The Willits News


Skunk Train under new management
By Claudia Reed - Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 23, 2003 - Wed Apr 23 13:05:08 2003 -- Life-saving loan comes through

Neil Bagaus is part of a new management team determined to get the Skunk Train back in the black. Once that happens, he says, plans call for reopening the Willits connection.

"We're taking it one step at a time," Bagaus said. "There's just enough to do Fort Bragg to Northspur this year, but the long-range plan is to restore service to Willits."

The Willits run stopped in December 2002, when the California Western Railroad, which owns the 117-year old Skunk Train, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with reorganization in mind.

Roundtrip service between Fort Bragg and Northspur Station will continue through the summer with the help of a $250,000 loan split 50-50 between the City of Fort Bragg and the Savings Bank of Mendo-cino County. Northspur is the midpoint stop between Fort Bragg and Willits.

In addition to providing three-hour excursion runs, the Skunk will continue to deliver mail, pick up passengers who live in cabins along the rail line during the summer months, and serve a Boy Scout camp and a San Francisco Boys and Girls Club camp. The train is also available for charters.

Bagaus, who arrived on the scene April 7 to take the position of general manager, is scrambling to complete preparations for the summer season, which begins May 24. That's when the trains will begin leaving Fort Bragg at 10 a.m. daily with an additional run at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Given the short time span, Bagaus has an ambitious to-do list designed to retain what's been most successful about the train run and improve what's been problematic.

Renewing the contract with train singer Greg Schindel of Willits is a high priority item.

"He's definitely willing," Schindel's wife Donna told The Willits News. "He's developed such an identity as a train singer it's hard to go on without a train."

Improvements Bagaus hopes to implement include addition of a concession car selling food and drinks, repair of the public address system which tells riders the story of the historic landmarks along the run, and replacement of the standing-room-only open-air viewing cars with those that offer seating and a rain roof. The replacement cars Bagaus wants are owned by California Western Railroad and currently located in Napa.

The train's greatest asset, the surrounding redwood forest, is already in place.

"I've ridden the train three times and couldn't believe sheer beauty of it," Bagaus said. "Three hundred and eighty-one curves. Thirty-three trestles. The rivers. The waterfalls. Breathtaking! I have not gotten tired of it."

Bagaus says he now rides the train several times a week to talk with passengers and obtain feedback about the run. Currently, he's seeking ideas and offers for the use of Northspur Station, a redwood grove fitted out with picnic tables and enclosures that formerly provided hot food and cool craft items. Would art shows be a good idea? How about musical events?

"I've had people from Vegas call me," he said.

Bagaus is just one part of the group of professionals working on making the railroad turn a profit. Bankruptcy Trustee Mike Meyers recently announced the firm HPX, L.L.C. has been retained to "manage the train and bring new ideas to the table." In addition to Bagaus and Meyers, members of the new management team include: Jeff Jackson, senior vice president of American Heritage Railways; William Colley, supervisor of operations; Doug Prescott, HPX principal; and David Chandler, attorney.

People with ideas and offers concerning train operations and the use of the Northspur Station recreational site are encouraged to call Bagaus at 964-6371. Those wishing to reserve charter runs or purchase tickets can call the ticket agent at (800) 777-5865.