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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 W. Scott Allen on December 13, 2013 at 10:14pm

Jordon (or anyone else),

Do you have track disgrams for any of the tracks and spurs from Willits to Eureka? I am trying to model just that portion of the NWP. I believe it is the only way to record its operational history. I know you are right about the canyons. I am an Engineer for the military and specialize in drainage. The Eel River Canyon is know for being some of the most unstable geology in the entire Western Hemisphere!

Scott, Afghanistan

Comment by jbriogrande on November 6, 2013 at 1:56pm

 Emilio.....if you are talking Willits North......that will cost millions to rehabilitate, even just to Dos Rios.  Would a tourist railroad be able to survive with a headache like that to pay for, and still be able to continually rehabilitate during the winter months?  To Eureka?  Minimum restoration/rehab work is around 600 million.  Tickets on this new Skunk Line will be $3,000.00 way.

Comment by Chad Gustafson on November 6, 2013 at 9:08am

The Skunk is still paying off money due to the tunnel collapse! The Skunk can barely keep its own operations going! They can't just try, trying doesn't work. Nobody even in the wrong mind would buy that stretch of line. Plus, state law, what the NCRA was born from, says they can't sell it. 

Comment by Emilio Galo on November 6, 2013 at 8:55am

The skunk could have another excursion train, that's what I meant.

Comment by Jordan on November 5, 2013 at 1:49am

You can't just TRY to repair something on that scale. You need to determine if the line is worth fixing. Ever since before SP sold it off to EUKA, the answer has been no. Remember, this was the most expensive rail line to maintain in the US, and would need a lot of traffic to turn a profit. If you read the above post, which includes quotes and figures from those who have been directly involved with the line, you'll see that the line just wasn't worth the hassle after traffic fell off in the late 70's.

I don't see what the Skunk has to do with the Eel River.

No sane rail operator will be willing to buy the line. Again, read the blog post. If I had a lot of money, I wouldn't invest in it.

Comment by Emilio Galo on November 5, 2013 at 12:51am

I think they should at least TRY to repair the line from Eureka to Willits, so the Skunk can have a different route. If they didn't repair the line, at least sell it to someone who wants it!

Comment by jbriogrande on August 9, 2013 at 8:03pm

 Now......Here is the thing to a nice railroad barge and a Tug, and run a shuttle between Eureka and Fort Bragg.  Sink a bit of money into the Skunk Line to bring it up to a class 2, ...improve the yard in Fort Bragg, and create a landing.  There you go......industry moving into Fort Bragg,..... the city with a solid railroad link.....the California Western is in the black and then some with all of the traffic.....Eureka has many customers signing on,....and a barge terminal has been developed along with a yard for freight.  In the meantime, a gravel quarry has been developed on the Eel River, and a gravel reload has been established in Willits.....tourist trains have been established in the Eureka area for summer tourists, and everyone is's back to making goodies for my next ride in the sleigh in December......And to All........A Good Night   !!!!

Comment by Jim McCarter on August 3, 2013 at 1:37pm

Hey, on the light side, here is a thought. If the enviro groups have so much influence to keep STOPPING the railroad, why don't they acquire and trade a new inland ROW for the Canyon Route?

Comment by Jordan on August 3, 2013 at 10:08am

Just a few more things from people who have walked the walk:

"Minimum rehabilitation may average between 1 to 2 million dollars per mile. However, given the desirability to raise speeds, weight limits, provide for double stack clearance, and provide for an all weather, reliable railroad line and operation, costs could well be in the 15 to 20 million dollar range. These higher range estimates will particularly apply between Fortuna and Cloverdale.
Because of the need for sidings and to account for existing yard/support tracks I have chosen to use 325 miles in my range of estimates. If the average is in the 2 million dollar range we are looking at 650 million dollars. On the other hand, using the 15 million number, we might be looking at 4,875 million dollars (4.8 billion)"

"The problem is that restoration to a minimal level of service gets you
very little traffic, at very low rates. Cannot be a workable economic model

"This information is taken from the NWP maintenance records and my 1983 track charts.
Recent inspection of the NWP right of way for a mile north of tunnel 27 indicated that many of these problem areas have gotten significantly worse in the last five years

The major sub-grade problems are concentrated between a point just north of the station of Dos Rios and the north end of the Scotia Bluffs, a distance of 100 miles. There are at least 28 separate trouble spots ranging from several hundred feet to well over a mile. Some of these locations have been active since the completion of the railroad. There are other minor locations, which occasionally give trouble in addition to this listing of the major trouble locations.

Here is a sample of the problems that were occurring in the five miles north of Dos Rios taken from my 1983 track book. These are just a sample. There are many worse locations further to the north.

Granite Slide, just west of Dos Rios, has been stable in recent years, but must be contoured frequently to keep the drainage water diverted and to prevent saturation of the native material.

Berger Creek Slide, 1000 feet long north of Dos Rios at Mile Post (MP) 167, is a major
problem. A 200 foot sink area is followed by a 600 foot hump area, then a150 foot sink.
It all slides toward the river, the present track is out of alignment about 5 feet and
humped about 15 feet. In 1982 these two sinks required weekly surfacing because the
track was moving 2 to 3 inches down and 4 to 5 inches out of line weekly.

At Deer Lodge Slide a sink 150 feet long required track surfacing two to three times
Weekly. Movement was 3 to 4 inches down and 2 to 4 inches out of line each week in 1982.

Three-quarter mile north is a 400 foot sink on a fill. It required surfacing at least once a week in 1982, account movement down and out of line 1 to 2 each week. In addition the shoulders required build up on the river side and fill on the hill side for drainage.

Woodman has a 100 foot sink which was moving 4 to 5 inches both out of line and down each week in 1982, requiring resurfacing and lining 3 to 4 times each week.

Tunnel #19, 1.5 miles north of Woodman at MP 172.7, is daylighted. Loose rock on the uphill side causes frequent slides."

-Michael Ongerth (Former Vice President and General Manager of the NWP, SP Western Division Superintendent) , August 2010, about one year prior to new NWP start up.

"I can truthfully say when I became Division Engineer on July 1,1964 the NWP was in the best physical condition in its history. This was all gone by January 1. 1965.
When I was hired as a consultant by Jerry Craig in 1991 some of the temporary work was still not done. This railroad even in the dead of summer was unstable.
All the experts in the world can go up there and wax eloquently on what should be done, but If they have never spent a cold long very wet winter in this canyon responsible for operating, repairing and maintaining this railroad they are neophytes.
"-John Lynch (Former NWP Division Engineer, SP Sacramento Division Superintendent), August 2010.

Comment by Sean Mitchell on August 3, 2013 at 9:16am

If the Skunk could survive all these years with no NWP, who knows, maybe we can have something on the north end. However they should abandon the canyon. 

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