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Why the Eel River Route can't, and shouldn't, be rebuilt


I wrote this in response to a status a few days back, but it's gotten buried and I think this is an important topic considering the possible bankruptcy filing by NCRA.

"I worked with a couple of parties in Colorado, who were interested in operating the Eureka Southern after it went bankrupt in 86 or 87. One party took one hyrail trip and walked away from it. He showed me the track book that Michael Ongerth (Former Vice President and General Manager of the NWP, SP Western Division Superintendant) is posting, but I don't remember the notes. I saw what I guess was a photo copy of the track diagrams. He made bags of soil samples and had a geologist make an analysis. The report back was this soil would never stop moving. He talked to a few of the on line shippers and they said they would never seriously use the railroad unless US 101 was blocked or truck rates became so prohibitive or a lack of trucks available. The other party used my book as a guide and made a field trip via the highway. Same story from the shippers. That party too walked away, never to set up a meeting."-Wesley Fox, 2006

"I personally do not think that the NWP will ever operate again without significant subsidies from someone. The ongoing maintenance costs are just too high. The remaining traffic base too low and from Eureka to San Rafael is a 300 mile railroad. Everyone knows about the Eel River canyon with its slides and sinks. But there is also Ridge Hill between Willits and Ukiah. And, then there is the Russian River canyon. Both of these also have a number of locations with unstable subgrade with slides and sinks. South of Cloverdale there is a good opportunity for some type of rail commuter operation. Perhaps that operation can maintain the track and the freight operation could use it at night."- Michael Ongerth, (Former Vice President and General Manager of the NWP, SP Western Division Superintendant) 2005.

My parents live near Island Mountain. Based on my personal experiences with that area, I wouldn't invest in the line through the canyon. The entire coastal range is in its infancy and is constantly moving. The ground is some of the most unstable anywhere. The roads around my parent's place are a pain to maintain and wash out with even a slight amount of rain. They also get the blue goo that plagues the Eel River Canyon. Landslides happen all the time without warning and the storms are horrendous. They're about 20 miles east of the canyon, so as bad as it is around their place, it's much worse for the tracks.

If the currently open portion of the NWP can't turn a profit easily, there is no chance in hell the line through the canyon will. When the line was still in good shape, trains had to dump ballast on an almost weekly basis. Derailments occurred just as often. The line was by far the most expensive rail line to maintain in the US, with literally hundreds of MOW personnel assigned to it. Remember, the ever-frugal SP wanted out when they were running 100 car trains through the canyon three times a week. If they couldn't make money then, there is no way the line will sustain itself now. When SP decided to sell off the line in the 80's, countless potential buyers inspected it and immediately decided they didn't want it. Others took samples from the soil and sent them to geologists. They all got the same answer, that the ground was extremely unstable and wouldn't stop moving. Brian Whipple bought it and formed the Eureka Southern, thinking he could turn things around. We all know how well that went. The EUKA went bankrupt even with trains with as many as 60 cars running regularly. The North Coast Railroad NEVER turned a profit with it, and neither did the 90's black widow'd NWP.

The lumber industry in that area is all but dead. Most of what few industries that existed when the line closed in 1999 have either closed or moved. The few remaining ones now use the more reliable Highway 299 to Redding, where Union Pacific operates a reload. The shippers are very satisfied with this service, and given the sketchy history of the Eel River line, it is unlikely any of the shipper would be willing to use it should it re-open.

Now, there are people out there who believe the line could sustain itself by serving a deep-water port in Humboldt Bay. I can honestly say from my brief time studying economics as well as my working in the transport industry that such a thing is unlikely to happen, The existing west coast ports are nowhere near capacity. As recently as 2006, one could see ships anchored all over the San Francisco Bay waiting to dock at the Port of Oakland. Ever since the economy tanked, traffic has never been the same, and as much as the talking heads on the news want you to believe the economy is on the rise and that we will be at those traffic levels again, it's not going to happen anytime soon. Every time I work a train to/from the Port of Oakland, there are many empty yards and warehouses. There are always more empty berths than occupied ones. You'll never hear this in press releases or company statements, but I have spoken with officials from the Port of Oakland and BNSF who told me that they do not see traffic returning to pre-recession levels anytime in the foreseeable future. Even if they do, there are unused deep-water ports at Richmond and Pittsburg complete with facilities for containers, aggregate, etc. that will open before anyone who knows what they're talking about even thinks about a port at Humboldt. The US west coast port situation is only getting worse due to the ongoing widening of the Panama Canal. Another thing to remember: Humboldt isn't even a deep-water port. An enormous amount of dredging would have to take place to allow any respectable sized ship to enter. The main selling point they're trying to use is that it's a half a day's journey shorter for ships from Japan to go to Humboldt than Oakland. The thing that's overlooked is that in turn, it's an extra half a day's journey for trains and trucks to reach Humboldt, so there's no time savings. It would actually be MORE expensive to ship to/from the Port of Humboldt because it's cheaper to sail a ship farther than run trucks and trains farther, so using the existing ports makes more sense.

Comparing the Eel River line to the former SDAE/Pacific Imperial Railroad is apples and oranges. Yes, flash flooding caused by storms in that area can be pretty bad, but compared to the Eel River canyon it's like at parking lot in terms of ground stability.

It's tough to see classic rail lines go, but one cannot expect a railroad to run losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for almost zero business just to please some foamers who are too caught up in nostalgia. If there is a time that the Port of Humboldt is needed for heavy shipments and a rail line to serve it, then I am by all means for it, but do not expect the tracks we know and love through the canyon to return to service. A new line free from the hassles of the geology should replace it, and with new technology, it is possible. Whether it's the proposed line heading east to Gerber/Red Bluff, or a European-ish ungodly long tunnel, the future line should be designed to take full advantage of new technologies and tactics we have learned from all of our years of experience. Just like the old #1 Main over Donner Pass was removed in favor of a newer, easier to maintain routing. Just like GN replaced the Old Cascade tunnel with a longer, less steep version. Just like the original portion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Utah was replaced with the Lucin Cutoff. All of these lines helped shape the nation we know and love today, and we would not be the same country without them. Unfortunately, their primitive engineering and construction led to their being replaced with newer, easier to maintain lines. As hard as it was to see them go, the changes were ultimately for the better. A railroad, like any other business must evolve or die. We all love the line through the Eel River Canyon and it will be missed, but it's time to let it go.



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Comment by Fred M. Cain on February 14, 2019 at 8:44am

I realize that this blog is almost 6 years old now but I am hoping it could be brought up to date. 

Jordan's comments were very well stated and he made an excellent case as to why the railroad should not be rebuilt.  At the end he drew the sad conclusion that " will be missed, but it's time to let it go."

Great point, but there are people who could also make the opposite case as some of you on the blog already did.  

Mr. Harrison said that "Mike, you are right on that, it was kind of a bum move to buy a railroad ... California ... and not fund it... its like buying a house and not paying the mortgage...  I have too read the cost of fixing the canyon.  The $600 million is to properly fix it... proper engineering of drainage, new bridges to advoid slides, and really nice thingies.  $150 clears the way and fixes the track... but without proper fixes that could wash out in a year any ways... humboldt county have 3 ways to get rail service... Go east... not easy, costs money, and have to aquire easments... go south... land is already not a problem but need major funding with the relization of never seeing a return on that funding... government money... or no connecting railroad at all.  I dont live there any more so its up to the people of humboldt to sort this one out..."

And those are great points too.  What we're looking at now is a rebuilding that would cost in the neighborhood o $1 billion versus a new east-west road that would cost over $10 billion.  Yikes!  Sounds to me like rebuilding the Eel River line would be more within reach and quite possibly a better deal.


Fred M. Cain

Comment by Brian D. Liddicoat on January 6, 2014 at 5:32pm

I agree with you completely. All good things come to an end and there is no way i would invest my children's college funds in a revival of the Eel River line. It's not going to happen. Treasure the history and stop deluding yourself that trains will run through Island Mountain again one day....

Comment by Dave S. on December 18, 2013 at 10:49am

Mr. Allen:  I don't think SP ever assigned Zone 3 to anything.  They might have held Zone 3 in reserve for the P&SR, but no trackage is omitted between the north end of Zone 2 and the south end of Zone 4, which covers the Petaluma area.

If I get time over the Xmas holiday I may clean up the alignment of these images.  This version of the NWP SPINS may have flaws, but it might be the only one in existence!  However, somebody should check with the NWPRRHS to see if they have a clean copy in their library.

Comment by W. Scott Allen on December 17, 2013 at 8:19pm

Two days ago, I went through all the "SPINS" files you sent me. I organized them by zone. All duplicates I put into a separate folder. I noticed there are no file for Zone 3.

I di noticed some scans were "skewed" but not bad. I did want to combine scans of same sheet that had the bottom cutoff.

Thanks. This was exactly what I was looking for. It is perfect for modlers.


Comment by jbriogrande on December 15, 2013 at 9:53pm

 Eureka could be a candidate for a small light rail system to connect Arcata and Fortuna in the future.  A tourist train could possibly use the same tracks during the summer.  Local rail is still a possibility.  As for the canyon......would you invest your money into rehabilitating along the Eel?  Common sense says no.......  With a harbor, Eureka would still be able to do some shipping of freight and materials.  All is not lost

Comment by Dave S. on December 15, 2013 at 7:57am

Mr. Allen:

Willits through Eureka are zones 7 through 10 in the old SPINS.  The organization of the files is better in the following download, which I forgot about:

NWP SPINS, Rev. 01

Refer to files

"Z07I01_NwpImage_0018_L_nwpSanRafaelEureka018.JPG" through "Z10S04_NwpImage_0030_R_nwpSanRafaelEureka029.JPG"

For more information about these files, the naming convention, etc., see my comments here:

Mark's SPINS Album

My goal was to fix the skewed orientation of these images and assemble into a PDF, but life got in the way.  Someday....

Comment by Don Underwood on December 15, 2013 at 1:43am

Scott: did you see the two responses to your request posted below?

Comment by Chad Gustafson on December 14, 2013 at 12:25pm

Jason, Spell check

Comment by Dave S. on December 14, 2013 at 11:05am

Mr. Allen:

The following download will give you each page of the SPINS document as a properly sequenced series of .JPG files.

Willits to Eureka can be found in the filenames beginning with "Nwp_Image_0018_L" through "Nwp_Image_0029_R".

Hope this is useful.

Comment by Steve Atnip on December 14, 2013 at 6:23am

Scott, when you return, check out the NWPRRHS archives. For location and open times go to we have tons of maps and pounds of Eel river slide maps covering the major slides for the past 100+ years. Be safe and thank you and your mates for your service.

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