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.

This post was last revised on May 28, 2020 @ 7:07 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel

7 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.

  1. The Eureka Southern did not get the line in 1980! The Eureka Southern did get the line November 1, 1984. And stopped after major flooding and heavy wash outs happened that closed the line. The Eureka Southern did not have the funding to repair the damage. I am into model trains and I am modeling this line to the sell date in 1984. I have followed it’s history. In my opinion if the railroad went back to Eureka the port there could be used again! It would put a lot of people back to work again. It would be a good bulk port. And not as busy as the Oakland or as expensive. Just get it done!!!

    • Steven Sipes again. For what I understand is there are plans that were done that had been drawn to follow the Klamath river and tie in with the CORP north of Yreka.

    • Thanks for the clarification about the Eureka Southern startup date.

      If I remember correctly, there was a proposal floated about restoring freight service between Willits and Schellville. I heard something to the effect of interchanging intermodal containers between railcars and container ships calling at the port at Fort Bragg, which I understand is a deep water port, much deeper than the current one at Oakland. NWP service restored to Willits and a connection with the California & Western could make such an operation possible. However, with the recent Panama Canal expansion, whether or not such a proposal remains feasible today I can’t say.

  2. https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2017/dec/15/railroad-news-citing-uncertain-future-california-t/

    “8. Create a committee of stakeholders to explore potential improvements to the North Coast Railroad Authority.

    “The Commission recommends that the Legislature create a committee of stakeholders involved in the development and operation of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) to explore various scenarios for the Authority’s future.

    “NCRA was created by State law in 1989 to maintain and expand rail service to the North Coast area of the State. There have been a series of loans and grants of federal and State funds provided to NCRA to purchase right of way, rolling stock and other equipment, and make improvements and repairs to related facilities.

    “Between 1991 and 2008, the Commission allocated Proposition 116, Transportation Planning & Development (Transit Capital Improvement Program), and Traffic Congestion Relief Program (TCRP) funding. The last reimbursement request by and authorized payment to NCRA by the Department was processed in January 2012.

    “In a recent presentation to the Commission, NCRA leadership shared that the enterprise is having difficulty maintaining and expanding rail service, has never been self-sufficient, and is routinely unable to pay its obligations. The Commission asked the NCRA representatives to provide a business plan identifying potential responsible directions the Authority can implement moving forward. To date, the NCRA has been unable to produce a plan that makes the business case for its existence.

    “Given the uncertain future direction expressed by the Authority’s management, the Commission believes that it is in the best interest of the state that a committee of stakeholders be formed to oversee the development of a plan for the future of this statutorily-created enterprise.”

    (Editor’s Note: Content of this comment published originally in the 2017 report to the state legislature from the California Transportation Commission, as so noted in: “RAILROAD NEWS: Citing ‘Uncertain Future,’ California Transportation Commission Calls for Special Committee to Hash Out What to Do With the North Coast Railroad Authority,” published Dec. 15, 2017 in the Lost Coast Outpost, representative link: https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2017/dec/15/railroad-news-citing-uncertain-future-california-t/

    • In the report in question, and with respect to item 8, paragraph 3 above, there is reference to the “Department.” I take it that the “Department” reference here refers to the California Department of Transportation. I could find no other information suggesting otherwise.

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