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November 21,2001
The Humboldt Beacon
By Rhett Stephens


Humboldt County has not heard the clacking of wheels running over track, nor heard the telltale whistle of a train, in nearly four years.
In February of 1998, the higher powers stopped the railroad: El Nino storms closed the northern end of the route; then the Federal Railroad Authority closed the southern end. In subsequent years, faltering starts have been made to try to re-establish service from the Napa Valley to the Samoa Peninsula. The tracks still remain silent, but attempts are ongoing to revive the railroad.
Max Bridges, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) said that the NCRA is firm in its intention to re-establish the entire line, linking the counties and allowing rail transport of materials from Humboldt Bay to the wine valley. The state is behind the undertaking, and has earmarked $60 million to aid in the re-establishment of the line.
Bridges said that to date, NCRA has received $16.5 million from
California. He said that of that money, $10 million was used to pay previous debts. Although even that is not enough to cover the entire amount owed, it pays for a very substantial portion. Bridges said that $5.5 million is being used to repay a federal loan, and that $400,000 is going toward administration costs.
This leaves $600,000 for the physical amendments required to reopen the line. Bridges said that currently the track is being cleaned up to make it operational again. "Contractors are currently working on repairs between Windsor and Willits," he said. They are cleaning up damaged sections of the line and replacing railroad ties where necessary.
The portion of track between Windsor and Willits is expected to be the first to reopen. Bridges said that he expects that track to be repaired by the end of the year. However, this alone does not constitute a functioning rail line. Bridges said that currently NCRA has no operator to run the trains. NCRA had contracted with Northwestern Pacific Railway Company to run the line, and it looked as if things were beginning to move. Trains were running between Napa and Penngrove until September of this year. However, funding was running short and holding up operations. NCRA and Northwestern attempted to take interim measures to maintain progress on the line, but financial disputes between the two entities resulted in a termination of the partnership.
NCRA is looking for a new operator. "We've talked with neighboring railroads," Bridges said, "and we will eventually put out invitations
for proposals." However, he explained that contracting with operators is largely contingent upon the opening of the line to Eureka, because connecting Humboldt Bay to the southern counties creates the potential for lucrative freight shipment between the two areas. So, operators want to know when the entire line will be functional before they sign on.
Bridges said that serious construction work will be required in order to establish service to Eureka. He said that NCRA is working with environmental and engineering consultants to ascertain precisely what needs to be done in order to make the line functional again.
In the past, the railroad has met with resistance from certain environmental groups concerned with the impact of the re-establishment of the line, particularly through the middle fork of Eel River Canyon. Bridges, however, contends that the re-establishment of rail service would prove to be a boon to the environment. "It's consistent with a Green perspective," he said. He said that using trains to ship freight would result in less emissions and less traffic on the roads.
Bridges acknowledged that in the past, the  rail industry has engaged in some construction practices that were environmentally detrimental.
However, he said that new standards and new methods are in place now that are much more eco-friendly. He said that in the past, railroad materials were often simply dumped over banks. This is no longer the modus operandi. "We would be operating with minimized environmental impact," he said.
Bridges was reluctant to speculate regarding the length of time it will take to reopen the entire line. He said that it is a long and complicated process. "It will certainly be more than a year before the whole line is open," he said
.

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