Tehachapi Innovation

When one thinks of the busiest stretches of railroad in the United States, the first locations that come to mind are usually New York or Chicago.  While those sections of track are indeed among the most congested in the country, in particular the massive switching yards in Chicago, one unheralded section of single track in the California desert consistently ranks near the top in terms of train traffic – the Tehachapi Loop.

For the innovation practitioner, the Tehachapi Loop is worth exploring as a set of guideposts for innovation.

At the end of the 19th century, American railroad expansion was in full swing.  The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Promontory, Utah in 1869 to complete the first transcontinental railroad.  Construction continued at a frenetic pace in the subsequent years, and one particularly important line was the route out of the growing city of Los Angeles into the California Central Valley and beyond.

The biggest obstacle for the railroad builders on this route was the wall of the Tehachapi Mountains, rising nearly 3,000 feet above the town of Caliente in the Los Angeles Basin.  The Tehachapi Pass, which was used by the Native American Kitanemuk people as a trade route for ages, sat at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range and reached an elevation of 3,771 feet.  This rise from Caliente occurred in only a few miles of track, which posed a challenge for railroad engineers who had to keep the maximum grade of the track at 2.2 percent or below. Any steeper, and train engines could not pull their massive loads up over the pass.  At a lower grade, the locomotives could climb the pass but the amount of track required to create a gradual slope would be exorbitant.

The engineer faced with this challenge was Dartmouth-educated William Hood of the Central Pacific Railroad.  Hood laid out a series of curves and tunnels to allow the track to rise gradually out of the valley but the crowning achievement of Hood’s design was the Tehachapi Loop, a spiral-shaped track with a tunnel that winds around on top of itself in a distance of 0.73 miles, rising 77 feet in elevation in the process to position the train to cross the Tehachapi Summit a short distance later.  For longer trains (85 cars or longer), the design actually results in the engine crossing over the trailing cars in the course of traversing the loop, which makes for an interesting sight.

Hood’s spiral became a standard for the railroad construction industry in the years following its construction.  According to Hood, “[t]he essence of engineering consists not so much in the mere construction of the spectacular layouts or developments, but in the invention required—the analysis of the problem, the design, the solution by the mind which directs it all.”

The entire construction of the track around Tehachapi consists of 18 tunnels, 10 bridges, and the eponymous Loop.  The line was built from 1874 to 1876 and is still in use today with very few modifications.  In fact, this section of track is known as one of the busiest single track areas in the entire country, with an average of 36 freight trains passing every day.

As innovators, we can take to heart a couple of key lessons from Hood’s design for the Tehachapi Loop.  First, we should remember that sometimes to move forward we have to cross over old terrain.  In other words, even doing something very innovative sometimes requires going back over old ground in order to better position ourselves for the ultimate climb to the summit.

When developing a new product or service, it may be worthwhile to spend time looking back on the development process followed when the original product or service was created, as ideas from those sessions may yield insights into innovative ways to address a new product.  An innovator may want to remember the importance of the foundation of a product or service in terms of generating new ideas about where to take a product or service in the future.

The innovator should remember that going backwards is not necessarily a bad thing.  Although the term “retro” sometimes has negative connotations, the retro-aspects of the Tehachapi Loop are critical to its successful function.

A final lesson to consider from William Hood’s engineering marvel is the concept of “built to last.”  In the frenetic world of innovation we tend to focus on ideas that are short-lived and readily replaced with a new concept.  Although civil engineering is a field that often creates lasting edifices (e.g., Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam), a lesson of the Tehachapi Loop is that something truly innovative can span generations and prove useful over a hundred years after its creation and has been declared a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, so an innovator should always design for the long term.






Walter R. Borneman, Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroads West (New York: Back Bay Books, 2010).

image credit: insidesocal.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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