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Will the Northern Section of this railroad ever run again?

I was thinking about the railroads current status up to Willits, and i came across a question i'd like to ask, Is it even possible to repair the line up to Dos Rios? It seems like that section of track is still in good condition, it just needs a clean up, and maybe some new ties.
About the other tracks going north, just leave them until they are repaired, or until someone comes along, and fixes it for a tourist railroad. I know there is already a group trying to have a tourist railroad on the northern end, but I have heard nothing from it yet, it seems like no progress has happened, I may be wrong on that. I know a few of you are probably going to ask why this railroad should be repaired, I would like to see some freight trains moving up and down the line once again, like they did before FRA shut the line down for good.  I also feel that it would help put some business back Eureka and the cities surrounding it, that area seems kind of dead, and run down. Also, is the balloon track turn table still there?

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That idea sounds like it could work, it would decrease the amount of time it takes to get there, and the line would be back in regular service.

I've got to provide at least some reply to this. 

First to answer one of Emilio's questions, Google Earth seems to show the old Eureka turntable is still in place, at least as of May 2014.  A developer of some sort does own the old yard property, and they are planning to do something with it...but I don't remember at this point what. 

To understand much of why things are at where they are, it helps to understand some history and background.

Railroading is a very capital intensive industry.  Freight trains don't run just for the fun of it, or for the entertainment of railfans, or to keep some part of history alive.  Freight trains operate only where there is enough demand for transportation, and where the volume, economics, and logistics of using rail service make it economical for potential shippers to choose rail over other possible transportation modes.  And, the volume of business handled must be sufficient to cover the railroad company's operating and maintenance costs and provide a reasonable profit, otherwise why would the railroad continue? 

NWP has almost always had many significant strikes against it when it comes to many of these factors.  First, maintenance.  In order to remain viable over the long term, any railroad requires a minimum continuous level of reinvestment in its property.  Electing not to perform this maintenance for even a year or two due to cash flow problems quickly compounds with the passage of time, as the work one doesn't do this year only gets doubled next year, and tripled the year after, and only a couple years of deferred maintenance can throw any rail line into a death spiral from which it becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to escape.  There's an old rule of thumb from a decade or so ago that in order to remain viable in the long term, a shortline railroad must spend at least $5,000 per mile per year on track maintenance, and even this cost is likely low; one source I looked at just now pegs Class 1 railroad track maintenance costs at $45,000-$60,000 per mile per year.  This level of maintenance would buy one a level of track far above and beyond the needs of almost all shortlines, but it's not unreasonable to think that a shortline track maintenance budget probably should fall out somewhere in the $10,000-$15,000 per year range. 

This starts to fall apart rapidly when applied to the NWP, however, almost entirely because of the nature of the terrain through which the NWP operates.  The road runs through some of the most geologically unstable country found anywhere on earth, and while I agree with some of what has been said in this thread, that engineering has come a long way since the road was built, the fact remains that designing and building that level of resiliency into the roadbed does not come cheap, and NWP is blessed with grades crossing some mountainsides that literally never stop moving, plus a lot of other areas subject to devastating floods and other high water events.  Baring expensive engineering solutions, the only way to keep a property like that operating is to constantly maintain it- continuous rocking and drainage work, keeping drainage systems open and carrying water, removing landslides, etc.  Now, this level of work could be contemplated when the Eureka yards built and sent south three to five 100-car lumber drags PER DAY; the revenue from that could and would buy they large numbers of men and equipment required to keep this railroad functional.  Take away the revenue stream as the timber industry dries up, the dollars for work go away, and the death spiral cycle starts.  When the NWP tried to abandon the line north of Willits in the early 1980s, it stated by that point maintenance costs along consumed six of every ten dollars of gross revenue the line earned.  Let that sink in for a minute- for every $10 in freight revenues they received, $6 went directly back into keeping the railroad out of the Eel River, which does not leave much for fuel, insurance, car hire costs, administrative/overhead, train crew wages, equipment capitalization and depreciation and maintenance, and all of the other bills that must be paid.  It should also be noted that in the same application, SP noted this rate of maintenance expenditures was over three times the average track maintenance costs for the rest of its system.  

As late as the early 1980s, NWP still sent three 100-car trains a week south from Eureka.  By contrast, the best the Eureka Southern and North Coast Railroad were ever able to do approached- but rarely exceeded- thirty cars per day, and on many days 15-20 were typical train sizes.  That's not a whole lot of revenue to keep a line as maintenance intensive as that railroad alive.  In one of his posts Emilio wonders "why they have allowed the track to get this bad"- hopefully this all provides some insight as to how and why that started, though it is only a very small part of the story.  I don't want to imply the railroads did not maintain their tracks-they did- but never at a rate required to keep up with the natural rate of deterioration. 

Let's move onto traffic base.  As noted in the paragraphs above, the lumber traffic that sustained the railroad simply wasn't there in enough volume to make the railroad a truly viable operation after the Island Mountain tunnel reopened in 1979.  By the time the Eureka Southern came along in 1984, NWP's traffic base consisted almost exclusively of twelve sawmills and forest product plants in the greater Eureka area, plus one more in Fort Bragg on the California Western.  These plants more or less remained stable into the middle 1990s.  However, as of today only TWO of those remain operating (not counting the Sierra Pacific plant west of Arcata, which will be closing down in the near future).  The traditional industrial and traffic base is gone, and it would quite honestly be an incredibly tough sell to locate ANY traffic base in that region that could sustain the railroad. 

Now, as to why the railroad closed.  The stability of the Eel River Canyon in many ways responds directly to how much precipitation the area receives.  A series of dry years, like much of the last part of the 1980s, results in the canyon remaining stable and generally free of floods and most of the landslides.  Introduce a series of abnormally wet winters, such as the 1992-1998 time frame, and a whole lot of trouble can build up incredibly fast.  North Coast Railroad Authority bought the line in the spring of 1992 and, though as noted the companion bill funding the agency was vetoed, the agency was still able to scrape together enough grants and other money to buy the line and get the North Coast Railroad up and running.  However, the series of wet winters tended to close the line down for weeks to months at a time, and when the trains stopped the cash flow stopped, which forced NCRA to do some pretty creative things with what cash it did have to get the line patched back together.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did come through with substantial disaster relief funding that helped finance the extensive storm repairs, especially in 1994/1995 and 1995/1996, and 1996/1997; however, the cash flow crunch caused the the temporary suspension of freight service forced NCRA to use FEMA funding for various expenses for which the FEMA funding could not legally be used, items such as meeting payroll and the like.  FEMA got wind of this, and as a result when another series of devastating storms destroyed much of the railroad again in the first days of 1998, FEMA held up all future payments until the agency could provide an accounting of how all previous disaster relief funds had been spent, something NCRA could not do as the agency lacked any sort of standard accounting systems.  NCRA tried getting the line repaired with what cash it had left and almost made it, but the money just didn't stretch that far.  This is what closed the line north of Willits.  The loss of traffic from Eureka, as paltry as it was, seriously compromised the economics of the NWP south of Willits, which accelerated the situation leading up to the emergency FRA order closing the line south of Willits, which was entirely based upon- you guessed it- concerns over track maintenance (or lack thereof) and basic track maintenance practices.  Not enough traffic being handled plus deferred maintenance, followed by almost two full decades of inactivity, has gotten us to the point where we are now at.  NCRA has received some significant cash infusions in the years since, but a lot of it has gone to pay off creditors and other accumulated debts from the middle 1990s, and it's not like governments at any level have any money sitting around that could be invested in a railroad to nowhere with dim at best freight prospects.  

NCRA versus SMART.  To understand this situation, you have to go back to the middle 1990s, when efforts to place the entire NWP into public ownership finally gained some traction.  NCRA dated from the late 1980s/early 1990s and was initially owned by Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties.  Getting the south end of the NWP into public ownership was the subject of a delicate dance sparked mostly by Marin County, which wanted to get the railroad for commuter rail service but did not want any chance that any of its money could be sucked into any of the expensive parts of the railroad up north, namely the Eel and Russian River canyons.  In the end, Sonoma County joined the NCRA ownership group, and NCRA purchased the line from Willits south to Healdsburg.  The state created a second railroad authority, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority, owned by NCRA, Marin County, and the Golden Gate Bridge District, which purchased the NWP line south from Healdsburg.  NCRA as part of all this secured a permanent freight easement over the NWPRA tracks.  NWPRA after a few years conveyed its trackage to SMART upon its creation.  As a result, today's revived NWP is operating over tracks owned by SMART by way of NCRA's freight easement.  They have a long way to go before they reach any rails actually owned by NCRA.  SMART at this point has their eventual sites set on getting one day to Cloverdale.  Time will tell if they ever get there, much less north of that. 

A few last points:

1.  In all reality, all it would really take to get a tourist train rolling around Humboldt Bay is money, lots of it- somewhere between $14.2 and $16.5 million to rehabilitate the Samoa-Eureka line, as per one report from 5-6 years ago.  Add to that many millions more to restore the equipment they have (at least a half million or so per passenger coach, another half million to million to rebuild a steam locomotive), buy insurance, build depots, buy fuel, etc., and you might have yourself a decent little tourist railroad.  Not sure where money would come from to get that all done....but if the money can be found, it might just happen.

2.  NWP right before FRA closed the line did haul some gravel from a loadout above Willits.  This might be a traffic source, as might the Island Mountain quarry, but that's a lot of track that needs to be completely rebuilt in a lot of places to get there, and then a lot of track to maintain, and the railroad would have to haul a lot of rock- and I mean a LOT of rock- out of that one traffic source to justify the rebuild costs alone to that point, not to mention maintaining the track that far once it is rebuilt.  I'm not optimistic the economics would necessarily work out.  

3.  Lastly, the proposed port at Humboldt Bay.  One document I found online is a report from 2013 evaluating the potential economics of establishing rail service to the Bay for a possible bulk commodities port, something that might be pretty iffy now given the difficulty with which other bulk commodity ports are having getting through permitting processes right now, coupled with depressed commodity markets.  The entire report is worth a look-see, and can be found at this link:

http://www.ci.eureka.ca.gov/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=9024

The report indicates Humboldt might have a better chance competing as a bulk commodities report rather than a container port.  The conclusions they draw are very interesting and worth repeating here:

Rail service to Humboldt County will require a major investment, through either a new East-West rail alignment or through reconstruction of the former North-South line. In order for this investment to be financially feasible, the rail line will need to
generate large  volumes of cargo.
A rail line to Humboldt County would face strong competition from existing ports, primarily those on the U.S. West Coast.  Humboldt County would face several competitive disadvantages relative to these other ports, including the need to cover the cost of constructing the new line, and the lack of a rail distance advantage.
In addition to the lack of rail infrastructure, waterborne exports of large volumes of bulk commodities (or containers) would likely require substantial investments in new cargo terminals.  Also, the Humboldt navigation channel is not as deep as that at most of the competing ports, which would also require a substantial investment.
In conclusion, development of rail service to Humboldt County is likely to be both high cost and high risk.
Jeff Moore
Elko, NV

 

Wow Jeff, that reply was long lol
I think I'd have to agree with you on the railroad, even though it bites that the track is out of service. I did look at the tracks between Ukiah and Willits, it is not that badly damaged, only one washout at Laughlin, that could easily be repaired, otherwise the track is in great condition compared to the tracks north of Willits. Does Willits have any lumber mills left? If that track between ukiah and willits was fixed, we could be hauling lumber in between those cities, and it might put some money back in the cities, and buisness would boom again, like it did before the line was shut down. I didn't see any visible track damage to the redwood valley tracks, are they still in good shape?
I took a speeder trip from Willits to Cloverdale and back with about 30 speeders a year after the line was closed. I don't know how they were able to run trains on that track. We had a high railer leading us that derailed twice on Ridgview grade. There was atleast 20 spots we had to crawl through. That was 20 years ago so I can only imagine what it looks like now. The washout north of Redwood Valley(which hadn't happen until after our trip) is a huge fix, the entire fill was swept away. Not even to mention what it may take to fix the tunnels. Has there even been a study done on the cost of repairing it ?

There are many ways to inspect railroad track. Someone with no experience in the field using photos taken from a satellite over a hundred miles from the planet's surface is not one of them.

They're currently in the process of building a bulk commodity rail terminal at the Port of Oakland. Such facilities already exist at the ports of Stockton and Richmond, as well as a currently unused one in the LA/Long Beach area. That's just counting California, there are even more in the PNW. I don't see many companies jumping at the chance to build one in Humboldt. Also, if they tried to export coal in Humboldt, the local treehuggers would completely lose their $#!t.

Okay, here we go again. 

Take another look at the track between Willits and Ukiah.  I just skimmed over it and came up with about a dozen washouts, including 5-6 major ones, and there is quite a bit of the line under trees that cannot be seen.  And that imagery is almost three years old now.   

There is at present one sawmill operating in Willits, the Willits Redwood Company.  I'm not sure how much they ever did ship by rail, but not much, and they are quite small as mills go- in 2013, they had a capacity of 15 million board feet per year and employed two dozen people.  To contrast, the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Arcata (closing soon) cut close to 80 million board feet per year and employed 123, and Simpson's now closed mill in Korbel cut in the neighborhood of 240 million board feet a year.  A standard centerbeam railcar has a capacity of about 110,000 board feet.  This means, IF the one remaining mill in Willits shipped their entire output by rail- which very few sawmills ever do- they would ship all of 136 railcars per year.  Another old rule of thumb in the shortline railroad industry is that, to remain viable, a shortline should haul 100 cars per mile of track per year.  Thus, IF Willits Redwood Company were to ship their entire output by rail, it would provide enough traffic to realistically support the first 1.3 miles of track south from Willits.  There hasn't been any other major sawmills in Willits since the last large one closed in the middle 1990s, and the large sawmill that built and supported the California Western Railroad closed in 2002, though it had been without rail service for four years by that point.   

So, Emilio, let's go to your next statement, to the effect that if the line could be reopened, and by extension if Willits still had any large shippers left in it, lumber could be hauled from Willits to Ukiah and restore the former glory years.  You seem to be suggesting that there exists a market for lumber produced in one town in the other town, which there isn't.  This short of a haul, even if it did exist, would certainly NOT move by rail.  No way would rail ever be cost competitive for this short of a haul- for that matter, rail service for lumber traffic really isn't all that competitive from any part of California to any other part of California.  The only way reopening the line between Willits and Ukiah would ever make sense is if you continued on down the rest of the way to the current end of the reactivated line down near Windsor so that lumber could be interchanged to the rest of the nation's rail network, and there is a lot of expensive repairs required for that section, including at least one collapsed tunnel and a whole lot of washouts and landslides.  If the reactivated NWP ever does get extended north from Windsor, the potential is there to pick up a little bit of lumber traffic from Cloverdale and Ukiah.  Would it be enough to keep the line viable?  I have my doubts, but I've been surprised by many things in the past.  To be honest, at this point I see no rational basis for any resumption of service north of Ukiah unless some major new industry or traffic source gets established on the line that far north. 

Lastly, for tonight, rail service is not by any means the missing link preventing the redwood lumber industry from coming back.  For a wide variety of reasons, the raw log supply required to run sawmills just isn't there anymore, and likely won't be for a long time to come, if ever.  That, and U.S. lumber markets are not insulated from the rest of the world, and in fact U.S. producers tend to have a difficult time competing for cheap lumber imported from Canada.  The U.S. used to have a tariff offering the domestic industry some protection, but it expired a couple months ago, and several sawmills- especially stud mills- throughout the northwest have either closed or are massively scaled back their operations as a result.  

It's a complicated world out there.  

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV 

I was wondering if anyone has some new information on this thread from about 2½ years ago now.  I have been studying this and trying to find information on it.  I did find an article online that the Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) has been fighting to keep them from pulling up the rails.

Any new thoughts on this? 

Regards,

Fred M. Cain

There are a few developments.  At least one organization and supporters have been looking at constructing a new railroad from the Eureka area east to the central valley, but there does not seem to exist any sort of solid financial or logistical plans on how to get that line financed, much less built, much less how to support it once it does get into operation.  Meanwhile, the State of California legislature late last year passed and the governor signed a bill that lays the groundwork for dissolving the North Coast Railroad Authority, giving SMART the old NCRA right-of-way north to maybe Willits, allocating funds to SMART to buy out the present NWP freight operation, and potentially convert the line north of Willits to a recreational trail.  The bill effectively created some committees from various state agencies to study the expenses and logistics of these, with reports due in 2020 that will lay foundations for final decisions.  Part of what needs to be figured out is what to do with NCRA's assets and substantial debt load.  

Jeff Moore

Elko, NV 

Jeff et al:

That Bill is SB 1029 and if you read it you will see that in Sec 17 it transfers NCRA RoW ownership from Healdsberg north to SMART for both passenger service which seems to be in their area of expertise, but also freight service which is WAY out of their expertise.

I will be asking the SMART board tomorrow how they are planning to handle this new responsibility.  Please all of you computer geeks here, come support me when I speak to the board. 

Richard 

Richard,

I would just love to come and demonstrate my support for you.  Unfortunately, I no longer live in the West and am now in northern Indiana.  I'd come if I could.  My thoughts and prayers will be with you nevertheless.

Regards,

Fred M. Cain

Jeff,

Thanks for your response!  I have a couple of thoughts here.  First of all, the so-called Humboldt & Eastern rail plan would build a new railroad from Eureka to the UP "I-5" corridor line near Redding or Red Bluff.  There have been a few people on some other forums who have suggested that the complete rebuilding of the Eel River Canyon line could probably be done for much less than what this would cost.  

That has caused me to wonder as to just what the point is of all this.  Is the H & E plan some kind of a method to spark action on the part of the state or somehow pressure them to help rebuild the Eel River line?  (Quite possible).  *OR* is it simply somekind of a money scheme designed to rip off local investors in the Humboldt Bay area? (even more possible).

In any event NO ONE involved with the plan would return my e-mails so it kinda makes you wonder.

The other thing I'd like to mention is that I had a nice telephone conversation yesterday with a guy named Mike at the Train Riders Association of California (TRAC).  What he told me, if I understand this right, is that the SB 1029 mandate has been changed again and downgraded to "study" status.  Could someone on this list look into that?  He suggested that the trail thing might be a long, long way off if it ever gets built at all.  Perhaps I misunderstood him.

He told me that to completely rebuild and reopen the railroad would cost in the range of $1 billion (which we already knew) BUT he also guestimated that building this trail would cost in the range of $700-800 million - almost as much as a new rail line *AND" it would come with a multimillion dollar per year maintenance price tag.  And for what?  A few bike enthusiasts (of which I'm one)?  

Finally, Mike was kind of discouraged.  He told me that no private company or organization would or could put up that kind of money for a rebuilding (which we also knew) and the State is extremely unlikely to be receptive to it.  There are just simply too many other priorities.  But he also said he didn't know what your new governor might do yet.  Who knows?

But I still think it IS possible.  It is my belief - opinion really - that reports of the completely destroyed Eel River section of the line have been exaggerated.  I have "flown over" it on Google Earth and my best guess is that anywhere from 95-99% of the roadbed is intact from Willits to Eureka.  The bottom line is WHERE can support be found for a rebuilding?

Regards,

Fred M. Cain

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