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Friday, March 1, 2013

Vasona Junction & Stop

A SP train approaching the wye at Vasona Junction, 1940s
(Courtesy Los Gatos Public Library)
Vasona Junction is a strange place. Forty years ago, it was an important Southern Pacific Railroad intersection where the Los Altos Branch, also known as the Mayfield Cut-Off, split from the Santa Cruz Branch—hence the term "junction"—creating a wye. Today though it no longer exists as a junction. Both branch lines are gone, as is the wye, and now trains occasionally pass through the site on their way to the Permanente Cement Plant west of Cupertino. The site of Vasona Junction remains, but no longer functions. There was only very briefly a formal passenger  stop at the site, and no sidings to support waiting freight loads were ever installed there.

Vasona Junction did not exist until the Los Altos line was completed in April 1908. That year, 53.4 miles south of San Francisco via Alameda Point, the junction was born. It's completion create a dual-tiered system of gauging distances from San Francisco, with distances now being calculated from the original terminus at Alameda Point and the new terminus in downtown San Francisco, from which Vasona was 48.2 miles south.

A SP train in the wye at Vasona Junction in 1949. (Courtesy Los Gatos Public Library)
Soon after the completion of the intersection, Albert August Vollmer, one of the prune ranchers, convinced the Southern Pacific to allow passenger service to the location via a flag-stop. The location became known as Vasona, after the name of Vollmer's childhood pony. For whatever reason, the name stuck and now describes not only the historic junction, but also the nearby reservoir in Los Gatos. Vasona Flag-Stop was located immediately beside Winchester Boulevard on the southern end of the wye, 52.9 miles south of San Francisco via Alameda Point. It began appearing on internal Southern Pacific timetables in the 1910s and public timetables in the 1920s.

A SP train passing through Vasona Junction in 1953. (Courtesy Los Gatos Public Library)
A description of the site in the 1930s notes that it was an especially barren area with only prune orchards for company. That continued until the freeway was built, which replaced the scant orchards with warehouse buildings. The wye crossed Winchester Boulevard twice, once immediately beside Highway 85, and again just before Wimbledon Drive. Remnants of the missing part of the wye are still visible on property maps of the area. The Santa Cruz Branch of the line remained south of Winchester Boulevard throughout the entire junction. The junction was fairly long, stretching a half-mile from one end of the wye to the other at all three corners. Most of the extant photos of the intersection (many of which are viewable here) show the trains somewhere in the nexus of the wye, surrounded by prune trees. Winchester Boulevard passed through the wye, but apparently was not very photogenic.

A SP engine passing beside prune trees at Vasona Junction, 1955. (Courtesy Los Gatos Public Library)
A train register booth was at the junction so that engineers could ensure no trains were coming that would conflict with their schedule. The entire intersection was block signaled, creating a strangely dangerous location for the Southern Pacific line. Taking some information from Robert Bowdidge's blog, here's what he has to say about register booths, specifically the one at Vasona:
Register booth at Vasona Junction.
(Courtesy Edward Kelley & Peggy Conaway)
When running trains by telegraph messages, it was pretty common for a train to get the message "Don't pass this place unless train X has already passed there." That's easy if you're on the same track, for you'll see that train go by. What happens if the tracks branch so you wouldn't see it go past? 
To answer such questions, railroads kept train register books at stations where trains started and stopped, and at all junctions. Trains passing these places would see a mark on their timetable indicating a train register book, so the train would stop and the conductor would mark down his train, the time he was passing, and his direction. He could also check the register to make sure any trains that had priority over his on the next stretch of track had already gone by. 
Usually these train registers were in real stations, but Vasona Junction was stuck out in the middle of the prune orchards, and got so little traffic that the railroad didn't even bother to build a station here. Instead, they built a small booth that sat next to the tracks and contained the train register.
Because of this register book, all passenger trains were required to stop at Vasona Junction, even if no passengers were waiting. Nothing developed around the stop, however, and it remained a prune orchard throughout most of its existence.

A SP engine in the wye at Vasona Junction, c. 1940s. (Courtesy Los Gatos Public Library)
Today, as already mentioned, there is nothing really at Vasona Junction except a single length of track that passes through the site. Trains no longer stop there and haven't since the tracks to Los Gatos were removed in 1959. Service to Vasona continued for four more years until January 27, 1964, when the final passenger train stopped at Vasona Junction. During this brief period, Vasona became upgraded into a formal station with a platform and ramp to support commuters that had once used Los Gatos Station or Bulwer. Tracks connecting Vasona to San Francisco via the Mayfield Cut-Off were broken in 1964 between Simla and Alta Mesa for construction of the Foothill Expressway. This spelled the end of Vasona Junction and its place on the former Southern Pacific Railroad main line. 

The right-of-way today at Vasona Junction beside Winchester Blvd.
The Valley Transit Authority (VTA) has been negotiating an extension of the Silicon Valley light rail to terminate at Vasona Junction, near to the site of the old wye just within the City of Los Gatos-Monte Vista. Currently the "Vasona line" terminates in Campbell. Oddly, the site has been discussed as "Vasona Junction" from the very start, despite no junction actually existing there. Future plans to extend the line all the way into Los Gatos have been stalled due to funding and lack of interest.



  1. Actually, the final passenger train to San Jose
    from San Francisco via Los Altos and Vasona ran
    on January 27, 1964. According to the SP Peninsula Time table of October 27, 1963,the train arrived from San Francisco at 6:44 PM.
    The morning train stopped there headed north at
    6:41 AM. This was a regular stop, not a flag stop. The tracks from Simla to Alta Mesa were
    removed later in 1964. Other segments were
    removed later than this. I rode the train to
    Vasona in 1963 and kept an eye on when they removed the tracks in 1964 and later.

  2. I went to Gunn High School in Palo Alto from 1965 to 1968 which was adjacent
    to where the Alta Mesa station had stood. After the tracks were removed
    from Alta Mesa to Simla in 1964 to make way for the Foothill Expressway,
    the tracks continued to sit abandoned from Alta Mesa to Hansen Avenue in
    Palo Alto until 1966. Preformed Line Products west of El Camino Real
    continued to receive freight service for many years after 1966, perhaps
    until 1983. The remaining tracks at Simla were eventually abandoned by 1966
    and replaced by the line running directly from Monta Vista to Permanente,
    part of the currently operating line from San Jose to Permanente via Vasona.

  3. Hi Duncan - I grew up in Los Altos Hills between June 1957 and Dec. 1968. I don't know about the date of track removal from Alta Mesa to Los Altos, but I seem to remember that from Los Altos (Main St.) to at least Loyola Corners, it was removed in Jan. 1965...