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The effort to revive the Desert Line is on a lot of San Diego leaders’ minds lately.
One local congressman is keeping a wary eye on the project. Civic leader Malin Burnham is pushing to move it forward. Bob Nelson, chairman of the Unified Port of San Diego, said he would “love it, love it, love it, love it, love it” if the line was restored and fed into the port.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking a rebuilt Desert Line would actually lead to San Diego. It wouldn’t, at least according to the plans being developed by the latest company to own the Desert Line, Pacific Imperial Railroad.
A defunct 70-mile stretch of railroad that starts just north of the border in southeastern San Diego County, the original Desert Line winds northeast along the border through towns like Jacumba before basically shooting straight east into Imperial County.
More than 60 years ago, the Desert Line was a fully functioning leg of the so-called Impossible Railroad, a 148-mile line that first opened in 1919 and stretched from San Diego to El Centro.
But Pacific Imperial has no plans to recreate the full path of the Impossible Railroad and instead intends to use the Desert Line as a direct link between factories in northern Mexico, called maquiladoras, and lucrative markets in the eastern U.S. They are particularly focused on moving cars and other freight made in a factory-filled region between Tijuana and Tecate in Mexico into the U.S.
Pacific Imperial is not really concerned with rail connections west of Campo on the U.S. side of the border. That includes the final leg of the Impossible Railroad, which ran from San Ysidro into and around San Diego.
“We never intended, initially at least, to be operating on the San Diego loop,” said Pacific Imperial CEO Donald Stoecklein. “Our intent is to help the maquiladoras move product in and out of the maquiladoras.”
It all comes down to money.
For one, rehabilitating the tracks into San Diego so that they can carry enough freight for the line to make money would take a huge cash investment – Pacific Imperial would, for example, have to deal with overhead wires that provide electricity to the cars but that wouldn’t currently allow for double-stacked freight cars, Stoecklein said.
Stoecklein believes the most business-savvy move right now, with the quickest potential for quick capital, is not including San Diego and instead syncing with lines in the U.S. further east.
“We do not have capacity to move everything out of the maquiladoras in both directions. We don’t have enough capacity,” Stoecklein said. Instead, there are only vague ideas about eventually linking up with a port on the southwestern coast of Mexico.
Pacific Imperial is just at the initial stages of reconstruction. It took ownership of the lease in 2012 and has faced a slew of criticism ever since. Plenty of the people following the effort are wary that the company is up to the enormous task of reviving the line.
If the line ever does get restored, observers say replicating its historical route from El Centro to San Diego is not the top priority and may not be the best strategy for the region.
“In general, shipping lines obviously look to maximize their profitability,” said former Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro. “They’ll look to see where is the most trade and how does the most trade work cost effectively.”
David Rohal, the former president of Pacific Imperial Railroad who’s now a fierce critic of the company, said that at the end of the day, “it’s really a regional benefit more than a strictly San Diego citizen benefit. It provides freight options that were originally envisioned to make San Diego the leading city on the West Coast. The port hasn’t evolved that way so far.”
But that doesn’t mean no one cares whether the line actually leads to a direct, east-west freight route into the city. Nelson, the port chairman, believes rebuilding that connection could be precisely the tool to elevate the port to the premier shipping entity 19th and 20th century leaders hoped it would be.
“An east-west railroad would restore the historical relationship between the Imperial Valley and San Diego whereby during the 19th and most of the 20th century, we were their principal port,” said Nelson. “We would love it, love it, love it, love it, love it because there’s a lot of car manufacturing going on. The port would love to see a cost-effective eastern route, east-west route, it would enable us to better serve the entire southwest of the United States and make the Port of San Diego far more attractive than ports to the north.”