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'Baxter's Choo-Choo' to Chug Chug in Mexico : Supervisors Giving County's Idle Train a One-Way Ticket

April 10, 1985|JACK JONES and RICH CONNELL | Times Staff Writers

Eight aging railroad cars, once ridiculed as "Baxter's Choo-Choo" because former Los Angeles County Supervisor Baxter Ward envisioned them as the beginning of a network of commuter trains, were sold Tuesday to tour operators who plan to carry visitors through the Copper Canyon area of northern Mexico.

The Board of Supervisors voted to sell the rolling stock, for which the county paid $240,000 in 1975 and then rehabilitated for another $1.7 million, to the highest of three bidders for $365,000.

"The last chapter in a bad story," commented Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who never thought much of Ward's county-owned commuter train idea in the first place.

The train operated briefly between Los Angeles and San Diego in 1978.

The buyer is a joint venture composed of Encino-based Baja Adventures, which regularly runs tours through Baja California and to Copper Canyon in Sonora, and Point South RV, in cooperation with the Mexican government tourism agency, FONATUR.

J. Bruce Kuhn, operator of Baja Adventures, said he hopes to have the train running from Chihuahua, about 260 miles south of El Paso, to Los Mochis on the Gulf of California coast by Sept. 1.

En route, the train will go "in and out of the canyon walls like a worm in an apple," Kuhn said. "That train trip is a real adrenalin pumper. You do 86 tunnels and 37 bridges."

Copper Canyon, he pointed out, is little known, although it is "four times the size of the Grand Canyon and 280 feet deeper."

Commuter System

He said the cars that Ward once saw as the forerunner of a five-legged commuter rail system reaching out to San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Oxnard and Ventura will be hauled by Mexican locomotives along the Chihuahua Pacific Railroad line, which was completed in 1961 after a century of struggle.

First, however, the buyers will have to get the five lounge cars, two diners and a dome car out of the federal depot in Bell, where they have languished since they made the Los Angeles-San Diego run for only six months in 1978, and haul them down to Brownsville, Tex., to "bring them up to snuff," Kuhn said.

He said the interiors are "in absolutely perfect shape," but much of the glass--or, more accurately, Lexon plastic, has gone opaque and must be replaced. Some exterior work will have to be done, and some new air conditioners will be installed, he said.

"One has to remember that these cars are 40 years old."

Refurbishing the cars was just one of the problems that faced Los Angeles County when it made the stumbling attempt to launch its own commuter train system a decade ago. When the train was purchased in 1975, said Bob Gomez, assistant chief of capital projects for the county, it was anticipated that it would be ready to roll in six months.

It was more than two years before the cars were operational.

Then there was a legal fracas growing out of the fact that a county-owned train was to be operated by Amtrak on Santa Fe Railway tracks. Santa Fe said the law prohibited Amtrak from running a commuter train. Amtrak claimed it was an intercity train, which is what it was set up to run.

A lawsuit over the matter was finally settled, allowing Amtrak to go ahead. The county train, properly called the El Camino, operated from Feb. 14, 1978, through August of that year. But along came Proposition 13, forcing the county to cut frills. One of those frills was the train.

None of that appeared to dampen Kuhn's excitement Tuesday. He said the tour train will have flatbed cars to carry recreational vehicles and RV owners will be able to go right from their vehicles into the dining cars.

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