Light at the End of the Tunnel for a Struggling Little Railroad
Ricky Lee Scheierman is a man who’s just happy to be back on track.
With a blast of his big locomotive’s whistle, the veteran train engineer eases Engine No. 6413 and its dozen follow-the-leader freight cars away from the tiny station here and chugs westward.
The 316-mile Northwestern Pacific Railroad, among the nation’s most troubled train lines, recently reopened 27 miles of track after being closed in 1998 by federal regulators--the first railroad in U.S. history to be entirely shut down for chronic safety violations.
The publicly owned line, which runs between Sonoma and Humboldt counties, was also sued by the state that year for allegedly polluting the scenic Eel River, a habitat for the endangered coho salmon.
Now, thanks to a $60-million state bailout, the Northwestern Pacific is steaming toward a comeback, with operators hoping to beat formidable odds--including foul weather, soaring costs and a history of poor maintenance and management--to begin turning a profit.
“You have to be a railroad man to understand the thrill of being back on this train,” said the raspy-throated Scheierman, wearing blue-striped overalls with stores of unfiltered Lucky Strikes and Skol chewing tobacco in the front bib. “This job gets in your blood.”
Not everyone is happy to hear the train whistles blaring again. The line sits at the center of a tug of war between environmentalists and business interests over its role in revitalizing the ailing North Coast economy.
Businesses say the line is critical to returning commerce to a soggy region that often receives more annual rainfall than Seattle and where roads are often flooded by winter storms. Since the closure of the historic railroad, grain, gravel and lumber companies have been shipping their products by more expensive trucks.
Activists question whether the government should continue pouring taxpayer dollars into a rail line they call a dangerous polluter and safety liability.
For their part, railroad managers say they are working to improve safety conditions. They are repairing track, fixing dozens of broken signals and removing waste oil and spent locomotive batteries from the shores of the Eel and Russian rivers--all under the watchful gaze of government inspectors and local environmentalists.
So far, less than one-tenth of the line has been reopened--an easy-to-maintain stretch from Schellville to Petaluma. But rail officials hope to open an additional 30-mile segment this summer.
Eventually, they say, they will seek federal approval to reopen the line’s remaining 250 miles north to Arcata.
But between them and their goal sits a treacherous stretch through the Eel River Canyon in Humboldt County that is so isolated that it runs nearly 96 miles without a road crossing of any kind. El Nino storms closed the segment a full year before the government shutdown, and officials haven’t even returned to assess the damage.
Opened in 1914, the Northwestern Pacific is the state’s only publicly run all-purpose railroad, overseen by the seven-member volunteer North Coast Rail Authority. In 1992, the panel bought the line’s northernmost 180 miles from Southern Pacific Railroad with $6.1 million in public funds. A consortium of public agencies bought the southern segment in 1996 for $29 million.
“People say we can’t make this line profitable, but our attitude is we’re just going to have to show them,” said Cloverdale Mayor Bob Jehn, who recently stepped down as Rail Authority chairman. “And until we run three years in a row, we won’t win any believers.”
Rail operators eventually want to also carry tourists and commuters from San Francisco and the Napa Valley beyond the “redwood wall” to the state’s northernmost reaches.
But such high hopes rankle critics, who would rather see the line’s state funding used for the less troublesome U.S. 101. The railroad hasn’t provided regular passenger service since 1971 and barely survived hauling freight for a waning lumber industry.
And while rail veterans such as Scheierman, 43, were recalled when the trains began hauling freight again in February, money problems persist.
Rail operators--once more than $12 million in debt--have been paying off creditors, thanks to their new state funding. But Scheierman’s bosses at Northwestern Pacific Railway Co., which two years ago signed a contract with the Rail Authority to operate the line, still struggle to make their payroll.
“Right now, we don’t know if we’ll get paid,” he said. “On the Northwestern Pacific, we go day by day.”
And operators are going to need all the money they can get to reopen the line’s weather-plagued northern end. With its routine winter washouts, historians say, the stretch in Humboldt and Mendocino counties remains the most expensive track to maintain in North America.
In the six years before the railroad was closed by government order, state and federal officials invested $60 million in the line, much of which went to repair washouts in the Eel River canyon. Operators admit that bad weather could still cause millions of dollars in damage.
And officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency warn railroad operators that once they reopen the precarious northern end, disaster relief money will be harder to come by.
“Our future involvement in this railroad is going to be rather limited,” said Harry Sherwood, who manages FEMA’s public assistance program in several Western states. “They should be forewarned.”
A 1998 federal study found that it would take $642 million--more than 10 times the state’s current investment--to upgrade the track to meet government standards to handle passengers, he said.
“Give me a break,” responded Jehn. “People talk like this line is a pie-in-the-sky boondoggle, a black hole for tax dollars. They don’t realize the state spent $100 million last year repairing Highway 101 in just two counties. Well, we run through the same terrain.”
Environmentalists are also running out of patience.
“The Northwestern Pacific is both an economic and ecological disaster,” said Cynthia Elkins, legal director of the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center. “History shows the railroad is going to continuously be knocked out of service by the weather. And with each slide triggered by the railroad, there’s lots of environmental damage.”
Patty Clary, director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxins in Arcata, said the railroad has caused more ecological damage than even the lumber industry.
She said that operators have dumped creosote ties and pushed soil into the Russian and Eel rivers and that locomotive engines continue to leak diesel oil. “They don’t have money to open that railroad without violating every environmental law we have,” Clary said.
Rail operators say they inherited a line in disrepair from Southern Pacific. To settle the state’s 1998 lawsuit, they are working to correct the pollution problems, they say. “People say we should close this railroad down and abandon it because it’s best for the animals,” Jehn said. “We don’t agree.”
Meanwhile, former railroad customers wait impatiently for the line to reopen. Dick Caletti, director of Standard Structures, a Santa Rosa-area wood products manufacturer, said he has spent an extra $300,000 a year to ship his product by truck since the railroad closed.
“For critics to say this rail line is dangerous is just plain bogus,” he said. “We can do the environment right. Just give [it] a chance.”
Nowadays, Scheierman can only run the 3,000-horsepower locomotive at 10 mph under federal restrictions imposed because of the questionable condition of the track.
But he envisions one day whisking south from Eureka at 60 mph with a load of San Francisco-bound tourists, the wind in his face and a smile on his face.
“Hey,” he said with a cackle, “it could happen.”
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On Track, for Now
Northwestern Pacific Railroad has reopened 27 of the 316 miles closed in 1998 by regulators because of safety and environmental concerns. Seeking to reopen the line from Schellville to Arcata, officials are battling environmental critics and bad weather along its northern end.