ONLY 1 BID TO REOPEN RAIL LINE

Published on June 28, 2002
2002- The Press Democrat

BYLINE:    BOB NORBERG

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PAGE: E1

The southern half of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad is ready to reopen for freight operations, but only one company has expressed interest in running the long-dormant line.

Woodside Consulting of Menlo Park made the lone response to the railroad's request for bids to run freight operations, said railroad authority general manager Max Bridges.

And that proposal was only made with the belief the line will reopen in five years all the way to Eureka, where the bulk of the potential shippers are located.

``There is no question the railroad is more viable when you have the entire railroad reconnected, but there is enough freight to haul on south end to make it work in the short-term,'' said John Williams, Woodside Consulting president. ``But if there was not the plan to rebuild the entire railroad, I would not have submitted a proposal.''

Before closing four years ago, the rail line had been used mostly to ship logs, wood products and gravel from companies in Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. The reopening of the line likely would give companies a cheaper alternative to trucking their product. The rail line also would be expected to reduce truck traffic on highways 101 and 299.

Meanwhile, the Eureka business community considers rail service crucial to developing Humboldt Bay, the only deep-water port between San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

Williams' proposal will be evaluated by a committee of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency which co-owns and oversees operations on the rail line. The terms were not released.

The rail line runs 273 miles from Schellville near Sonoma to Eureka. So far, some $70 million in public funds have gone into purchasing, running and repairing the railroad after a series of disastrous storms dating back to 1991.

It is owned by two public agencies representing the counties and Golden Gate Bridge District, with maintenance and operations overseen by the North Coast Railroad Authority.

Since the last storms in the winter of 1998, the line has been closed by massive slides in the fragile Eel River Canyon between Willits and Eureka, where the bulk of the freight originates, and has run only sporadically from Willits south to Schellville, where it joins the national rail network.

 

``I think the problem is the portion of the railroad we can run doesn't have enough freight to make it worth their while,'' said Bridges, referring to the lack of interest by potential operators. ``The railroad needs to operate as a whole, to Eureka.''

Since winter 1998 storms, the railroad has been open on two occasions for a total of 12 months. The last time trains ran, from February to September 2001 between Penngrove and Schellville, 300 carloads were carried.

In all, about $7 million in repair work has been done on the line between Schellville and Willits to replace rail and bridges that washed out, repair crossing signals and cut brush.

John Darling's RailWays Inc., a private rail company, had run the service, but suspended operations in a dispute with the North Coast Railroad Authority over payment for maintenance work.

Darling said Thursday he believes there is enough freight from Willits south to make an operation profitable, but wouldn't say whether he would negotiate to resume the service.

``It will be marginally profitable, but you cannot afford to stop there,'' said Darling, referring to the need to reopen the line to Eureka for the market of lumber, wood products and gravel.

Bridges said repairing the slides through the Eel River Canyon would cost about $40 million, which the rail authority has in state and federal funds. Work would take about five years.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bnorberg@pressdemocrat.com.