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The Harbor Subdivision is a historic single-track main line of the BNSF Railway which stretches 26 miles (42 km) between rail yards near downtown Los Angeles and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach across southwestern Los Angeles County. It was the primary link between two of the world's busiest harbors and the transcontinental rail network. Mostly displaced with the April 15, 2002 opening of the more direct Alameda Corridor, the Harbor Sub takes a far more circuitous route from origin to destination, owing to its growth in segments over the decades. The subdivision was built in the early 1880s to serve the ports and the various businesses that developed along it.
First built to serve Port Ballona and Santa Monica, located at what is now Playa del Rey, the construction of a larger port at Redondo Beach brought an extension to that city in 1888. The early 1900s would see that project eclipsed with the coming of the San Pedro Outer Breakwater and the Port of Los Angeles. By the early 1920s, owing to the development of the area's oil fields, the Harbor Sub was extended through Torrance, Wilmington and on to Long Beach. Development of Watson Yard in Wilmington completed the line. Other than sidings at "Lairport" (along the eastern edge of Los Angeles International Airport next to Aviation Boulevard at 120th Street), "Ironsides" in Torrance and the line's longest siding at a plant for Alcoa, also in Torrance, the Harbor Sub is completely single-track without signals, compensated with track warrant control via a local dispatcher.
Early operations on the line meant one or more daily freight trains and, prior to the Second World War, an occasional passenger train. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, this line saw one or two through trains each way daily. A number of local trains worked the line including the Wilmington Turn out of Hobart Yard in Vernon and the Hobart Turn out of the aforementioned Watson Yard. Other locals were assigned to Watson Yard and Vernon's Malabar Yard. Though operations on the Hobart Turn ceased in the early 1980s, Watson (near Wilmington) and Malabar switching jobs remained to serve industries along the route.
The Harbor Subdivision hosted many rail spurs that connect to adjacent industries. One was built from the Harbor Sub to the American Racing manufacturing plant along the naval annex right of way and part of a segment near Madrona Marsh. The spur was removed by the middle of the 1980s. Except for the now-overgrown ROW south of present-day Wilson Park on the site of the naval annex and some track and a switch stand from the 1980s extension in the Monterey Business Park near American Racing, no other readily discernible evidence of the line remains. Another abandoned spur in Torrance, the Alcoa Spur, still connects to the main just west of the end of Del Amo Boulevard, parallels Del Amo on its way across Crenshaw and continues east where it once served heavy industries with ExxonMobil products on Del Amo Boulevard and Western Avenue. The line's western end is still used on occasion for spotting cars, but grade crossing signals at Crenshaw have been removed and the line severed just past the eastern shoulder. Another Torrance subspur, since removed, serviced light industries along Maple Avenue. Currently, BNSF uses this track to store rail equipment that either cannot run east due to a shortage of locomotives, or west due to congestion in port trackage.
Potential future uses
Rumors of the abandonment of the Harbor Subdivision abounded during the construction of the Alameda Corridor. BNSF has stated that, although the entire line is now within so-called yard limits and a segment between mileposts 8 in Inglewood and 14 in El Segundo "mothballed," the line will remain open to service businesses on the route and as an alternate route should the Alameda Corridor suffer an accident or derailment. Local freights continue to work the line on either side of the closed area. Major customers include a ChevronTexaco refinery in El Segundo, an Interstate Bakeries Corporation bakery in Inglewood, an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance and the aforementioned Alcoa processing plant. Since the line is somewhat unusual insofar as it passes through residential as well as commercial districts, especially through Torrance and Redondo Beach, it is a popular destination for railfans and photographers despite reduced traffic.
The line is currently under control of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and is used by both BNSF and Union Pacific. Despite the closure of the Inglewood/El Segundo segment and reduction of trains, growth in local freight traffic is projected to be roughly two percent per year. A study conducted by the MTA examined the feasibilities of extending the Green Line to Torrance via the Harbor Sub, the creation of a new light rail transit line and even the possibility of a maglev high-speed rail system. The study also examines the possibilities abandonment would create, although a scenario would be highly unlikely.