Located in the hills of north of San Luis Obispo, the 5,100 foot long siding of Chorro is one of two, current locations between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita where trains can meet if necessary. Little known to the common hiker or passenger aboard Amtrak's daily Coast Starlight passenger trains, the 16 mile (that's railroad miles) stretch between San Luis Obispo and Santa Margarita was the first on the Southern Pacific's entire system to receive Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) signaling. Why?
Simply put, World War II. With staggering amounts of war materials and the men and women who would use them being moved by rail following America's entrance to the war, the Southern Pacific was faced with one of its biggest challenges of moving critical materials to the war effort quickly, efficiently and safely over Cuesta.
To help break up the congestion of trains on this 2.2% grade, the SP took action. Extending the sidings was a start, but something more needed to be done. It was decided CTC would be implemented in 1942 that, once in place, allowed a dispatcher in San Luis Obispo to control the throwing of switches at Hathaway, Goldtree, Chorro, Serrano, Cuesta and the southern end of Santa Margarita by the flip of a switch. This new technology replaced the previous method to control the meeting of trains, which was written orders telling one train where to wait and meet another. Of particular interest when this new system went into affect, Union Switch & Signal "searchlight" signals were put into place along this stretch to guide train crews up and down the pass.
Today, these 78-year-old searchlight signals are still guiding trains over the only CTC controlled section of railroad along the 228 mile stretch between Elwood and Salinas. Somewhat ironic is that unlike the staggering amounts of freight and passenger trains that required this section of railroad to be converted to CTC, Amtrak's Coast Starlights are now the only regularly scheduled trains to utilize this section of railroad.
Such is the case on this warm, summer afternoon as the southbound Coast Starlight, Train No. 11, exits the appropriately numbered Tunnel 11. On the point is AMTK 510, a workhorse of the Amtrak fleet that is no stranger to this section of railroad.