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It's eight o' clock Saturday morning at the Tijuana train station, and the locals gather to gawk at 250 gringos, most outfitted with expensive cameras and video gear, waiting for a ride. The Tijuana station is not really so much a station as a boarded-up, one-room shack, up to its walls in dried mud, smack next to the border, where the tracks of the old San Diego and Arizona Eastern railroad head from the United States through an oversized, rusty iron gate to go south into Mexico.

This is a special bunch of tourists, having shelled out at least $178 apiece to ride a rickety train from Tijuana to Tecate and on to Campo. The tour organizer, a retired railroader out of Portola who specializes in booking railway tours of the world, calls today's event the "San Diego and Arizona Eastern Spectacular."

The promoter has managed to attract train buffs from around the country to this dusty way-station. It sits next to a small factory, where workmen churn out plaster-of-paris busts of Madonna, Elvis, and Bugs Bunny to be peddled to the tourists at the main border-crossing just a few hundred feet away. When the locals discover the Americans stranded there, small Mexican children appear to sell them gum.

The afficionados have been bused from the Santa Fe depot downtown. While they wait for the train -- which is late making its way into Tijuana from the San Diego Railroad Museum in Campo about 60 miles to the east -- the crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly men and couples, some with grandchildren in tow, peer through the 20-foot metal fence at the United States side of the border. The hill beyond is studded with state-of-the art motion sensors, listening devices, and floodlights, all part of Operation Gatekeeper, the Clinton administration's war on illegal Mexican aliens.

Every 20 minutes or so, a four-wheel-drive Border Patrol van painted green and white stops along the American side of the border, and its occupants peer back through the gate and exchange pleasantries with the Americans waiting on the other side.

"Where you from?" asks the green-uniformed Border Patrol agent at the wheel. The tourists shout out their replies: "San Francisco!" "Santa Cruz!" "Seattle!"

"Anybody from Colorado?" asks the agent. "That's where I'm from." No one replies and the agent drives on.

On the Mexican side of the border, the tracks are overgrown with weeds, but this isn't any ordinary set of tracks. This is the future route of what certain San Diego politicians like to call the "Jobs Train" and what others, especially South Bay Congressman Duncan Hunter, see as a gateway for more illegal aliens.

To its sponsors, the jobs train would be the climax of a years-long battle to revive freight service along the old San Diego and Arizona Eastern route from Plaster City in the Imperial Valley to just south of downtown San Diego, where thousands of tons of everything from autos to wheat flour would be trans-shipped through a reopened portal to eastern markets. The dream dies hard. It was the same one held by John D. Spreckels, Jim Copley, and a long line of other San Diego mercantilists desperate to catch up with Los Angeles.

The line was built about 80 years ago, then effectively shut down in 1976 when a hurricane swept up from the Gulf of California and washed out key sections in the area east of Campo. Later, it was bought with California gasoline-tax money by the San Diego Metropolitan Development Transit Board as part of its trolley-building deal with Pete Wilson. The MTDB and its leaders, Maureen O'Connor and then-state Senator Jim Mills, dangled the right-of-way in front of the San Diego business establishment as kind of a quid pro quo for permission to build the trolley, and though the trolley was built, the re-opening of the freight line to the east never came to pass.

The latest push has come from Democratic Congressman Bob Filner and San Diego Councilman Juan Vargas, who want to use federal loan guarantees to move the project along. Opposing Congressman Duncan Hunter cites a government report that the train would add to illegal immigration and cost too much. But the biggest uncertainty now comes from the government of Mexico, which owns the 50 or so miles of tracks that snake from downtown Tijuana through the Mexican backcountry and into Tecate, finally returning to the United States just south of Campo.

Mexico City sought to "privatize" its part of the railroad last year, but instead of awarding an operating contract to Railtex, a United States company that runs MTDB's side of the operation, it gave it to a well-connected Mexican-owned outfit called Grupo Morphy. Earlier this year, Grupo Morphy balked at paying its bid price, and the deal is now said to be under "renegotiation."

The mystery of what is going on behind the scenes in Mexico City remains as deep as the unsolved 1994 conspiracy to assassinate Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio on the streets of Tijuana. Without a permanent operator, there isn't any money to invest in fixing up the picturesque but perilous route through the Mexican countryside, and American politicos are powerless to do anything about it.

Some think the Mexicans are making a point. While it sorts out the Grupo Morphy contract, the Mexican government is allowing Railtex to continue freight runs on the part of the line that runs from Tijuana to Tecate. Especially important to the Mexicans is the fact that Tijuana depends on rail-delivered imports of liquid natural gas -- the city's primary source of cooking and heating fuel -- from the U.S.

Today, though, the tourists own the tracks. The train arrives at the Tijuana station from Campo 50 minutes late, towed by an old Southern Pacific diesel engine. The passengers snap hundreds of photographs as the train eases down the tracks, its horn blaring at every grade crossing. The antique coaches are painted a dusty military brown and look like something the Russian army might use transferring prisoners to Siberia. As the doors slam open, a little old lady decked out in train gear is the first to scramble on.

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