Short Line : Childhood Love Draws Carmen Chappell to Presidency of Ventura County Railway

Times Staff Writer

As a tot, Carmen S. Chappell would lay in bed feigning sleep, awaiting the nightly shrieks and rumblings that shook her parents' California bungalow the way a fox terrier shakes a rat.

Then she'd creep out of bed and climb through the window to meet the steam-engine trains that screeched to a halt nightly at the Trona Railway interchange, near China Lake, where her father worked as road master.

Decades later, Chappell, one of 13 children, still recalls the faces and drawls of soot-smudged train engineers who gravely tipped their hats, admonished her about schoolwork and doled out candy and chewing gum to a little girl up way past her bedtime, breathless in the dark of the Mojave Desert but shivering with pride.

"I can remember their names, I'd be standing there waiting just so excited I thought I would burst," Chappell says, savoring the memories of a childhood love that led to her present job: president of the Ventura County Railway Co.

The company operates one of the nation's 346 short-line railroads--a burgeoning branch of the railroad industry that runs on tracks of 100 miles or less--and Chappell is one of the very few women at their helm.

"She is a very competent and knowledgeable railroader," says Thomas C. Dorsey, vice president and general counsel of the American Short Line Railroad Assn., a trade group based in Washington. "No question about that, Carmen is very active and helpful in our group and enthusiastic about diving into issues."

And though its trains don't travel faster than 10 miles per hour, the Ventura County Railway is on the fast track.

Business has tripled in the past four years, Chappell says, stoked by expansion of the Port of Hueneme and a growing industrial base in Oxnard. Each day, the little blue-and-yellow engines of the Ventura County Railway swing by the port, delivering a cargo that might include refrigerated citrus grown in Camarillo and picking up goods such as BMWs from Germany and Jaguars from England. The railway handles freight, not passengers.

"Our railroad is only 13 miles long, but we're just as wide as the rest of them," says Martin V. Smith, an Oxnard-based businessman who bought the 78-year-old railway in 1958.

Smith says that in addition to running the railway, Chappell calls on potential customers such as Mercedes-Benz, trying to drum up business and woo shippers away from truck lines. The railway has about 50 customers, he says.

Promoted in 1986

"She came to us in our traffic and tariff department in 1981 and just kind of took charge," says Smith, who promoted Chappell from traffic manager to president in 1986. "She's a capable, qualified gal."

Chappell, whose given name was Rosemarie Carmen Sarinana Orozco La Fuente de Perez (her parents were Spanish immigrants from Toledo and Madrid) is married to Robert Harris, an Amtrak conductor. She has two grown children from an earlier marriage. Between them, the couple have eight grandchildren.

Like many in the industry, she says the ties that bind her to the railroad are deep--railroading is in her blood. For Chappell, there's nothing as evocative as a distant train whistle.

"Oh yes, there's such a romance in trains that will never die. I do love the railroad," she says with a sigh.

The Ventura County Railway has three locomotives with 900-horsepower, turbo engines that run on diesel fuel; 187 boxcars, one caboose and 14 employees. Headquarters is a railroad yard in downtown Oxnard, on 5th Street across from the Oxnard "Jesus Saves" Rescue Mission. Around the tracks hover a motley collection of Thunderbird-chugging railroad bums.

Dead-End Ride

Chappell says that from time to time, the hobos unwittingly hop onto her railroad thinking they'll get a free ride to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Instead, "They end up at the Navy base, where they get arrested and taken off," Chappell says. "I do feel sorry for them."

The cars travel down two tracks: one that runs along the beach to the Port of Hueneme, another that goes through central and south Oxnard, past the industrial parks and old manufacturing warehouses that butt up against the track, and finally to the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center.

Clients include Smuckers, General Electric, Occidental Chemical Co. and Willamette Industries. The railway hauls everything from plastics to sand, lumber, refrigerated produce and autos.

In downtown Oxnard, the railroad hooks up with the Southern Pacific. From there, cargo is shipped throughout the United States.

One of the fringe benefits of working on a picturesque and historic railroad is that movie crews clamor to film there. Chappell says she accommodates requests so long as they don't interfere with the real train work. In recent years, Madonna shot scenes from "Who's That Girl" and Robert Stack shot segments of "Unsolved Mysteries." Tony Danza's "She's Out of Control," also includes shots filmed at the Ventura Railway.

Once Carried Passengers

The railway dates to 1911. Smith says it originally was built to service an Oxnard factory that extracted sugar from sugar beets. Back then, it also included passenger cars that took the populace of Ventura County for a day at the beach.

Smith bought both businesses in 1958, and although the sugar factory is long gone, the railway remains and flourishes.

Short-line railways saw a burst of expansion after 1980, when the Staggers Rail Act deregulated railroads, making it easier for the majors to sell off unprofitable or marginal lines. Since then, more than 200 new short-line railroads have been created.

While many--such as the Ventura Railway--do little more than feed freight into national trunk lines of bigger systems such as the Southern Pacific or Burlington Northern, their profits come from lower operating costs and greater flexibility in fitting the needs and schedules of shippers.

Chappell's Montalvo home is crammed with railroad memorabilia such as rail ties stamped with pre-World War II dates, antique railroad models, boxcar seals and relay switches.

'Lost Without It'

"I'd be lost without it; I don't know any other life," Chappell says. "I was raised in the middle of a desert and that railroad was my playground. All my games, all my activities as a child were playing around the railroad ties and smelling the newness of the tar that they used to coat the ties," Chappell recalls.

Using the railroad yard as their personal playground--the closest town was Ridgecrest, 17 miles away--Chappell and her 12 brothers and sisters would clamber up onto the locomotives and race over the railroad ties.

The family lived by the tracks near a water tank where the steam engines stopped, and on hot summer evenings the children practically lived on their long front porch, where they watched the trains come and go a mere 20 feet away.

Chappell graduated from high school at 15 and went to work for the Trona Railroad after her father, Jose Orozco, died in 1964. There she remained for 14 years, handling shipments and accounts, earning promotions to assistant freight agent and ultimately, traffic manager.

On Bowling Trip

She applied to the Ventura Railway on a fluke in 1981, while passing through town on her way to a bowling convention in San Diego.

When Smith called her bluff and hired her, she reluctantly left Trona.

At first, Chappell says, she struggled with some male chauvinist, Casey-Jones types who didn't want to acknowledge that a woman could run a railroad.

"I'd go to conventions and we'd have question-and-answer periods and I'd raise my hand but I was always overlooked," she recalls. Today, however, Chappell is secretary of the Pacific branch of the American Short Line Railroad Assn., and other railroaders often turn to her for information, she says.

She works about 60 hours a week, spending as much time inside the office mapping out train schedules as outside in the yard, supervising details such as installation of a rubberized railroad crossing or replacing the line's 50-pound rails with 90-pound ones.

"I never dreamed I'd be working here," Chappell says. "I always told people I was raised at one end of the Trona Railway and I'm going to die at the other. I never thought I'd achieve this."

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