NWP Rail is back: Stronger, better and greener than ever – Part 1

Amazing, incredible, miraculous is how one could characterize the resilient, successful and unrelenting rail enterprise that the Northwestern Pacific Railroad is. At the same time, it’s about as uncharacteristic a railroad-development story as there is. That said, in going from near-ruin to getting re-railed so to speak, it has been an arduous uphill climb and that’s putting the situation mildly.

The railroad suffered numerous setbacks. The rail enterprise, if you want to get down to brass tacks, in its so-far 110-year existence, has been to, literally, the depths and back (hint: we’re talking suffering flooding and washouts like you wouldn’t believe). Adding insult to injury, this particular pike at one time faced the threat of discontinuance, non-existence, termination – phrase it however you choose to. The silver lining here is, in overcoming tremendous adversity, today’s Northwestern Pacific is a solid, sound concern and will soon play host to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit or SMART commuter rail service. That this is the case speaks volumes!

‘The comeback kid’

Train at Santa Rosa in 1911

“The story of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company—operator for the North Coast Railroad Authority,” I wrote in Jul. 2011 in “Northwestern Pacific – ‘Paper Railroad’ No More” published at the California Progress Report “—has been bittersweet. The NWP, a scrappy little freight hauler, first arrived on scene in 1907, was 316 miles in length and formed via the combination of seven smaller railroads. In 1929, it was acquired by Southern Pacific and Santa Fe jointly, and operated as a subsidiary until 1977, enjoying a 70-year run. The latter, at one point, gave up its interest and it thus became the sole possession of SP.

“In 1980, 198 miles, from Outlet to Eureka, was sold to operator Eureka Southern. Eureka Southern was relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 years. In 1989, the North Coast Railroad Authority entered the picture as a result of the implementation of the North Coast Railroad Authority Act. On Feb. 1, 2003, according to the NCRA’s Web site: ‘The fact that the NCRA and its railroad, the Northwestern Pacific, have survived to date under the contradiction of a mandate without funding is not only a miracle but testimony to the tremendous dedication and sacrifices of the people involved with the railroad since its inception.’ The line from just north of Willits to Eureka was purchased by the State three years later. …”

Continuing, “In 2007, Novato filed a lawsuit against the NCRA claiming the cargo trains’ environmental impacts weren’t taken into consideration by the rail authority, according to Steve Hart in The [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat in ‘Freight trains to return to North Bay on Wednesday’.”

“Conditions of the settlement were such that low emissions locomotives would be utilized and that on a 19-mile stretch of track in and around Novato, the rails would be welded to help reduce train noise.”

Long story made shorter, the Novato City Council, by a 3-to-2 vote sided with the railroad authority, the authority arguing that because the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit was planning a welded rail upgrade in preparation for a planned 2014 start for its commuter rail operations, for the authority to be required to install welded rail in the designated section, in the authority’s view, would not have been public money put to good use.

“A total of $68 million was spent over the past four years on safety improvements at crossings and in rebuilding tracks and reconditioning railroad roadbeds, i.e., adding rock ballast and ties, and in brush and debris clearing, etc. This was done on 62 miles of track between Windsor and Napa County. For 10 years, service was interrupted on the NWPRR when Federal Railroad Administration officials in 2001 shut the railroad down, all on account of winter storm-related damage.”

It is a fascinating story, this Northwestern Pacific Railroad history is.

The effort to get commuter rail passenger service initiated between North Santa Rosa and San Rafael (and by 2019 to Larkspur and the Ferry Terminal located there) and what it took to pull that off, is what will be covered in Part 2.

2 thoughts on “NWP Rail is back: Stronger, better and greener than ever – Part 1

    • The portion of the meeting I watched that had to do with the NCRA and the NWP I must say that from what I saw (heard, actually), it is plain to see there are many factors regarding operations. As it relates, I do not know what the railroad or authority can share with the public operations-related and I heard something to this effect during comment presented, if I recall correctly, by Mr. Stogner (not sure of the spelling). I specifically heard the terms “business plan” and “shutdown plan” – from what I could tell, it was motioned that both will need to be submitted to the California Transportation Commission (by the NCRA and/or NWP) at the time of the CTC’s convening in October later this year.

      Moreover, I heard that to put in a spur to serve a business interest that desires to have rail service, due to the degree of track quality required, apparently, this would cost north of $700,000. In fact, reference was made to one brewery interested in utilizing freight rail service, apparently. Whereas previously, according to what I understand, the cost to install a spur would have been in the neighborhood of $100,000 which, by the way, the railroad would have been on the hook for, it is apparently now the customer who is responsible for providing said capital for said spur installation. It was also mentioned that there were 2 costly lawsuits filed against the NCRA (costly to the authority apparently) and I learned as well that not only is the NCRA responsible for overseeing freight train service (effectively between Windsor and Napa – not sure where in Napa, sorry) where, apparently, the one freight interchange connection exists between the NWP and Union Pacific?, but, too, the portion between Windsor and Eureka; the portion of the line currently seeing non-use. It is important to note, I feel, that from what I also heard, on the section that currently has freight train service, that that service is profitable.

      As it relates, that the part of the railroad that will apparently never see service again, this real property could be sold – this almost goes without saying, it seems to me. Doing such anywhere along the line could help the railroad better meet operating expense obligations.

      And, the point made about positive train control, I am fully aware that having that capability as the NWP has, doesn’t come cheap. PTC’s cost can run into the billions of dollars depending on installation and extent of the technology utilized.

      I would be remiss if I did not point out that direct passenger train service to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal will be a huge benefit once that happens. But, as I understand things, this won’t happen until 2019. Do correct me if I’m wrong but, from what I understand, the City of Larkspur in the past ordered a key railroad drawbridge span be removed in Larkspur that, if this is indeed correct, will need replacing. I can’t help but wonder who will be the party responsible for covering that cost.

      Meanwhile, in the article above, it appears the original startup date or that which was projected for SMART service to start was in 2014. I am now wondering if the lawsuits filed against the authority contributed to the startup of such being as it were, 3 years behind schedule.

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