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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 Mike Cook on August 3, 2013 at 2:43am

I'm glad our portion from Willits south is good, I am so thankful for that.  Eureka, Fortuna, it was nice knowing you.

Comment by Mike Cook on August 3, 2013 at 2:42am

Hey, if Eureka and Humboldt County want to rot away, I guess they'll have to live with the consequences.  That place is a sad shell of it's former self.

Comment by Christopher Palomarez on August 2, 2013 at 7:36pm

How many Billion is CA investing into high speed rail?

Comment by Jordan on August 2, 2013 at 7:36pm

Like I said, there is currently no need for a high maintenance line to Eureka. If the need arises, they are better off building a new lower cost, lower maintenance line. As expensive as it may be, it'll be cheaper in the long run.

Comment by Michael H Harrison on August 2, 2013 at 7:14pm
For the state to invest the money into the railroad, it would require that the railroad 1. Serve many, 2. Be self sufficient, and 3. Make a return on the investment. If I had the cash to fix that line, I still wouldn't do it. I would not see a return on the investment. Arcata and eureka were a nothing town until the logging boom. The built a railroad to move the logs. Those days are over. The towns will dry up due to its succlusion. There have been many railroads that have dried up. It's time to say good by to the eel river canyon. It's been on hospice wwwwaaayyyyyy too long. In the best interest the eel river should be done.
Comment by Christopher Palomarez on August 2, 2013 at 7:08pm

Thinking a little bit more about this. If Eureka wants to be done with rail and rely solely on trucking and sea barge, that is really their decision. Before answering that question calculating the other expenditures and forcasted prices hikes for the next 50 years is needed. These are long term decisions here. Why each group (pro-rail, pro-test, and pro-road) is zoning into their little bubbles at the cost of losing sight of what the real issue is here.

The value in keeping the line is not what you can imagine today but it is all the reasons beyond our imagination that we haven't thought of yet. Once a rail line is gone...that's it, game over. Even if there are engineering challenges associated with it to redevelop a rail route...shoot they built the Lucin cutoff through a lake! Talk about engineering challenges.

My point is the right of way is a resource. Maybe the potential can't be had today but it should be left, even if unused, in tact for all the reasons we can't imagine yet.

Comment by Lawrence LaBranche on August 2, 2013 at 5:46pm

Where would we be if we treated our highways just like the NWP? There is no difference between the highway and the railroad for soil, earthquakes, or geography. Yet the highway was allowed to be improved, to overcome a lot of the problems. Where will we be in the future when gas is five or six bucks a gallon? Do we give up on Humboldt altogether? Water based has it's own problems, the bar itself has claimed lives, bad storms shut down the bay, dredging is expensive, and environmentalists fight it. The last dredging debt has still not been paid off, and dredging needs to happen again. The problem people forget is there has been times when companies declined to relocate to Humboldt because a lack of a railroad. Further, there have been companies that have gone out of business, or have moved out of Humboldt because of the high transportation costs.

Comment by Christopher Palomarez on August 2, 2013 at 2:24pm

My questions are these:

At price does Eureka feel it's worth in having a future? $600 mil...$1Bil, $100Bil? If Eureka doesn't invest in SOME form of transportation now that job based industry can cost effectively utilize, growth will forever be limited, and potentially dwindle to the point it will become a modern day ghost town, retirement community, or a ritzy exclusive area. If that's what they want to do, then they are on the correct course. Eventually they'll pay for better transportation solutions if they need to grow like it or not. Why spend a $1Bill now when it will cost $100Bil in the future right?

Is railroad the right answer for Eureka? Maybe not! Perhaps their port is all they need to export their pot harvest and there is not much community desire to be a hustle bustle port. AFAIK barging shipments north and south out of Eureka may be all that is required to support and grow business at a rate the community is comfortable with. Doesn't the simplest solution make the most sense?

$600 mil to fix Eel River vs $1 Bil to build the East West route. What is the year over year maintenance forecast for both? What is Eureka expected to invest into their roadways for the next 50 years? If road traffic picks up and trucks shipments pick up and beat the heck out of the roads, who's going to pay the bill for that? Are the industries that ship cargo on truck going to pay a tariff to help subsidize the roads they help beat to heck? Is it the citizens that will pay the bill entirely?

Will the next generation be dealing with growth and no cost effective way to handle it because we all decided to drop the ball now and not ask enough questions, then looked at all transportation modals over a 50 year period and add up the numbers? Perhaps taking on large forward thinking projects is out of our capability as Americans now... If we had to build the Panama Canal now, would we do it or let another country handle it? hmmmmm....kind of sad we lost our edge as a country if that is the case.

Comment by Michael H Harrison on August 2, 2013 at 1:39pm

I have to say... that new train routes need to come out for these simulators... you can only take the Marias Pass so many times before you become board... a new route would sell fast for simulators. 

Comment by Jordan on August 2, 2013 at 1:06pm

@Michael Harrison:

Already working on it! My friend wants to do something like that, pending approval from his employer:

I like your light rail idea too. Many old unprofitable freight lines have been successfully converted to light rail lines, as is the case in a lot of SoCal. As for leaving the canyon alone, that might be best. There is no way to access a lot of it to remove the tracks and there is something symbolic about leaving the tracks and rolling stock in the canyon. Like the Titanic and USS Arizona.

@Mike Davis:

The upfront cost for a new route may be greater, but costs for any route in the long run will be far less than the Eel River canyon and its ridiculous maintenance costs. Currently, NO route is needed since there is not nearly enough business to sustain a railroad.

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