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A few questions about the current and 96-98 NWP.

I have a handful of questions about the NWP's current and previous operations, and this seems to be the best place to get answers.

1. Is the current NWP making money? My understanding is that it only has about 4 customers, but there are several more in the process of converting to rail shipping and many more with spurs in Redwood valley and Willits that are waiting. If not, is there reasonable hope it will?

1a. Is there a publicly available "game plan" for the NWP? By that, I mean have they clarified what their goals are for the next few years, where they plan on offering freight service, etc. 

2. When will the NWP reach Willits? I understand that, baring some massively revitalized mining and logging industries, the railroad will never go north of Willits again. But Willits itself seems a very achievable goal. It seems to me that a major potential shipper would be the Willits and Fort Bragg lumber industries, so I can definitely imagine there is economic incentive.  I've seen dates thrown around from 2011 (back in '09 when they were building the Windsor line) to 2025 throughout my googling, and I figured there might be someone here that knows the current plans of the NCRA. When do they plan to be able to get freight service to Willits? 

3. Any reason why they haven't repainted the locomotive painted in Santa Fe blue? Is that on some kind of super-long term lease from the BNSF or something?

4. Why did the 96-98 NWP fail? I've seen some stuff about an accident in the Willits Yard taking out their motive power, and something about an economic failure, but I haven't seen a specific reason. Is the line just too expensive to run? Or was too much money spent trying to keep the Eel River line running? Or was there something more serious/specific that led to its failure?

5. Why didn't the California Northern take over the line after the NWP failed? They ran it for several years, correct? Why didn't the NCRA just sell the line to them?

6. Is there anything that we can do to help the railroad? Obviously spreading the word of its return, but I mean is there some form of volunteer work the railroad needs? Some community organization that would help them out? Hell, has anyone offered to help redesign their website?

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1: I have no idea. Its been back and forth but as far as I know right now, no. We'll see if the shippers up north do come through. Fingers crossed!

1a: The NCRA has announced they will try to reach Willits as quickly as possible, and that they and NWPco are currently pursuing grants and money to pay for repairs north to Healdsburg, Ukiah and Redwood Valley.

2: Willits is waiting on time right now. There is no exact date to reach Willits, other than as soon as they can. Its mainly money issues, and right now they're waiting on money to reach Healdsburg. 

3: Its a backup/leased unit from BUGX, and it is no longer a BNSF unit. It's not their's to paint, either. Mike Davis should comment here on this one, he knows more about 1322 than I do. 

4: Too many reasons. There was some money laundering, not enough motive power even before the wreck, and back luck with storms those years. 

6: NCRA can't sell the line to them because the NCRA was literally made to take ownership and prevent the line from being abandoned... If it was sold to the CFNR then they could abandon it whenever they wanted to.

7: I've asked this before and I'm very interested to know.  

See the website discussion, we posted about a month or so ago about it. 

Hows that? I hope that helps to cover the basics, others can dig deeper here too. 

Thank you for your answers! They are most definitely helpful, and do cover the basics. 

I'll take a quick shot at expanding on some of Chad's answers.


2. When will the NWP reach Willits? I understand that, baring some massively revitalized mining and logging industries, the railroad will never go north of Willits again. But Willits itself seems a very achievable goal. It seems to me that a major potential shipper would be the Willits and Fort Bragg lumber industries, so I can definitely imagine there is economic incentive.  I've seen dates thrown around from 2011 (back in '09 when they were building the Windsor line) to 2025 throughout my googling, and I figured there might be someone here that knows the current plans of the NCRA. When do they plan to be able to get freight service to Willits? 

Well, for starters there hasn't been any lumber industry to speak of in Fort Bragg for a decade now, and even longer in Willits.  The Fort Bragg mill closed not too many years after the railroad did and is now a vacant lot, and there hasn't been any sawmill of any size in Willits since maybe the middle 1980s.  Willits did serve for a while as a reload point from some of the Eureka area mills after the north end closed, but almost all of those mills are now gone as well.  I wonder just how much traffic is actually waiting for them should they ever actually make it to Willits...

4. Why did the 96-98 NWP fail? I've seen some stuff about an accident in the Willits Yard taking out their motive power, and something about an economic failure, but I haven't seen a specific reason. Is the line just too expensive to run? Or was too much money spent trying to keep the Eel River line running? Or was there something more serious/specific that led to its failure?

As Chad alluded to, there were a lot of reasons.  The most immediate reason why the railroad closed in 1998 was an emergency order the Federal Railroad Administration issued right around Thanksgiving shutting the railroad down until a long list of immediate safety hazards and deferred maintenance issues could be corrected.  However, there was a long list of factors leading up to this order- top ones in my book are as follows:  (a) When the State legislature created NCRA, a companion bill to fund the agency was not passed, creating huge financial and cash flow issues that have always plagued the body; (b) NCRA and the North Coast Railroad never were in any sort of a stable financial position after they bought the north end in 1992- NCRA worked hard to develop a healthy traffic base, and in a lot of ways they succeeded- however, California experienced a number of very wet winters in the middle 1990s, and the railroad was hard pressed to operate more then eight or nine months out of each year, with the rest spent repairing the line and reopening it after the latest mega-storm, and the railroad would just about have the shippers believing in the railroad again and shipping enough to make the railroad stable, if not almost viable, when the next series of storms would again close the railroad for several months; (c) Neither NCRA nor North Coast Railroad had adequate or acceptable accounting systems in place- nothing to track where the money coming in got spent.  NCRA received disaster relief monies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help pay for damage repair after a number of wet winters closed the north end down during the middle 1990s, and with no cash flow coming in from freight NCRA used the FEMA money for things like meeting payroll and other expenses upon which the FEMA money could not legally be spent.  Thus, when another major storm wiped out the north end in the first week of January 1998, when the railroad went to FEMA for more money, FEMA demanded a full accounting of where their money had been spent in previous winters, and when the railroad could not even begin to provide an answer FEMA held up all further money until an accounting system had been set up and safeguards put in place to ensure FEMA money got spent on only what it could be spent upon, and that was the end of the north end; (d) without traffic from the north end, the south end simply did not have enough traffic to be a viable operation.  There was a lot of shady stuff going on between NCRA and the private operator they brought in after the north end closed.  Meanwhile, FRA and California PUC inspections turned up more and more deficiencies in track maintenance, personnel training, and general condition of the physical plant, and you can only tell an agency like the FRA that you have fixed the problems when you in fact haven't before the FRA loses what little sense of humor they had to begin with, resulting in the emergency order shuttering the railroad until things really got fixed. 

As for motive power, when NCRA assumed operations over the south end in 1996, they at the time had seven operable locomotives, the ex-Central California Traction #70 (owned by NCRA) and the six leased ex-SP GP-9s.  NCRA/NWP leased eight more locomotives from Omnitrax in 1996- four GP-9s, four SD-9s.  The SD-9s were garbage and did not last long, and the wreck in the Willits yard destroyed two of the GP-9s and damaged a third.  Motive power was always an issue afterwards, though things got a little better after a locomotive leaser set up shop at Schellville- that improved the railroad's ability to find enough operable locomotives to keep the railroad running each day, but it was still a losing battle. 

One other factor that may have contributed was the relatively poor service the Northwestern Pacific provided after 1996.  Operations north of Willits were fairly simple and straight forward- trains would leave from Willits and Scotia, swap cars at Island Mountain, and return, and then each night NCR/NWP would run a pair of locals, one working north from Scotia and the other south from Korblex that would meet at Eureka to swap cars in the wee hours of the morning.  When they operated the south end, the California Northern handed the NWP with a series of three overlapping locals that would both handle on-line switching and expedite moving overhead cars to and from Willits.  When NCRA's NWP replaced them in 1996, they replaced CFNR's three trains with two long turns starting from Willits and Schellville that were supposed to meet and swap cars around Healdsburg, except that the railroad generally lacked enough locomotives, crews, or hours in the day to make it work on a consistent basis, and quite often trains would die on hours of service before reaching their final destination. 

One side note to this that often gets overlooked- the previous contract operator actually did get a portion of the south end opened and operational I think in the spring of 2001, but the revival lasted only a couple months before NCRA booted the contractor off the property over some contractual disputes, resulting in many following years of litigation as the operator and NCRA sued each other.  That litigation tied up any possible revival for the railroad for quite a few years.    

5. Why didn't the California Northern take over the line after the NWP failed? They ran it for several years, correct? Why didn't the NCRA just sell the line to them?

California Northern leased the southern end of the line (Schellville-Willits) from the Southern Pacific in 1993, and their operations lasted until 1996.  Keep in mind the series of transactions at play here:  (1) NWP sells line north of Willits to the Eureka Southern in 1984  (2) Eureka Southern declares bankruptcy in 1986 and operates under the direction of a trustee  (3) North Coast Railroad Authority, owned by Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties, purchased the Eureka Southern in 1992 and sets up the North Coast Railroad to handle operations  (4) SP leases the south end of the NWP to the California Northern in 1993  (5) In 1996, Sonoma County joins NCRA, who in turn purchases the line from Willits south to Healdsburg.  NCRA, Marin County, and Golden Gate Bridge District jointly form Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority, who purchase the line from Healdsburg to Schellville.  NCRA retains a freight easement over the NWPRA line; North Coast Railroad changes its name to Northwestern Pacific and assumes operation of the entire line to Schellville, replacing the California Northern.  Many years later SMART purchases the south end from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority.  NCRA's Northwestern Pacific lasts until around the middle months of 1998, when operations are turned over to the first private contractor; both that contractor and the current one have both used the NWP name. 

As Chad indicated, the railroad may not have been NCRA/NWPRA's to sell to the California Northern, even if the interest had been there; however, by 1998 the interest most definitely was NOT there, especially on the CFNR part- for starters, anyone buying the line at that time would have been facing many millions of dollars worth of immediate repairs just to get the FRA emergency order lifted, and without the north end and the lumber traffic from Eureka the potential return on investment simply did not exist.  By all accounts the California Northern was glad to be rid of the NWP anyway, as it accounted for the vast majority of their m-o-w budget and other operating expenses.   

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV

>Well, for starters there hasn't been any lumber industry to speak of in Fort Bragg for a decade now, and even longer in Willits. 

Are you sure? I'm a Willits resident and there appears to still be quite a bit of lumberly actions occurring around here. I believe the Redwood Mill near the recycling center is still running, even if only as storage right now, and there was news of Shusters logging starting back up in 2013. There is also a large collection of fresh logs laying around the older mill next to the Willits Classification Yard. Regardless of that, there are semi's loaded with both finished and freshly cut timber passing through Willits daily, and I ended up behind a few that were on highway 20 leaving Fort Bragg. Are all of these from bigger mills up near Eureka? 

Here's a more general question, in your opinion, does the NWP at least have a chance at succeeding? Particularly a Willits south line. Or is Eureka probably the only place still generating enough cargo to support a railroad? It seems to be a somewhat positive thing that the railroad had more cargo than it could handle, rather than a lack of it, but I guess it creates a lot of problems of its own. 


Alec-

I'm looking at things as the difference between lumbering activity by itself versus lumbering activity on a scale that might need and support a railroad.  In scrolling around Willits on Google Earth (imagery dated 17 August 2013) I see two small log decks, one between the highway and the California Western towards the west side of town and the other doesn't appear to be attached to much of anything and is up by the highway.  The link to the Shusters site you provided is interesting, but if you look at it the article talks about logging a small area, with the logs delivered to Schmidbauer Lumber in Eureka or a small mill at Philo.  At the same time I see clear evidence of at least two large sawmills that used to be located along the NWP from the yard north and another two or three larger sawmills sites along the California Western leaving town.  The only shipper I've ever seen active in Willits itself in my lifetime is the sawmill (I think last operated by Louisiana Pacific) located a mile or two north of Willits, not too far from where the railroad crosses the highway.  That mill closed down somewhere around 1990.  You are also correct there is still a fair amount of lumber still being manufactured in the Eureka area, and my bet would be the vast majority, if not all, of the trucks of which you speak originate there. 

As for your second question...my general answer is that, in my opinion, the NWP has at least a chance of succeeding, providing that they don't have to cover much beyond their own operating costs (i.e., someone else pays for the costs associated with owning and especially maintaining the right-of-way).  The current NWP is being run by a group of people who seem to have a reputation of knowing what they are doing, and they seem to have the knowledge and experience to pull it off...I just hope their financial rope is long enough.  The statements made by the outgoing NCRA board members about the sweetheart deal the current operator has tend to indicate the operator may have the kind of deal I describe, i.e. leaving them with essentially only their own operating and equipment costs to cover. 

Success or failure of the NWP will largely center around their ability to find rail traffic out of an area that just simply doesn't produce much rail traffic anymore.  If they do get to Willits, I see perhaps two traffic sources, namely a reload for lumber trucked down from Eureka and potential for some rock and aggregate traffic.  The "old" NWP did have both before the 1998 emergency order closing the line, with at least a couple of the Eureka mills loading centerbeams in the old yard and an aggregate quarry loading rock somewhere north of town.  One of the big negatives are that a lot of the shippers located south of Willits that provided a lot of traffic- particularly Ukiah- are closed and gone.    

There is an old rule suggesting that a shortline railroad, in order to remain viable, must handle an average of 100 carloads per mile of track per hear in order to remain viable.  If SMART is paying most maintenance costs for a lot of the track, this figure may be a little high for the NWP...but then again, given fuel costs alone to get trains over Ridge Hill, and the length the railroad has to go, it might be pretty close.  Anyway, a rough measuring of distance (because I am too lazy to go look it up) indicates the railroad extending as far north as Willits would need to generate 12,000-14,000 loads per year to remain viable. 

I'm not convinced the Eureka area contains enough freight to sustain a railroad anymore either...there are dreamers out there who see great possibilities for the Port facilities, and they might be right.  But they might be wrong as well.  In the meantime, I quite frankly see the railroad having problems getting traffic off of trucks or otherwise competing with other available reload sites in the area.  At some point, Willits as a railhead doesn't compete very well with, say, Union Pacific in the Redding area. 

Those are my thoughts...

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV    

 

  Too many miles......too little traffic,......to support a railroad link into Eureka.  Setting the Eel River aside, and looking at flat, dry, level terrain between Willits and Eureka, there just isn't enough traffic to warrant a railroad being rebuilt.  It would be economically, a very poor decision to rebuild.  Unless of course, Eureka became a lucrative deep water port, with containers and other freight being generated and hauled out by truck, until a rail link could be established.  You've gotta have a chicken, before you can get an egg.  A lumber reload in Willits, and someone to talk up industry in the Fort Bragg area, might ultimately be the ticket to keep both the NWP and California Western in the chips,....in the coming years.

Boy it may be the case that this current incarnation of the NWP only lasts until the next big recession. 

Alec:

As I have written several times on this site and will do so once again, in regard to your question #6, you can do a lot.  You can:

1.  Send a letter to your county Supervisor(s) or US Congress person asking them to support the NWP as a "green" alternative to diesel trucks on 101.  You have probably heard how much a train can haul on one gallon of fuel etc.

2.  Even better depending on where you live, start to have local meetings focused on traffic reduction as in rail vs trucks

3. When you shop at a lumber yard, Home Depot or even Bear Brewing, ask them if they are using rail as their primary shipper for incoming goods to combat pollution and traffic.  You would be surprised how effective this can be if enough people speak out about this and how you feel.

4.  Bumper stickers.  While I don't live in the Marin/Sonoma/Mendo area, I'd be willing to donate to a project to print bumper stickers that say something like "Get Trucks off of 101, Support the NWP" and with a web site address.

5.  Your comment about a web site in support would be a positive one.

Bottom line businesses will make choices about how to ship and in most cases, they will pick a service that is dependable.  The NWP has disappeared an option in the past while trucks are always available but probably more expensive depending on the type of load.  If businesses however see a "grass roots" type of movement in support of rail and advocated by their customers, this will go a long way to help get more traffic on the NWP and off of 101 which is what I want.

I'm a child of the '60's and we changed how grapes were distributed from the Calif. central valley via boycotts and advocacy.  You too can change the way things are shipped if you push.  It's up to you and others who want the NWP to succeed. 

By the way, I saw a comment from someone saying that the lumber industry is basically dead up north.  I can;t believe that as when I drove thru Asti a few weeks ago, Redwood Lumber's yard looked very full of new lumber ready to be shipped.

Richard

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