotive is a class P1 built by Baldwin in 1907. From page 74 of Solomon’s Southern Pacific Passenger Trains.


Commuter train, c1947 to 1956


The commute train is pulled by an oil-burning 4-6-2 Pacific with a Vandy tender.  The locomotive model is by Model Power. The coach with the banner “Join the United States Marines” is one of the coaches decorated to recruit for the military after the war. The photo above shows a 1948 train with the Marine coach in the lead position after the engine. In 2014 and 2015 The N Scale Enthusiast issued a series of four coach cars recruiting for the army, navy, marines and blood donors, any one of which could be used in these commute trains. Note the prototype photo shows open vestibules and vents on a round roof, but Microtrains used their standard coach car. Also pictured are three 78’ commute coaches. The coaches have reversible seats, so only the locomotive must be turned at the San Francisco and San Jose terminals. The number of coaches in a commuter train varied from 2 to 8 and what is pictured above could be an entire off-peak train. The coaches are custom painted Microtrains coaches with round roof castings and vents obtained from


More coaches


Four more coaches make a full-sized rush-hour train.


Modeling notes for the coaches


The 78’ SP coach cars are not available commercially, so I painted a set of Microtrains heavyweight coaches in SP grey. SP had both paired-window and single-window coaches, though most of the commute cars appear to be single window. The Microtrains coach is paired window but the effect is OK to my eye. In the 40s and 50s, SP repainted its commute coaches solid grey which was much simpler for both SP and this modeler than the previous two-tone grey. I replaced the clerestory roof of the Microtrains car with a round roof available as a new 78’ casting from Jeff Faulkner made the casting to fit the Microtrains coach. The distinctive roof vents are also available there. The cast roofs have no fitted bottom, so they must be glued onto the car or styrene strips must be carefully attached to the roof. The round roof is not quite as high as a proper Harriman-style roof, but the roof vents make the roof distinctive for Harriman roads like the SP, RI, IC or UP. The 6-wheel trucks supplied by Microtrains must be replaced by 4-wheel trucks. I used surplus trucks from Concor passenger cars, and removed the coupler pocket, which was not needed. The models aren’t perfect but remind me of the SP commute cars.



LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01



Dorin, Patrick, Commuter Railroads, A pictorial review of the most traveled trains, Superior Publishing Co., 1970.

Kincaid, James, Southern Pacific color guide to freight and passenger equipment, volume 3, Morning Sun Books, 2006, page 25.

McGovern, Janet, Caltrain and the Peninsula Commute Service, Arcadia Publishing, 128 pages, 2012.

Ryan, Dennis, and Joseph Shine, Southern Pacific Passenger Trains, vol. 2, Day trains of the coast line, Four Ways West publications, 2000.

Solomon, Brian. Southern Pacific Passenger Trains, MBI Publishing, 2005.