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NA: How many trains coming?
Wednesday 2 Jan 2008, 03:36
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad

Novato Advance has a nice little article. To be clear, NCRA is talking about having the railroad done up to Windsor done by July 2008. The quarry at Island Mountain is an existing one, only expanded. Some people say the Southern Pacific used the ballast from there, to their mainlines, for it was good. leaving the NWP to have river run, which is inferior, for it doesn’t lock together.

By Tim Omarzu
Managing Editor
Wednesday, January 2, 2008 12:25 PM PST

If freight trains roll through Novato again, should residents expect The Little Train That Could or Grand Central Station?

In other words, will Novatans see three 15-car trains per week — the modest number that railroad officials say they’ll start with?

Or will the railroad grow until 16 freight trains per day of various lengths rumble through town around the clock — a concern raised in the city of Novato’s lawsuit against the North Coast Railroad Authority?

There’s no clear answer.

Unknowns include whether Sonoma County’s trash would move by rail; that would require a 60-car train six days per week. Another big uncertainty is whether the train would ever haul freight through the landslide-prone Eel River Canyon.

A look at the railroad line, its history and various scenarios under which freight trains would operate may give some clues about what to expect.

Modest start

For starters, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad plans to run three 15-car freight trains per week, hauling such things as grain and lumber, between Windsor in Sonoma County and Lombard, at Highway 29 in Napa County, which leads to the Union Pacific mainline.

That’s according to John Williams, the railroad’s president.

Williams, whose office is in Palo Alto, doesn’t own a yard full of locomotives, freight cars and the like.

Instead, he plans to lease a locomotive. It would haul freight cars from the main line, so Williams won’t need his own freight cars.

“It’s a simple railroad to operate. I don’t need many people,” he said.

Williams said he’s worked in the train business “all my life” including as a “brakeman, conductor, assistant train master and train master.” He worked 44 years for Southern Pacific and was chairman of the board of the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad Co., which Williams helped found in the mid-1980s.

Williams is hoping to get a contract to haul Sonoma County’s trash, about 40 percent of which now is trucked to the Redwood Landfill just north of Novato on Highway 101.

Sonoma County officials are analyzing the possibility of shipping trash by train to landfills in Nevada, Utah or some other less-expensive location.

Hauling Sonoma’s trash would require 60 flatcars, each of which would be 60 feet long — so the train would be about 3,600 feet in length, Williams said. The trash would be hauled inside truck trailers.

“You load up the trailer … and put it on a flat car,” Williams said. “So instead of having 60 trucks driving down Highway 101, there’d be one train.”

This is the first railroad that Williams has ever owned. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad was founded in 1907, and was absorbed by Southern Pacific in 1992.

“I claimed the name. That’s what the railroad’s always been, so it’s going to continue in the future,” Williams said.

He said that there are about 500 small railroads around the country that feed into mainlines.

“It’s similar to the feeder airlines, the little airlines like United Express or Delta Connect. The little railroads work the same way,” he said.

Williams said he’s personally invested several million dollars in the railroad, and he believes he can make a profit.

“I can make it work between Lombard and Windsor,” he said. “I haven’t paid much attention north of Windsor.”

City’s skepticism

Novato City Manager Dan Keen doesn’t agree that the Northwestern Pacific Railroad can make it, financially, by just running between Lombard and Windsor.

“To be fully viable, they would need to expand up to the Eel River,” Keen said. “There isn’t enough (business) … that’s why the rail line went defunct.”

Keen said, “There are documents that indicate that their long-term plan is to open (the Eel River section of track). We have to take that seriously. It’s really something that could happen.”

For example, Keen cited a 2002 study titled “The Long Term Financial

Feasibility of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad” that’s on the railroad authority’s Web site. Among its conclusions are that, “the railroad has to operate the entire 300 miles in order to have a positive cash flow” and “the addition of new commodities such as aggregates, solid waste or new activity from the Port of Humboldt Bay … could have a profound impact on the feasibility of the railroad.”

Keen thinks the freight train could be used to haul rock quarried from Island Mountain on the Eel River as well as containers shipped to the Humboldt Bay.

However those are both proposed ventures. The quarry doesn’t exist; and the idea of creating a container port at Humboldt Bay is just that — an idea. And both ideas are controversial for various reasons, including that environmentalists don’t want a quarry alongside the Eel, a state and federally designated wild and scenic river.

And then there’s another hurdle — maybe the biggest of all: the expense and difficulty of opening and maintaining railroad tracks in the rugged, remote, landslide-prone Eel River canyon.

“I have seen the railroad … in the Eel canyon deteriorate over the last 10 years … to a point where it’s not a railroad, anymore,” said Bob Koch. “The tunnels have caved in, some of them. The tracks are dangling on cliffs – these are not good cliffs, these are mud cliffs … in multiple sites.”

Koch was among the speakers at a July 31 meeting at Novato’s City Hall at which people commented about the railroad authority’s draft environmental impact report for opening 142.5 miles of railroad track between Lombard and Willits.

North of Willits, the track parts ways with Highway 101 and veers east to run along the Eel River Canyon. Most of the stretch is roadless, so not many people have seen it.

“I got there by river rafting,” said Koch at the July 31 meeting. He said he’s rafted the section of the Eel at least 10 times during the past 25 years.

Koch said that he’s camped at Island Mountain on his rafting trips and called the idea of making it into a quarry a “boondoggle.” Koch said that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has estimated it would cost $642 million to restore the Eel River section of track to level 1, which would allow freight to move at 10 mph.

Meanwhile, work is underway to fix the tracks between Windsor and Lombard.

“We’re committing about $35 million to repair the tracks,” said Mitch Stogner, Executive Director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that owns the line.

The railroad authority has awarded contracts for installing crossing signals, fixing bridges and “dewatering” a flooded area where the tracks run through Schellville in southern Sonoma County. New crossing signals have been purchased.

“Our goal is to have it all done by July ’08,” Stogner said.

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