Lettuce Make the Best of It!
GP40X's and Farm-Fresh Produce Delivery
Not long ago, I ran across an old wire service photo (at left), showing an unintended distribution of product from the 'head' end of a Southern Pacific freight train along the right-of-way in Van Nuys back in 1965 .* Though the photo depicts cabbage, I initially mistook it for iceberg lettuce and subsequently flashed back to early in my career when said lettuce used to occasionally wind-up in a similar state along the tracks in San Jose, albeit through a less violent means of dispersal.

Background: During the summer season, Southern Pacific used to run two or three westbound "Perishable" trains of PFE cars, earlier collected in the Salinas Valley, out of Watsonville Junction each night. The trains generally ran up to 80 cars, or so, in length, and some headquarters wizards at #1 Market decided that it would be absolutely dandy if they could run all of the cars in one humongous train using remote control units in sort of a primitive distributed power arrangement. Vintage SP thinking. Thus, in 1977, the company ordered GP40X master (7200-01) and remote (7230-31) units. Sadly, the plan either 1) overlooked the obvious, that SP's perishable business was already in steep decline, or 2) arose out of baseless optimism born of too much caffeine and nicotine.
As it was, the Geeps arrived the next year looking for other work, because the perishable traffic had shrunk to about one train length - 80 cars - per night at the height of the season. They wound up for awhile in master - remote pairs on the head end of hot Oakland - Los Angeles trains as "fuel -saver" consists whereby the hoghead could selectively isolate the remote unit whenever the extra power was not needed. After that, I don't know what their dedicated assignment, if any, was.

So, in summary, in the summer of 1978, SP only had a sole remaining Perishable, which usually went on duty at Watsonville Junction at 10:00 PM and departed at about 11:00 PM. San Jose area traffic congestion frequently was heavy enough to force San Jose Telegraph to hold out the train at the end of the double track at Lick for an eastbound, typically the OALAT, if I remember right.

I say "forced" because Lick was a bad spot for a train full of produce to sit: right next to the Capitol Drive-In (still there in 2013). The Perishable typically ground to a stop after the movie-goers' hot summer night activities - watching the feature film and making out in the back seat - had run their course. The lure of a trainload of Salinas Valley produce was often too much for the now-restless moviegoers, and they streamed en-masse over the separating fence like Black Beard's bunch raiding a treasure ship.

Of course the miscreants didn't re-close the reefer car doors after they were finished, possibly because they knew it was an SP rules violation for anyone except carmen to close plug doors (safety first!). Thus, after the train resumed its journey, the harmonic rocking of the cars along the jointed rail would proceed to unload produce along the right-of-way.

SP GP40X # 7200 at West Oakland Diesel Shop, Summer 1980; Bay Street office building at left: operating crews went on/ off duty here & Bay Street Yardmaster, company officials worked here (click on slide for large photo)

One warm night in San Jose that summer, my Newhall Street lead job (switch crew) was alerted by another crew that the tracks east (south) of the yard were littered with crates of lettuce. Our reaction was that, well…the damage was done… let's make the best of it! Almost everyone bought into this conclusion and accordingly stashed lettuce in every nook and cranny at Newhall, including the tower, herder's shanty and locker rooms. The carmen made out especially well, since, they were assigned to close the doors by rule and union contract.

This hardly was the first nor the last time that this sort of thing happened, despite company warnings to San Jose telegraphers to keep the Perishable rolling. The problem had largely ironed itself out by the next summer, because the company had abolished the Watsonville carmen jobs by then, meaning that train crews had to "work the train": inspect, tie hoses, walk air tests, etc., causing a much later departure. As a result, the Perishable usually arrived at Lick, towards the end of, or after, the second feature.

Most of the potential looters had gone home by then.

*According to the accompanying caption, on April 16, 1965, 27 of an SP train's 41 cars left the track due to an air brake "malfunction". The report mentioned no injuries.

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