Desert Yard is the common name for the Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific) railroad yard in West Oakland.
The northern end of the Nimitz Freeway, as it connects to the southern end of the MacArthur Maze, flies over the yard. On the west side, from south to north, is a new dense 3-story apartment complex associated with the West Oakland Specific Plan, the abandoned 16th Street Station, a bunch of warehouses, and a Caltrans maintenance facility (under I-580). On the east side is the former Oakland Army Base and an EBMUD sewage treatment facility, which makes the place smell bleachy yet fetid.
The area was formerly marsh and water, but was filled in 1912. Southern Pacific promptly built the 16th Street Station. A good map of the fill project can be found here. Desert Yard got its name because when it opened during World War II as an emergency facility it lacked a water tower to refill steam locomotives. The yard used to be much larger and more significant. It originated local trains that served the warehouses and factories throughout West Oakland. The tracks to those businesses are now abandoned, but they remain embedded in the pavement between the yard and Market Street. Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific in 1996, so they own the yard now. The yard was substantially reworked when the replacement for the Cypress Structure was constructed.
The yard originates and receives both Intermodal (shipping containers) and General Manifest (other rail cars) traffic. Most of the containers come from or end up in the Port of Oakland. Between 2 and 5 freight trains day depart the yard daily. They proceed geographically northbound, through Emeryville and onward. Most of the work happens in the southern part of the yard, near the yard office.
Amtrak passenger trains, including regional service, frequently pass through the yard. Since passenger traffic takes priority over freight traffic, Union Pacific freight trains must wait for approaching Amtrak trains to pass before they leave the facility. This can cause delays in freight train departures, especially around peak hours.
People often dispose of trash illegally by driving pickup trucks full of trash into the yard. To deter illegal dumpers other trespassers, Union Pacific in mid-2013 installed a new fence (of questionable efficacy) along the eastern interior of the yard. A Union Pacific police officer also patrols the area sporadically. Piles of trash still show up.
Homeless people sometimes sleep in the yard, especially near the northern end. However, Union Pacific is less tolerant of trespassing in Desert Yard than Caltrans apparently is in the adjacent maintenance facility, so more campers opt to sleep there.
An abandoned railroad flyover, built of creosote-treated wooden trusswork, remains in the yard, near 34th Street, above the yard tracks and below the interstate ramp. It stands out as the only feature in the yard that retains an old-school rustic railroady look. The rest of the yard appears comparatively modern.
Links and References
"Out West," Harre W. Demoro, Pacific News, February 1979