The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1991, Volume 37, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Surfliners: 50 Years of the San Diegans.
By Dick Stephenson. Glendale: Trans Anglo Books, 1988. 150 b&w, 50 color illustrations. 112 pages. $24.95.

The San Diego Trolley.
By Gena Holle. Glendale: Interurban Press, 1990. 85 b&w, 40 color illustrations. Index. 104 pages. $25.95.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweible, Jr., Professor of Africana Studies, San Diego State University, author of No Crystal Stair (1975) and co-editor of In Search of the Promised Land (1981) as well as numerous articles in African American history.

Many cities can boast a railroad heritage, but few can claim a present-day railroad revival. San Diego is thus exceptional. These two volumes assay differing chapters of this renewal.

Dick Stephenson has been photographing the Santa Fe Railway Company’s “Surf Line” between Los Angeles and San Diego for some time and focuses on the last fifty years during which streamlined “San Diegan” passenger trains have linked the two cities in under three hours’ time. As a work of history, the book is deficient; the author seems to assume a readership of railfans who are already familiar with the railroad and the line. For example, the 19th century origins of rail service to San Diego are sketched so thinly as to be incomprehensible. Timetables list trains as traveling either eastbound or westbound, although their actual compass bearings are north and south; not until well into the narrative is this mystery clarified. The historic wreck of Santa Fe RDCs (self-propelled rail diesel cars) is mentioned but never described. Several uncommon abbreviations are not spelled out nor technical innovations explained. A list of privately owned passenger cars which have operated on the line has no significance when only their numbers are given and past or present owners remain unnamed. On the positive side, The Surfliners is well illustrated, over half the text and pictures covering the period since 1971 when Amtrak took over passenger operations. Ridership and train frequency have grown tremendously since then, Stephenson notes, making the Surf Line a phenomenal success in contemporary American railroading.

The San Diego Trolley is a better volume in many ways. It benefits from the author’s intimate knowledge of the system — she not only took many of the photographs used in the book but was also among the first operators when the system began in 1981. Her opening chapter, while choppy, provides an extensive history of San Diego’s electric railways which began in 1887. A maze of corporate details and name changes are comprehensible. The advent of the modern system is also clearly narrated, especially the politics of a venture many thought foolish. Construction and start-up of the initial South Line to the Mexican border is described in an artful combination of factual details and human interest anecdotes. Readers will enjoy Holle’s eye for humor and irony, including the fact that post-industrial America is incapable of producing a competitive urban mass transit system. Initial rail stock came from Nova Scotia, the trolleys themselves from West Germany, and ticket-vending machines from Switzerland! The East Line to El Cajon was built with greater political and financial difficulty, but again the author clearly explains the intricacies of government grants and environmental impact reports. The text concludes by discussing prospects for the trolley’s future expansion to at least partially alleviate the county’s approaching gridlock.

Each volume ends with a handsome color photograph section. Railfans will enjoy both, but those seeking coherent history (and an index) will only be satisfied with Holle’s work. At about $25 apiece for a softcover book, Stephenson’s is no bargain, but The San Diego Trolley is worth the price.