Dedicated to Sharing the Heritage of Redwood Empire Railroading
Today I wanted to talk about the NWP, in its current condition, and what it was like before FRA shut it down on the northern end.
For years, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad has been sitting idle on the northern end, the tracks slowly being retaken by nature. Massive tunnels along the Eel River Canyon have collapsed, blocking entry to some of the tunnels. The tracks are not faring well either, washouts are littered all over over the tracks, with some sections being washed out so bad, there is a massive gap in between the tracks. The last time the northern end was active was in 1997. North Coast Railroad #3190, and another NCR unit were moving freight cars from Eureka to Windsor ( I think), when reports of swinging track in the canyon came in. The crew of these locomotives were ordered to drop the string of freight cars at Island Mountain, and shortly after, they hurried back to Eureka. This would be the last train to set foot on these rails. Shortly after this happened, the railroad was hit by a series of floods that damaged the tracks. NCRA, or North Coast Rail Authority, tried to fix the line with the money that they had left, but fell short. The line was then deemed unsafe by FRA, and the line was closed for good.
The railroad would make a final run in 2001, when former CCT #70 moved the inside track car from Eureka down to Willits, before a massive flood took out the tracks for good. The "zombie trains" have been parked for over 15 years, and have been damaged by vandals. The copper and wiring have been completely ruined, and the trains who once had a North Coast Railroad paint scheme on the side are completely covered in graffiti. 70 was scrapped, and the other locomotives are stuck in Eureka. 2872 looks to be in better shape than the other locomotives, but I'm not sure if the others will be saved. In recent years, trains have started to operate on the southern end, but the northern end is still silent. My question is: Is it too late for the NWP to make a comeback on the northern portion of the line?
Is it too late? Not at all. It's never too late. It just takes money, a lot of money, and in order to justify that sort of money, a reasonable expectation of traffic that will show a return on the investment. With the forest products industry in decline (or is it, really, when second growth matures to harvesting size?) somebody is going to have to come up with a new need for rail freight out of the North Coast. Less expensive land up there and the Port of Humboldt may lure large industrial concerns and create a need for container rail transport. (Which will probably require raising clearances along the route to accommodate "double stacking.") The problem, however, is that it is a "chicken or the egg" situation. "Build it and they will come" is probably true to some extent, but who's got the bucks (half a billion to a billion?) to reengineer the entire line to current engineering standards (e.g. concrete and steel bridges, culverts, and so on in washout prone areas... the present RoW was built to 1914 standards!) on the bet that the traffic will follow. Realistically speaking, there's probably going to have to be some sort of "national interest" or "national security" reason to get the feds to pump the money into it. No private railroad company would do so without huge government subsidies when their capital can show a much more immediate return invested elsewhere. Perhaps some sort of federal "economic recovery zone" might justify funding. Unfortunately, the RoW was maintained on a "just put a bandaid on it" basis for so long (thanks a lot, SP, et al.!,) it's going to have to be entirely rebuilt from the ground up. I expect that if it were rebuilt to 21st Century engineering standards, a lot of the "most expensive to maintain RoW in the country" reputation it has had would become history. The other end of the issue, however, remains: who's going to build something like an automobile plant in Eureka when they can build one in Michigan or Alabama. It's going to call for some very creative business minds, and the neutralization of a lot the "environmentalists" counterproductive obstructionism, to get the job done. (Wise environmental stewardship is a good thing. Blocking everything in a misguided effort to return the world to its primordial state is not.) It will probably go the way of so many other RoWs... abandoned, built over, incorporated into one or another type of park or nature preserve, and then, after another century of development and population pressure, somebody will figure out, "Hey, we really need rail access up here!" They'll spend millions surveying, planning, and suing one another with taxpayers' money, only to discover that the best route was the one laid out two hundred years earlier, and then they'll have to spend exponentially more to recreate the route than they'd ever had to if they'd built it now and maintained correctly ever since. So it goes...
I will say this on the matter. The railroad authority has and will continue to do a better job moderating its property - both owned and easements granted to it - better than those who seek to claim pieces for their own agenda.
People forget that is more than rails to a railroad corridor. Communication companies and/or utilities use the corridor to deliver vital services - including power, water, and connectivity. Lest we not forget, SPRINT was born of the Southern Pacific's need for reliable communication between its divisions. I can tell you first-hand that having an active railroad on the corridor makes access and the speed of installation and repairs lightning-fast - many of the supporting structures such as conduit for signals/crossings and bridges rated for more than mere pedestrians ensure an actively-maintained set of infrastructure with many parties invested in its upkeep.
When you keep a rail corridor intact, you also end can end up with "excess" land that can have easements granted for staging construction equipment, erecting cell towers, and many more unconventional uses. If you've ever tried to do site and coordinate these arrangements with private property owners, you will quickly realize that these "excess" assets - often the first to be sold off or gutted in abandonment - are very valuable.
Anyway, those are my $0.02 concerning why it is important that any effort to maintain public ownership and stewardship of what remains of the north end of the NWP is not a lost cause.
I agree with Joe. One of the biggest problems is that, as I understand it, when the legislation passed creating the NCRA, the state agency created to restore the line to operation, the funding package that was supposed to accompany it was cut from the bill at the last minute. Since then, NCRA has been forced to "cannibalize" its assets, a few leases here, selling off property there, just to survive without the state funding it was supposed to get. They've done a fantastic job getting this far and I think they deserve a big "atta-boy" for it. They need funding, though. They can't keep living off of what's left forever.
I agree also. Could regular rail fans like us help out NRCA by raising money? If we could help, that would benefit in the end.
Know where rail fans can raise a half billion bucks to repair the RoW and another half a billion bucks to pay the legal fees to fight the eco-fascists in court? :-)
The best thing would be to support the NCRA by writing state legislators and also getting local Redwood Empire politicians to put pressure on Sacramento to pump money into the restoration of the line. It's one way to help the environment, getting semis off the highways! Every roll of toilet paper that's used in Eureka goes up 101 in a semi. If we want to do something about highway congestion down here, rail freight to the north coast is a viable solution. We certainly can't just keep widening 101 forever and, at the rate they go, no sooner do they get finished with one widening project than it's time to start the next one!
I agree, semi trucks have taken away too much freight from this railroad. Let's get this issue resolved!
"Could regular rail fans like us help out NRCA by raising money?".
My two cents for what it may or may not be worth is that this idea is not too far fetched. We certainly wouldn't have enough money to do much good but what we COULD do is become organized and get involved with some activism that might really make a difference.
First of all there are business leaders in the Humboldt Bay area that want rail service to return - and rather badly at that. Meanwhile, I have come to understand that TRAC has been fighting the removal of rails due to this Great Redwood Trail thing. I have been trying to contact them to see if they might be able to help.
What needs to happen is for all the pro-rail people to get together and exert some real political force on Sacramento. I may be a dreamer but I think this can be made to happen. Someday.
Fred M. Cain
There are so many variables any comparison of rail versus truck freight transport that each particular application has to be judged individually. There isn't a lot of need for speed shipping forest products, so they probably would go by rail if the rail was available, but there isn't enough forest products being shipped to justify the cost of rebuilding the RoW right now. Your "three day savings" would only make sense if time was of the essense. Otherwise, the trucks, particularly with trans-loading expenses, are definitely more expensive. On the other hand, NWP Co's ability to run grain hoppers directly to Hunt and Behrens and other feed mills in Sonoma Co., rather than it being loaded onto trucks in the valley and driven out here, has drastically reduced the cost of feed for local farmers. Generally speaking, trains have it all over trucks in terms of cost and trucks have it all over trains in terms of speed. Trains have it all over trucks in terms of fuel efficiency and hydrocarbon emissions (four times less fuel to haul a ton than trucks). The shorter the haul, the more likely a truck is the more cost effective option. The longer, the trains take the prize. Any trucker will concede that rail is much more efficient and much cheaper than shipping by truck, but can't hope to compete with trucks when it comes to speed. In the end, freight will generally end up on a truck at some point, on its way to be loaded on a train, or off a train for delivery. That said, many bulk materials can bypass trucks entirely if direct loading on and off a train is possible. (e.g. feed and grain, industrial bulk materials, etc.) You can ship a 40ft container cross country by rail for probably a tenth the cost of shpping it by truck, but the truck is going to be a lot faster than the train. This gives trucks the edge in shipping freight in a "Just in Time" inventorying model, which is much more cost-effective. On the other hand, if you have to ship a lot of freight with a less critical timetable, the trains, which carry about the same per car as four 53' semis, will usually be the best way to go. It's all about the variables applicable to each situation. For example, if Honda wants to ship containers full of parts from Japan, Korea, or China to its Honda plant in Ohio, I'm guessing they are going to go from the port of entry to the plant by rail. Coal will go by rail. Raw petroleum is going by rail from the source to refineries, but probably by truck from refineries to your gas station. There will have to be a need to ship large quantities of non-perishable goods in or out of Eureka, as was the case with forest products in times past, before rail is going to be profitable enough to amortize the cost of rebuilding the RoW at least from the island Mountain quarry north.
So, first of, a few corrections and notes on various statements made in this thread.
1. Last revenue train on the north end, 11 loads of lumber and particleboard, was heading south from Scotia toward Willits in the first days of January 1998. Had it completed its journey, those 11 loads would have eventually made it all the way to Schellville and Lombard and then on over CFNR to the UP, to be distributed to wherever the intended recipients of those products. Flood damage south of Island Mountain caused the railroad to park the freight cars there. This was NOT the last run on the north end, as NWP ran work trains- rock ballast out of Alton, rip-rap out of Arcata- well into late May or early June of 1998 before abruptly ceasing work when they ran out of money. NWP got most of the line repaired, but fell a tad short of getting the entire line patched back together. There was a gravel loadout not far north of Willits that the railroad switched out up until the FRA shut the south end down in late November 1998.
2. In the 2001 move, the #70 shoved the old Inside Track gift shop car from old town Eureka north to the old Arcata Redwood plant, about halfway between Eureka and Arcata. THA acquired the car and arranged for the special move, with eventual plans to use the car on their long planned tourist trains. Arcata Redwood kept the car under cover for several years before shoving it back out into the open, actually outside of their property fence, where it sits today. There were a very small number of rail movements made after that time, all done with the ex-military locomotive crane now in Scotia.
3. The FRA closure affected the south end, Schellville to Willits, as the line north of Willits was out of service almost a year by that point and all work had ceased. The FRA had become increasingly interested in the NWP's operations, especially track and signal maintenance work and procedures, and FRA issued the emergency order after NWP essentially ignored a long series of increasingly urgent directives to work on track conditions and especially improve training and documentation.
4. The NCRA funding bill was not in the same bill that created the agency, but it a separate companion bill. Governor Deukmejian signed the creation bill but vetoed the funding bill.
To my thoughts....I would place the odds of the north end ever coming back as none to very, very slight. Bottom line, there simply isn't the traffic base anywhere on the north end of the railroad to ever justify the enormous costs of rebuilding the line, much less then sustaining operations should the line ever get reopened. I hate to say it, but rolls of toilet paper and all other miscellaneous and sundry items shipped into the Eureka area are going to go by truck whether the railroad is open or not. Railroads have to actively compete for every carload they handle on the basis of price and service...and, to be quite frank and honest, the railroad industry generally has a terrible reputation for providing service, which leaves price as about the only real advantage upon which they can sell themselves. And to get there, they must mostly rely on heavy commodities going long distances in order to compete on price.
Now, major (revolutionary) changes in transportation policy in this country could rapidly change things, as would Humboldt Bay becoming the deepwater port some proponents envision. However, I think the probability of either of those happening at least in the short term (next several decades) are slim to none. I very much suspect that the expanded Panama canal and improving infrastructure in southern and eastern ports are about to eliminate a lot of traffic now handled through west coast ports.
As I've said several previous times on this board, there were 11 sawmills or forest product plants in operation between Scotia and Korbel in January 1998. A grossly simple rule of thumb when evaluating the viability of a shortline railroad is that the railroad must move 100 carloads per mile of track per year in order to generate sufficient revenue to pay operating costs and maintenance and fund required capital investments. Now the NWP all told north of Willits has about 170 miles of track, including branchlines, which translates into a minimum of 17,000 loads that must be moved per year to keep the line economically viable. Reality? The last time the north end of the NWP ever came close to that was 1982, when the north end generated 16,000 loads and still lost in the neighborhood of $6.5 million dollars on its operations. When the Eureka Southern commenced operations in 1984, their lofty and only occasionally attained goal was to deliver thirty cars a day to Willits, which nominally translates into 7,800 loads a year. North Coast Railroad in their six year run averaged around 4,000 loads a year from the aforementioned 11 forest products plants. Today there are exactly 2 of those 11 sawmills remaining in operation. For comparison, the NWP handled 65,000 loads out of Eureka in 1975- or an average of 250 cars EACH WORKING DAY- and back in the 1950s the north end could produce 300-500 cars per day. Bottom line, the north end simply does not have, nor is it ever likely to have, enough of an industrial or trade base to support the railroad.
Two last points...I think if the line is rebuilt, a lot could be done that would make the engineering and maintenance easier, but I still think the line would remain ungodly expensive to maintain. Look at how much engineering and technology Caltrans has invested in especially Highway 101 in the last couple decades, and how often even that road is closed by landslides, slipouts, and other products of subgrade that never stops moving. And, to the comment on keeping the right-of-way intact....sometime, take a Google Earth view of the line from Willits to Eureka, and pay special attention to the number of places where the railroad has been bladed over to build roads, where fences cut across the tracks, and there is at least one stretch deep down in the canyon where it appears the track materials have either been completely buried or otherwise removed from a bridge and a substantial amount of grade on either side, with the roadbed converted to a road.
Okay, one more...to get an idea of the amount of work rebuilding this railroad would require, take a watch through the following video, mostly taken during a rafting trip between Dos Rios and Alderpoint...and this is back in 2009, there's been a lot more damage done since.