Donner Pass

The route is divided into the following subdivisions:

·        Roseville subdivision from Roseville to Sparks

The very convenient, relatively gentle ridge, shoulder, or watershed dividing the Yuba and Bear Rivers to the north, and the North Fork American River to the south that was chosen for the prime route for the Central Pacific across the Sierra Nevada was coupled to another equally important feature: just on the other side of Donner Summit was the fortuitous and generous-sized Truckee River Canyon that allowed continuous routing through the second range of mountains common to this part of the Sierra Nevada- i.e. with no need for a second ascent and descent. Here, the railroad could and did descend from its long ridge and now follow the relatively level banks of the Truckee, as it flowed out to eventually evaporate in a Nevada desert lake.

The junction with the single-track line north to Redding and the Shasta Route is immediately east of Roseville and its large classification yard. In 2006, as for many decades previously, the line across Donner Pass is double track (albeit with separation of tracks in some places) most of the way, except for a stretch in the Yuba Pass area and another short stretch just east of the summit and the former location of the facilities at Norden, singled in the 1980s. East of Roseville (MP 106.5), the line is Two Main Tracks to Rocklin, 3.8 miles away, CTC-controlled (Centralized Traffic Control with switches and signals operated by the dispatcher), past the nearer set of three tracks in the yard becoming two, and then trailing in on the southeast side at CP Washington, the further set of three tracks becoming one, former SP steam locomotive 2252 stuffed-and-mounted  on the southeast side, a grade crossing, a street alongside to the southeast, the last yard track trailing in, a road bridge overhead, the line curving more to the north, I-80 alongside to the southeast, a road bridge overhead, Intermediate Signals at MP 108.6, dual bridges carrying I-80 overhead, a street still alongside to the east, a grade crossing, and a road bridge overhead. The lineside vegetation is mostly California oak, yellow grass and chaparral scrub, with other deciduous trees in places.

There are crossovers, a grade crossing, a depot on the southeast side, a spur on the southeast side, and a grade crossing at Rocklin (MP 110.4), elevation 241 ft., where track 2 (the eastbound, or uphill, track on this “current of traffic” double track arrangement pertaining west of Rocklin), which is the line to the southeast, separates from track 1 (the westbound, or downhill, track), and then crosses above track 1 to run to the north of it. Traffic control on track 2 is automatic block signals (ABS), with any necessary track authority conferred by radio instructions from the dispatcher, while track 1 remains CTC, and is signaled bi-directionally. Thus, an eastward train can use either track from Rocklin to Newcastle, but a westbound train can use only track 1.

Track 1 passes the through girder bridge carrying track 2 overhead, a grade crossing, a spur heading away southeast, a detector at MP 111.9, where the speed limit falls to 40-35, a grade crossing, a gated spur on the southeast side, an old depot on the southeast side at Loomis (MP 113.9), two grade crossings, the second at King Road, a spur into a lumber yard to the southeast, a town alongside to the southeast, Baxter's Fill (MP 114.8), a dirt track grade crossing, two grade crossings with a street alongside to the southeast, and Intermediate Signals at Penryn (MP 116.6), where the speed limit falls to 30 mph, and comes along the southeast side of track 2 just west of Newcastle (below).

Track 2 passes a detector at MP 111.0, the through girder bridge bridge over track 1, and another detector at MP 112.0, a grade crossing east of MP 113, a road alongside to the southeast,  tunnels 15 (1,905 ft., MP 114.2), 16 (779 ft., MP 114.7) and 17 (1,648 ft., MP 117.3), and the location of Penryn (MP 118), to Newcastle (MP 120) where track 1 converges from the southeast, and together with track 2 becomes Two Main Tracks through the town, and there are crossovers between the tracks and a spur to the southeast.

Track 2 is a nice steady grade, with gentle curves, sometimes in cuttings, sometimes on fill, with a speed limit of 30-40 all the way from Rocklin to just before Cape Horn. From Newcastle to Bowman, track 2 is CTC-controlled again, signaled bidirectionally, with both tracks passing through double-track tunnel 18 (1,000 ft., MP 100.5), after which track 1, here ABS, climbs more steeply and diverges to the east, the two lines separate and run quite a distance apart in places, including all the way through Auburn. A westward train can use either main between Bowman and Newcastle, while an eastbound can use only track 2. This results in the anomaly of there being two stations in Auburn, originally one for each direction, but Capitol Corridor service now uses the Nevada Street station on track 2, exclusively.

Track 1 passes a long stretch with no landmarks, or facilities, Church Steeple (MP 123.8), a wide road bridge overhead, a bridge above a segment of Auburn, a grade crossing,  Intermediate Signals and Auburn westbound station (MP 124.3), with the speed limit 30-25 (as far as Blue Cañon), two grade crossings, a street alongside to the so9utheast, a road bridge overhead, a bridge over a street well below, Intermediate Signals at MP 125.7, dual I-80 bridges overhead, housing and then I-80 alongside to the southeast, a grade crossing, housing on the south side, and a grade crossing.

At MP 123.1, track 2 passes through tunnel 20 (1,248 ft. in length), then crosses Auburn Ravine Bridge over I-80 and part of the town. The Auburn Courthouse is visible to the east. There were once fruit packing sheds, and an associated siding (or spur), just to the east of the bridge, on the east side of track 2. Following the Amtrak platform for eastbound trains on the east side at Nevada Street (MP 124.3), there is a bridge over I-80 well below, a siding/spur for Kessler’s beer distributors at “Foothill” (MP 126.5). The rail along here is 110-120 lb./yard, reduced from 160 lb./yard in the days when Cab Forwards ran the traffic on this line. Passing through tunnel 21 (1,210 ft., MP 124.6), under I-80, the line reaches Bowman (MP 129.2), where there is extra track on the northwest side.

At Bowman, track 1 is again adjacent, forming Two Main Tracks, CTC, and there are crossovers. Track control then becomes ABS and Track Warrant Control (TWC) controlled with dispatcher instructions over the radio giving authority to occupy the track, Double Track (i.e. 'current of traffic' operation), to Emigrant Gap. The tracks here are sometimes adjacent, sometimes a little apart.

Track 2 passes a detector at MP 130.6). East of tunnel 22 (985 ft., MP 131.2), and a grade crossing, track 1 is adjacent on the southeast side, but climbing more steeply than track 2. Track 2 then passes through tunnels 23, 24 (301 ft., MP 132.9), 25 (772 ft., MP 133.1), 26 (150 ft., MP 133.3, where track 1 crosses overhead) and 27 (187 ft., MP 133.8) to reach Applegate (MP 134.1), 3.208 ft. long tunnel 28 (MP 134.8), 1,009 ft. tunnel 29 (MP 135.9), a stretch of line with occasional road crossing through the fir trees, New England Mills, dual I-80 bridges overhead, and tunnels 30 (780 ft., MP 138.7), 31 (444 ft., MP 139.2), and 32 (759 ft., MP 139.4), followed by an embankment and then a cutting before track 1 approaches from the west side.

From the grade crossing east of Tunnel 22, track 1 runs on a ledge in the woods, past a grade crossing, a bridge over a road, a detector at MP 131.7, Clipper Gap (MP 131.9), a bridge over track 2, a road bridge overhead, a bridge over a road well below, Intermediate Signals, Applegate (MP 133.9), two dirt track grade crossings, dual I-80 bridges overhead, I-80 alongside to the southeast, a grade crossing, I-80 heads away on the southeast side, and a grade crossing (next to Howell Road), and approaches track 2 from the west as the line reaches Colfax.

Colfax, elevation 3,300 ft., is the highest real year-round community on the west slope of the Donner Pass line. Here were (and in some respects still are) the facilities used by many of the west slope helpers to prepare for their next assist. There are Intermediate Signals at MP 140.4, extra track after the lines come back together, and several sidings on the east side of the track, past the former location of fruit packing sheds, then the Amtrak depot on the southeast side of the line, a grade crossing east of the depot and the Colfax crossovers (MP 141.8). The two tracks are aligned as conventional double track between Colfax and Emigrant Gap, past a road bridge overhead, I-80 alongside to the southeast, and a grade crossing just before the line curves east around a clockwise horseshoe through Long Ravine (MP 143.0), where a pair of side-by-side deck truss bridges crosses I-80 in the middle of the horseshoe, and the grade is 2.0%.

There are Intermediate Signals at MP 144.0. At Cape Horn (MP 146.3 on track 2, where the grade is 2.4% and the speed limit is now 30-25), the original track (now track 2) snakes on a narrow ledge around a sharp mountain spur above the North Fork of the American River, while the newer track runs through tunnels 34 (410 ft., MP 144.9) and 33 (1,331 ft., MP 145.0) a few yards away. There are more occasional road crossings through the trees (now Cedar, Sugar Pine, Red and White Fir), past Intermediate Signals at MP 145.4 on track 2, a grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at Magra (MP 147.2), where the grade is 2.1%, Intermediate Signals at MP 148.4, and detectors at MP 148.8, then the line passes under a road bridge and then the dual I-80 bridges, Intermediate Signals at Secret Town Flat (MP 149.4, former site of the Secret Town trestle, now a fill), a dirt track grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at MP 151.0 (which are searchlights, in 2006, like all the others), a dirt track grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at MP 152.2, and a grade crossing.

At Gold Run, MP 152.6, where there are crossovers, there is a siding and a trailing spur to the east of the tracks and the trackbed is on top of gold bearing terrain on a ridge, with signs of one-time hydraulic mining on both sides. There is a detector on track 1 at MP 154.4, a grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at MP 154.8 and MP 155.8, and Alta (MP 156.1). At Dutch Flat, the tracks pass the location where Theodore Judah wrote the CP Articles of Association in 1860, and there is a grade crossing. At Towle, MP 156.6, the grade is 2.21%, there are Intermediate Signals, and there is a siding on the north side of the tracks. Off to the south is Euchre Boulders, down in the valley of the North Fork of the American River, 2,000 ft. below, with I-80 just below the tracks on the same hillside.

I-80 passes overhead on a pair of bridges,, and there is a grade crossing at MP 157.4. The grade increases to 2.4% past the Intermediate Signals at Baxter (MP 157.6), a grade crossing, MP 159, and Intermediate Signals at MP 160.8. At Midas, elevation 4,166 ft., MP 161.4, the grade is again 2.2%, a spur trails in on the southeast side, and there are more crossovers. Beyond 515 ft. tunnel 1 (MP 164.6) the line passes Intermediate Signals at MP 166.0 in one direction and MP 166.4 in the other, two dirt road grade crossings, and  Blue Cañon (MP 166.7, grade 2.18%, elevation 4,700 ft.), named for the blue haze resulting from lumber mill operations, which once had a turntable for helpers wanting to return westward and where the speed limit rises to 30 mph for freights and remains at that speed for passenger trains. There are detectors at MP 166.8, a dirt road grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at MP 167.2, a Hold Signal at Fulda (MP 168.0, track 2 only), and Intermediate Signals at MP 168.8.. At MP 169.8 is the west end of a balloon track on the north side; the east end is at Emigrant Gap. An extra track between the running lines amounts to a long crossover between MP 169.8 and MP 170.2.

Emigrant Gap is at MP 171.2, grade 1.58%, with the east end of the balloon track on the north side (as mentioned above). In the space of just a few yards (where I-80 crosses overhead), the line, on a high fill, crosses between high on the north side of the North Fork of the American River watershed and high on the south side of the Yuba River watershed, above Bear Valley, with I-80 alongside to the south east of its bridge over the tracks. East of Switch 9 (also at MP 171.2), the line is now single track, CTC-controlled (CTC control is continuous from here to Truckee), with concrete ties, and initially runs along the outer edge of the double track right-of-way. The speed limit is now 30-25 again. Many of the trees bordering the right-of-way look dead. There is a signal bridge still standing at MP 172. At Yuba Gap (MP 174.5, elevation 5,500 ft.), after passing under the dual bridges of I-80, again, the remaining track passes Yuba Pass (MP 175.0) and Yuba Flat (MP 176.1) and goes through tunnels 35 (768 ft., MP 176.2) and 36 (326 ft., MP 177.0), leaving the spot outside the tunnels on the ledge overlooking the valley, where the City of San Francisco was marooned in snow on 12 January, 1952, bereft of track..

Passing a still-standing signal bridge, and through tunnel 37 (557 ft., MP 177.9), the line reaches Crystal Lake (MP 178.2, grade 1.68%), where the track is now back on the outer edge of the right-of-way. Off to the south is 6,639-foot high Cisco Butte Mountain. Inside (Snow)Shed 10, at MP 178.3, double track starts again, operated as CTC “Two Main Tracks”, i.e. with no assumptions about direction of traffic on either track. At Cisco, elevation 5,923 ft., MP 179.6, where an old signal bridge is still standing in 2006, the grade has eased to 1.34%, and there was once an 80-ft. turntable for sending helpers back down the mountain. There are now many rock outcroppings among the trees, and the erstwhile (1876-1934) fire lookout station on the top of Red Mountain, which has visibility of 26 miles of track and former snowsheds, and had a direct telephone line to Cisco, can be seen off to the northeast across the valley. 

Track 2 passes through tunnel 38 (921 ft., MP 179.8), with track 1 on a ledge, and then passing through tunnels 3 (269 ft., MP 180.0) and 4 (85 ft., MP 180.3), track 1 passes Lily Pond Flat (MP 183.9), which has an old signal bridge in 2006, while track 2 passes Tamarack (MP 183), which also has an old signal bridge in 2006, and both pass the site of old tunnel 40 (MP 184.6), bypassed due to fire hazard, and Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at East Troy (MP 185.3), where there are detectors and the grade has risen again to 1.83%. The speed limit on track 1 is 35-30 and track 2 30 mph. After a grade crossing, the line crosses Lower Cascade Bridge at an elevation of 6,455 ft., Upper Cascade Bridge and the location of Cascade/Spruce, where 9,103 ft. high Castle Peak Mountain is dead ahead, and passes MP 186, Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge, MP 187, and Soda Springs, elevation 6,758 ft., MP 189.7, track 1 only, grade 1.41%. West of the Soda Springs grade crossing, on the north side, is a four storey (including attic rooms on the roof) wooden hotel, built in 1926, whose peak was lower than the snow line when we visited in March, 1995.

The average annual snowfall at Colfax is 2 feet; but 35 feet at Donner Summit. Norden once included a turntable inside a snowshed, for turning steam helpers that had reached the summit, as well as staff housing and train dispatching facilities that were completely snowed-under in wintertime. The few remaining facilities at Norden still form a base for snowfighting when winter storms threaten to close the line. Immediately east of the summit, the line passes through alpine meadows that today form part of the Sugar Bowl ski area in winter and a hiking area in summer. Some of the line west of the summit remains in snowsheds, although modern snowfighting methods have made many snowsheds obsolete. Even today, the crossovers at West Norden (MP 191.2, where the number of tracks reduces to one) are inside a snowshed, which once included that turntable and other facilities.

The line runs along the mountainside high above Donner Lake, on its south side. With the removal of the track on the face of the mountain, hewn by the Chinese laborers in 1867, the few miles immediately east of East Norden (MP 192.5), the ski lift overhead just west of the tunnel entrance, and Donner Summit (elevation 7,940 ft., inside tunnel 41), are traversed inside 10,324 ft. long Tunnel 41 (MP 192.6), with a downward grade of 1.47%. At the east end of the tunnel, the formation of the original track crosses over the mouth of the tunnel and descends to track level on the inner side of the formation, near MP 195. The remaining track here is again on the outer position on the formation. After passing through Eder (Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge, MP 195.6), where the speed limit becomes 30-25, far above Donner Lake in the valley below, two tracks start again in Shed 47 (MP 196.6), exiting at Andover (MP 198.7), downgrade 1.66%.

Truckee can be seen far below as the track turns south and then southwest, curving through the two side-by-side tunnels at tunnel 42 (693 ft., MP 197.9, downgrade 1.42%) into Coldstream Canyon, where the downgrade increases to 1.9%., the line passes Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at MP 199.9, just west of the counter-clockwise horseshoe curve at the end of the side valley (downgrade 1.78%), with a bridge over a stream in the center of the curve, where it heads back northeast on the other side of Coldstream Canyon, past Intermediate Signals at MP 200.8, Horseshoe Curve (MP 201.0), where the speed limit rises to 35-30, Artic, Stanford Flat (MP 201.5), where the speed limit rises to 40-35 for the rest of the way into Reno and Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at MP 201.8.. Until the early part of the 20th-century, there were ice plants (cutting locations and storage houses) at Artic, Donner, Truckee, Polaris, Prosser Creek, Boca (closed in 1924), Iceland, Wickess, Floriston, Essex and Verdi. There are detectors at MP 203.9, a lumber mill on the south side of the line, a culvert in an embankment, a bridge over a road below, and West River Street on the south side of the line.

Truckee comprises a set of yard limits with a CTC Control Point at each end.  The crossovers at West Truckee are at MP 205.6, with a signal bridge, followed by the main street alongside to the north, the Amtrak Depot (MP 205.9) on the north side of the line, with extra track on the south side, and a couple of grade crossings (one of them just east of the depot). At Truckee, elevation 5,900 ft., there was once a locomotive facility, and still are facilities for servicing the helpers that use this as their eastern base. A balloon track encircles the former location of the roundhouse, and there is still a large railroad shed in this area, north of the line east of the grade crossings. At the turn of the 21st century, rotary snowplows are stored here for use in the heaviest snowfighting conditions. There are three tracks past the balloon track, crossovers at East Truckee (MP 208.6), where CTC ends and the third track, on the south side, also ends, and a relatively new  (since 2002) road bridge overhead (and across the Truckee River, alongside to the south), before line and river curve to the north..

Between Truckee and Reno, the line follows the Truckee River (the outlet of Lake Tahoe that winds its way to a sink at Pyramid Lake, in the Nevada desert northeast of Reno). This entire route between East Truckee and Sparks, NV is Double Track. Flycasters Flat is on track 2 at MP 210.4. On the north bank of the river, at  the Intermediate Signals at MP 212.4, with an east-facing sign saying "Begin CTC", even though the line seems to be ABS/TWC between MP 208.6 and MP 239.1, the downgrade has eased to 0.83% (all of the steep parts of the grade are west of Truckee). The line passes a road bridge overhead (and over the river), just before the line and river curve back to the east I-80 alongside to the north, Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at Polaris, the line and river curve to the south and then back east again,  then north and under I-80, and back east again, Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at Boca (MP 214.2, downgrade 0.39%), where once there was a brewery on the north side of the track and an icehouse on the south side, where I-80 is now alongside to the south, under I-80 again, with the river then alongside to the south, as the line curves southeast, past a grade crossing, extra track on the south side, Intermediate Signals on a cantilever signal bridge, a curve southwest for a short distance, Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge, a curve back to the east, a road bridge overhead, a dirt road grade crossing, a curve southeast and then east again, and an east-facing signal, and crosses the river on separate bridges (deck girder on the north track, through bowstring truss on the south track). The Iceland icehouse was located between the tracks here, after which the tracks come back together on the south side of the river and the line curves to the north. After Floriston Crossovers, with a signal bridge at MP 219.7, and then Floriston itself, with slide fences along both sides of the line, the tracks are at different levels on the same hillside. There is a bridge over a road, I-80 just to the north, across the river, as the line and hillside curves back and forth, Intermediate Signals and detectors at MP 221.7, a flume on the south side carrying water to hydroelectric plants downstream, a bridge over a road, Intermediate Signals, the tracks come back together, a side river is crossed, followed by Intermediate Signals at MP 225.6, a through truss bridge on the south track and a deck truss on the north track,  over the Truckee River, a grade crossing, and Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge.

Crossing the Nevada state line, there are detectors at MP 229.7, and a grade crossing. At Verdi, MP 230.2, the line passes under dual I-80 bridges again, followed by a grade crossing, after which the tracks separate for a little while, with a road between them at one point (crossing each track at grade, separately), and are at different levels again, passing Intermediate Signals at MP 231.0, a spindly road bridge overhead, dual road bridges overhead, Intermediate Signals at MP 232.8, two grade crossings on the south track and one on the north track, and Intermediate Signals on a signal bridge at Mogul (MP 234.6). Crossing the Truckee River on a deck girder bridge, the tracks come back together again at Lawton X-Over (MP 235.5), where there are crossovers.. There is a grade crossing, extra track on the south side, a grade crossing as the extra track turns away to the south, a bridge over a road, a grade crossing, Intermediate Signals at MP 236.6, a dirt road grade crossing, detectors at MP237.8, a road bridge overhead and a grade crossing..

West Reno, MP 239.1, has crossovers reducing the tracks to single track, CTC. In Reno, huge casinos/hotels crowd both sides of the track, with grade crossings every block until the tracks were lowered into a trench in late 2005 (with three street bridges overhead, Intermediate Signals, and three street bridges overhead). The Reno Amtrak depot (MP 240.7) is on the south side of the tracks, and was replaced as part of building the trench, with a platform and platform-level  trackside entrance at track level, in the trench. There are two more street bridges overhead in the trench, and one as the track climbs out of the trench, followed by a grade crossing just east of the west-facing signals where CTC ends at Sutro (MP 241.6), where the number of tracks increases to two and DT ABS control resumes. There is a grade crossing on the double track, the east-facing signals, a pedestrian bridge overhead, a signal bridge overhead, a grade crossing, a bridge over a road, Intermediate Signals at MP 242.8, and I-80 again alongside to the north. Sparks, MP 243.7, is the site of a yard, with 8-10 tracks, on the south side of the tracks, and locomotive facilities on the north side along with an Amtrak spur on the north side, and the former SP depot on the north side. Sparks and Reno form a single urban area. The line is again under TWC from CP RV 242 (MP 241.6) to CP RV 249 (MP 249.4), the DT ABS section.