What is a Switching District?

One common characteristic of switching districts are unusual track arrangements, such as this one, necessitated by the constraints of pre-exisiting urban form.

Railroad terminology is evolutionary in nature. It is a mixture of technical communication written by managers and operations gurus, and an industrial slang composed on the fly by laborers in the field, searching for the clearest and most efficient way of doing their jobs.

The term "switching district" is no exception. It has numerous definitions. In some cases it is used synonymously with "switching zones", areas where more than one railroad has access to the same shippers via the same track through contractual agreements. In other cases it refers to areas with a high density of rail-served industry, loosely being synonymous with an industrial area. In other cases it refers specifically to industrial zones with enough traffic to warrant their own dedicated job (train).

For the purpose of this project, I will offer my own definition of a switching district:

A switching district comprises of a rail line constructed in the pre-Atomic age, located within a densely urbanized area, and often employing extensive street trackage. They are generally only a portion of a larger railroad company, and their primary purpose is to generate traffic from multiple industrial customers.

The term "switching district" can be easily conflated for street trackage, that is any track that is placed within the paved area of a street. Indeed there are many instances of such trackage in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, including Hillsboro, Newberg, Salem, and Oregon City. Such trackage was commonly used to get a track through a congested or urban area where there was not a lot of right-of-way available. They may have a few switches serving industries along them, but they are not switching districts unless their primary purpose is to serve industry rather than be a through route for trains. In this, the strictest sense, only Salem stands out as a true switching district, having had multiple industrial customers served through two separate railroad companies operating on a single street.

The only exception I have allowed to this rule is the inclusion of East First Street. Not only was this the SP Valley Main to California but it also was not paved. It was, however, laid out in place of First Street and bears street-signs for it to this day. It also runs through the heart of the Central Eastside Industrial District, home to switching districts for the Portland Traction Company, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, and the Union Pacific, all on parallel streets. Lastly it was densely packed with spurs that served industries along its route in a similar fashion to these other lines.

There have been many railroads serving Portland over the years, and in addition, the corporate politics of mergers and takeovers has been so complex that attaching a line to the name of only a single builder is nearly impossible. Labeling each with every railroad whose fingers touched it, however, is very cumbersome.

A map of Portland’s Post-War switching districts.

For the purposes of clarity, I will identify lines with their owners in the post-war era. These “players” are as follows:

Northern Pacific Terminal Co [NPT]. Owned by the three major railroads of Portland — 40% by UP, 40% by NP, 20% by SP — the NPT Co.’s main charge was operating Portland Union Station, along with its associated mail and express facilities, its coachyard, and transfer traffic between the Hill aligned roads and those aligned with Harriman. NPT’s facilites were almost exclusively on the West side. Today the NPT Co. is known as the Portland Terminal Railway, and is still a joint terminal company, though it no longer manages Union Station.

Portland Traction [PTC]. Owned originally by the city’s power utility, the Portland Traction was the interurban remnant of a once extensive electrified passenger railroad. Its standard-gauge track was almost exclusively on the East side, and was purchased from the local bus company in 1961 by UP and SP jointly. The PTC effectively ceased to exist in the early 1990s when it abandoned large portions of it’s line; what remains was sold to East Portland Traction, an independent operator, which in turn became part of the Oregon Pacific in 1998.

Southern Pacific [SP]. The 800 pound gorilla of Oregon, SP had the most extensive holdings in the city. It built — or bought out — both on the East and West banks, but didn’t venture further north than Union Station. Non-mainline portions of its switching lines are primarily abandoned, with some sections surviving in non-freight capacities. SP was absorbed by the Union Pacific in 1996.

Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway [SP&S]. The latecomer to the Portland rail scene, the SP&S was James J. Hill’s attempt to break open a Harriman monopoly state, and it largely worked. SP&S inherited a portion of the NP’s pre-Stampede Pass mainline north out of Portland on the Columbia’s south bank, as well as acquiring switching districts primarily on the west side of the Willamette by purchasing the United Railways and the Oregon Electric. It also had limited east side operations near Belmont Street thanks to an agreement with U.P.. The SP&S was absorbed by BN in 1970, and is now part of the BNSF Railway, though some tracks are now operated by the Portland and Western.

Union Pacific [UP]. Having paid heavily to secure the city’s plum jewel, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company in 1889, the UP had its primary switching areas on the East side. Most of these districts are now gone, victims of progress; what remains is still operated by UP.

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