Southern Pacific Railroad History Center


Southern Pacific Pipe Lines, Inc.

In 1955, Southern Pacific became the first railroad company in the United States to own and operate a major refined products pipeline system.  Original construction consisted of 1,019 miles of pipeline, and has since been expanded to 2,753 miles, which includes its new 273-mile coal slurry pipeline.  This summary generally relates why Southern Pacific entered the pipeline business,  how the initial system was built, and how it operates.

In 1938, 354 million tons of crude and petroleum products were transported in the United States.  By 1958 this had increased to over one billion tons and pipe lines were handling 43% of this amount.  Transportation by railroad in the United States declined from 16% in 1938 to 3% in 1957.  With this shift in domestic petroleum transportation, it became obvious that for steady, long-distance transportation of large volumes, the economics of pipeline transportation were more favorable than most other means.

By 1954, consumption of petroleum products in the Tucson-Phoenix area of Arizona and in the Imperial Valley of California had grown to an extent warranting pipeline transportation.  Certain oil company refineries were located in Los Angeles,  California, and others in the El Paso, Texas, area, most of which were interested in serving the Arizona market.  Southern Pacific, whose transcontinental rail lines interconnected these points, was transporting a substantial part of these volumes by tank car.  Tank trucks were also moving substantial volumes.  Construction of the pipeline system by some party or parties was inevitable.  In fact, several oil companies were making studies of the area for pipeline purposes at that time.  The Southern Pacific believing that it should be an integrated transportation company able to offer the shipping public the most efficient method  of transportation,  began to seriously consider construction of a pipeline.  Of course,  the fact that tank car movements would be lost to a pipeline was also a factor in the decision making process.  Southern Pacific reasoned that the loss of this business was inevitable,  so it was preferable to lose it to its  own pipeline company rather than to another entity.  The fact that Southern Pacific had much of the needed  right of way was also an important consideration.

Stanford Research Institute was engaged to conduct a market analysis.  Quantities of product which could be expected to move by pipeline immediately and in the future were determined.  At the same time, a reliable pipeline engineering firm was retained to accomplish the necessary economic study.  Even with a 50% cut in tariff on the 418-mile haul between Los Angeles and Phoenix, the payout looked good.  So in February of 1955, the decision was reached to construct a pipeline system.  The engineering firm was given the job of planning and supervising the construction, with work beginning immediately.  It was Southern Pacific’s prime objective to have the initial system in complete operation by the end of 1955.  This initial system actually comprised two separate pipelines.  One would connect Los Angeles refineries with Phoenix, Arizona, including intermediate delivery terminals at Colton and Niland, California.  The other would connect El Paso refineries with the Tucson and Phoenix areas.  The proposed system would serve all qualified shippers as a common carrier.  At this time a separate subsidiary company was formed known as Southern Pacific Pipe Lines, Inc., to own and operate the pipeline system.

The efficient operation of a pipeline depends upon large volumes which can be assured to the transportation agency only by the processor of crude oil.  Therefore, large oil companies were the potential customers for such pipeline operations.  Alone among transportation modes, the pipeline neither requires packaging or packing of the commodity it transports, nor is it faced with the requirement of returning empty cars, vehicles, or vessels.  Performing its service by the application of power direct to the commodity being moved, it could be said to “impel” or “push” its cargo rather than “transport” or “carry” it.  With no vehicle or dunnage dead weight to move, pipelines attain a relatively high efficiency in the use of power, and a pipeline inherently performs all its transportation in one direction, with no possibility of back haul.

As with other major product pipeline systems, it was decided that our company would operate a segregated batch system; that is,  the different shipments (or “batches”) of gasoline, fuel oil, and other products would move along like cars in a freight train, with each batch filling fifteen or more miles of line. The difference is that these “cars” are liquid; they cannot be kept apart by couplings.  The question always arises as to how the pipeline company is able to keep the batches separated.  Of course, the answer to this question is that the products do mix; however, the area of mixture at the point of contact between two products is held to a minimum by keeping the pipeline always full and under positive pressure, and operating at relatively high velocity.  This results in turbulent flow.  If the product moved in a smooth or laminar flow, the liquid near the center would go faster than that near the pipe wall, and the mixing would be appreciable.  Another way that we minimize this mixture is by proper scheduling of similar products adjacent to each other, or in cycles, in order that mixing will not be detrimental to either product.  There is always some mixing, but it is only a fraction of a given batch.  At intermediate terminal points this is not a problem, since the operator can take a “heart cut” from the batch as it flows by.  At end­point terminals, where the complete product stream is delivered, operators separate the interface and it is placed in special tanks insuring product purity for the customer batch.

For pipeline operation, various shipper companies must have facilities for getting their product into the pipeline system, and then must have adequate tankage at the delivery terminals for receiving such product.  Most pipeline companies provide tankage at the originating stations; however, initially  it was decided that we would minimize such tankage and, for the most part, oil companies would pump directly into our input pump station.

Since tankage and truck loading facilities at the various terminals would represent a considerable investment for each shipper, we took the aggressive position by offering the oil companies several different plans which would quickly enable them to use our system.  Our Plan “AI” is a plan where the shipper builds and operates its  own terminal facilities.  Five of our initial shippers selected this plan.  Our Plan “C” was one where the pipeline company builds and operates terminal tankage for a shipper, and the shipper owns and operates his own truck  loading rack facilities.  One shipper initially selected this plan; however over the years others have followed.  Our Plan “D” was the most popular plan since it was one where the pipeline company builds and operates tankage and terminal facilities for the shipper.  The fee or charge for each plan depended on investment and operational cost involved.  Several other modifications of these plans have been adopted since our original construction; however,  these are the basic plans still in effect.

In April of 1955, the United States Air Force finalized its interest in securing pipeline deliveries at four of its major air bases in Arizona and California.  This additional volume,  of course, increased the importance of and the need for  a pipeline in the Arizona area.

After preliminary survey,  it was decided that approximately sixty percent of our  original pipeline system could be economically located on railroad right of way.  Since this pipeline system was to cost more than $25,000 per mile and since railroads are confronted with grade restrictions,  it was sometimes more economical to leave the railroad right of way and  procure additional right of way from private owners in order to construct a shorter system.

The originating pump station on the Los Angeles to Phoenix system is located at Watson, California, which is a point conveniently situated in relation to the several oil company refineries which it serves.  A thirteen-mile, 24-inch line paralleling the existing 16-inch Watson to Norwalk, California segment of the Los Angeles to Phoenix system was placed in service in March 1972.  Currently,  the maximum rate on this line is 10,100 barrels per hour and averages 191,000 barrels per day.  The original 16-inch line from Watson to Norwalk now serves the San Diego Pipeline system exclusively.  Initial design capacity of the Watson to Colton, California line was 53,000 barrels per day for gasoline; however, by the end of 1976 it had increased to more than 242,000 barrels per day.  Passing through the Air Force Petroleum Depot at Norwalk, California, the line size diminishes to 16 inches.  A pump at Norwalk was put into operation in 1977 to increase throughput.  On its journey toward Colton a booster pump station at La Habra has been added and commercial jet fuel volumes are diverted to serve the Ontario, California Airport.  At Colton, California, a point essentially situated to serve the Riverside-San Bernardino, California area, a combination delivery terminal and main line pump station was established during the original construction phases.  Storage tankage and pumping facilities were also provided at this point for further handling of aviation products through a 14-mile long, 6-inch lateral line extending from Colton to March Air Force Base near Riverside.  In 1968, a similar lateral pipeline was also constructed to serve nearby Norton Air Force Base.  At Colton, a pipeline for handling Southern Pacific diesel volumes at the new Colton Yard was placed in operation in early 1973.

A 12-inch line extends 356 miles from Colton to Phoenix by way of Niland, California, and Yuma, Arizona.  A delivery terminal is also located at Niland, and there has since been added at Yuma, Arizona, a 9-mile long, 6-inch lateral line to serve the Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station at that location.  In 1957, a  30-mile, 6-inch lateral was also added from Niland to Imperial,  California, for providing delivery and terminal facilities in the Imperial Valley area, including the Naval Air Station at El Central, California.  The  stream was initially pumped from Colton to Phoenix without intermediate booster pumping, as shipper volume increased, a remote-controlled pump station was added at Yuma in 1959.  A capacity expansion of the Colton-Phoenix segment of this system was undertaken in 1973 with the addition of booster stations at Thousand Palms, Glamis, Growler, and Palo Verde; as well as breakout facilities and associated pumping equipment at Niland and Yuma.

The originating pump station on the El Paso to Phoenix system is situated conveniently to the refineries which it serves in the Texas area.  An 8-inch line extends 426 miles to Phoenix by way of Lordsburg, New Mexico, and Tucson, Arizona.  A delivery terminal at Tucson provides facilities for various commercial shippers as well as tankage and pumping facilities to handle military products to serve Davis-Monthan Air Force Base located seven miles away.  Original capacity of the line was 14,500 barrels per day on gasoline; however, during the years, to meet shipper needs, other pump stations were added and later a parallel 12-inch line between El Paso and Tucson was added to handle required volume.  In 1973, a 6-inch parallel line to the existing 8-inch line, both of which carried product from the Texas area, was engineered to reverse its flow from Phoenix to Tucson.  This, in effect, made Phoenix the end-point terminal for product coming from El Paso, and Tucson the end-point terminal for product coming from the West Coast.  A large group of oil companies have established terminals at both of these locations to take advantage of the flexibility of these lines.  Some oil companies are connected to receive product both from El Paso, as well as Los Angeles, whereas others are restricted to deliveries from one system or the other.  Quality control tankage and pumping facilities were also provided at Phoenix for further shipment of military product to Luke Air Force Base through an 18-mile long, 6-inch lateral to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and through the reversed 6-inch line to supply Williams Air Force Base.

As previously mentioned, approximately sixty percent of this system is located on railroad right of way; however, significant amounts are located in city streets, on county roads, and on private lands.  The first thirty miles of 16-inch line in the Los Angeles Basin is situated in all four categories.  Conventional pipeline easements were taken across private lands.  Franchises for use of city and county roads were obtained.  In the planning of the portion of the line on Southern Pacific’s rights of way, only a few special measures were necessary.  Every attempt possible to locate the pipeline a maximum distance from mainline trackage.  In general, thirty inches of cover over the pipe was maintained, except when additional depth was desirable.  In planning the most economical location, it was necessary to switch back and forth under the trackage, and at these points the line was cased.  In other locations where Southern Pacific’s trackage was located in narrow cuts or fills, it was necessary to leave the railroad right of way completely for economical construction.

Pipelines are not restricted by excessive grades as are the railroads; however, when a pipeline crosses mountainous terrain,  such as the 5,200 foot elevation on our line between El Paso and Phoenix, it is only necessary to add horsepower and possibly stronger pipe.  These conditions,  of course,  require  the use of high operating pressures.  For example,  on one of our  6-inch pipelines a pump station discharge pressure of 2,600 lbs. per square inch is required.  To minimize required steel tonnage, high test line pipe was used.  Wall thickness of the pipe varied from 1/4 inch to 7/32 inch thickness, depending on the pressure conditions for that particular location.

To prevent, or at least minimize corrosion, all of the lines were coated.  In the congested Los Angeles area where corrosion leaks would be critical, we used somastic coating, which is a very effective and tough asphalt asbestos coating.  All other lines in the original system were coated over the ditch with hot asphalt enamel, together with glass and felt wrap.  The most common measure of protection to the pipe is cathodic protection (an active electrolytic process).  Cathodic protection (pipe) is accomplished by placing sacrificial anodes in the form of bars of steel or iron and impressing enough outside current to the system to cause the sacrificial cathodes to corrode rather than the pipe.

Block gate valves were initially installed at approximate 20-mile intervals for emergency and maintenance purposes.  Intermediate valves have also been installed for added safeguards.  The crossings of six  major waterways were made with pipeline suspension bridges.  The largest of these spans is across the San Pedro River in New Mexico with an unsupported span of 1,020 feet.

In order to provide one an idea of the physical plant, the following is a review the facilities at a typical pump station such as the Company’s Watson Station in Los Angeles.  Pipelines from six major refineries located up to twelve miles away inject directly into the Watson tankage.  Refinery pumps were re-sized to handle 7,500 barrels per hour input rate to Watson by the end of 1976, while Watson’s discharge rate is approximately 10, 000 barrels per hour.  The product first passes through water filter separators which remove water, dirt, and other foreign matter.  This, of course, protects the Company’s pumps and other equipment and improves the quality of the product.  The product then passes through carefully calibrated meters for custody receipt purposes.  The pipeline is responsible for the product from this point.  Next, the product moves through our main line pumping units where pressure is provided for moving it to the next pump station or terminal.  With the exception of two remote turbine booster stations, the pumping units on our system are electric-driven centrifugal units.  The horsepower required at a particular pump station varies, of course, with the line and rate of flow.  In order to minimize the number of employees required for operations, all of the pump stations are specifically designed to safely protect the equipment, that is, the main line units will automatically shut down when the suction pressure is too low or the discharge pressure too high, when the bearing temperature on the pumps or motors are too high, when the case temperature on the pump is too high, or when a low instrument air  pressure condition exists.  The alarm panel in addition to having indicating lights, also incorporates the use of an audio buzzer system in the control room itself and a loud-sounding horn for the outside area.  When something goes wrong and an alarm condition exists, the buzzer and horn sound and the panel indicates the existing condition.  Again  to minimize the number of employees required, many of our valves and other equipment are remotely controlled from the pump station control room; that is, the operator can control the performance of such equipment without leaving the control room.  From this point, they can also remotely gauge all tanks, and observe from instruments other additional information, such as temperatures, specific gravity, pressures, and so forth.

Throughout Southern Pacific Pipe Lines, San Diego Pipeline Company, and Black Mesa Pipeline Company, an in-depth look is continuously taken as to the possible effects our facilities may have on the environment.  Installation of vapor recovery units, improved oil-water separators, spill containment devices, and the latest fire-fighting equipment have been made to help protect the environment.

Communication between all pump stations and terminals with our products movement section in Los Angeles is provided by teletype over Southern Pacific’s microwave system.  This is also supplemented by private and commercial telephones at each location.

The actual movement of product through our pipeline system is controlled by our products movement section in Los Angeles.  By securing shipper requirements thirty days in advance, a pumping schedule is established.  Batches of similar products must be pumped in sequence to minimize intermix problems, and each batch must be coordinated with refinery departments, and deliveries must be coordinated with marketing departments.  All of details and more are carefully coordinated in planning pumping schedules.  Innumerable factors can arise to change these schedules after they go into effect; therefore, to carry out pumping schedules and to monitor pipeline flow, a full-time scheduling center is maintained.  After using computerized analysis of input data furnished by shippers, cycles are created, and then depending on planned pumping rates, pumping schedules are created with departure and arrival dates for each terminal.  Schedulers, on duty twenty four hours each day, also follow each batch through the system on a scaled paper tape.  The position of all batches can be determined at any time, and a terminal can be given a recheck on time of arrival for a particular batch change.  Hourly meter readings at input and output points relayed by teletype permit the Scheduler to determine whether in-flow balances out-flow.  A persistent loss indicates a possible leak, which will require shutting down and pressure testing the section involved.

All of our pipelines are patrolled each week with a small, fixed-wing air­plane, primarily looking

for construction activity that might endanger our line, leaks, erosion, and the like.

Over the years since original construction, our system has been expanded by adding a new main pipeline from the Richmond/Concord area near San Francisco to Reno, Nevada, totaling 799 miles, with laterals and terminals at San Jose, Stockton, Bradshaw, Sacramento, Roseville, Chico, and Reno.  Average barrels per day through Concord,  both south and eastward, are approximately 163,000 barrels per day.  This system also serves seven military installations: Mather and McClellan Air Force Bases near Sacramento, Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, Fallon Naval Air Station, Nevada and the Nevada Air National Guard at the  Reno, Nevada airport, Castle Air Force Base near Merced, and Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

In April 1963, the Company joined forces with Santa Fe in building a jointly-owned, 122-mile pipeline from Norwalk to San Diego,  California,  in addition to building its own 131-mile pipeline in September of 1962 from Portland, Oregon to Albany and Eugene, Oregon.  Expansion of the Portland to Eugene system during 1973 included a booster station at Salem and connections to Portland General Electric Company’s Harborton and Bethel plants.  The 111-mile Bakersfield-Fresno system was added in July of 1964, and in 1969, the Company’s  San Francisco Bay Area pipeline system was completed to serve Oakland International Airport,  Brisbane,  Bayshore Yard near Brisbane, and San Francisco International Airport.  In addition to military base deliveries, at the end of 1976 we were operating our approximate 2,500 miles of product pipeline,  21 pump or booster stations,  20 terminal facilities (14 of which have loading rack facilities), and nine other delivery points, handling in excess of 206,000,000 barrels of product per year for 27 different shippers.

The system is divided into three districts, with superintendents and adequate maintenance staff of electrical, mechanical, corrosion and pipeline maintenance personnel headquartered at Tucson, Colton, Roseville.

Our pipeline system is highly automated,  therefore staffing requirements are minor compared to many industries.  At the end of 1976, we were operating plant facilities with a value of $188 million with 363 employees, 114 of whom were assigned to our general office in Los Angeles.


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