Times-Standard - Editorial - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Let the man make his rail purchase pitch

It's not every day that someone says he want to buy a railroad. That has just happened, however, and it raises questions about just where things stand with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and where they are going. Or not going.

The rail has been down since winter storms in 1997 washed out sections of the track in the Eel River Canyon. To have a railroad run to the Humboldt Bay port would be a boon in a time of some depressing changes in Humboldt County, and may be able to buy us a little time while the place catches up with the rest of the county -- in its own style, of course.

Just how the county gets the rail doesn't matter, so long as it does. Ted Niemeyer, who says he's a longtime Chicago rail man with experienced associates, wants the chance to negotiate with the North Coast Railroad Authority. But the authority's board has already turned him down, without ever seeing a proposal.

Undaunted, Niemeyer is working on one anyway. We question why the board has turned him down, telling him the board wants the railway to be publicly held. That there has been prior correspondence with Niemeyer still doesn't justify this position. No one on the board is willing to call Niemeyer a wackjob, so why not give him a chance to make an offer?

After all, the authority isn't exactly moving at Bullet Train speeds in getting the line reopened. That's typical of a public entity. We think the authority board should be open to any option that will get the line open as soon as possible, and still meet the environmental and safety standards required. And while we raise our collective eyebrows at Niemeyer's hope to get the line open and running trains within a year, we like his enthusiasm and optimism. He's even toured the Eel River Canyon -- the side of numerous slides that cut the rail in two -- and he still wants to make a go of it. Niemeyer said he has God on his side, and that's good, because he'll need benevolent power to accomplish his goal.

The bottom line is someone needs to fish or cut bait. We don't understand why the rail needs to stay in public ownership, and we wonder why Niemeyer or another potential buyer should be judged by the failure of the last private rail owner. It's not the end of the world to sit down with this guy, see if he's for real, let him make a formal proposal, and possibly go against the grain that seems to be imbedded too deeply in some of the authority members.

The timber and lumber industries are having a tough time. The fishing industry is bludgeoned. The county's only pulp mill is hemmed in without a rail line. Many great projects have to be re-thought, their original premise altered partway through their development. We hope the authority will rethink its position and offer a wary hand to Niemeyer. It shouldn't take long to find out if he's serious and whether he can walk the walk.