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’
“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.