Horses graze on the high grass next to idle maintenance equipment. Madrones and oak saplings sprout between railroad ties. An abandoned freight car disappears into the black grit riverbank.
Nature is rapidly reclaiming the savage Eel River Canyon from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. Money approved two years ago by Gov. Gray Davis in a last-ditch bid to revive the freight hauler has been frozen by California’s budget crisis.
There’s little chance the funds will be restored. After 11 costly years of infrequent service interrupted by massive mudslides, slapdash maintenance and chronic mismanagement, the state’s experiment as a railroad baron may be reaching the end of the line.
Critics, including North Coast environmental organizations, say that is a good thing.
“Ideally,” said Cynthia Elkins, spokeswoman for the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center, “we should have cut our losses a long time ago and discontinued this economic and ecological disaster, lifting the burden from the shoulders of California taxpayers.”
Supporters of the railroad insist that the 300-mile line connecting the Bay Area to the Humboldt coast is a vital freight transportation link in the economically depressed region.
If the Northwestern Pacific is finally derailed by budget constraints, they say, taxpayers might have to pay even more -- potentially hundreds of millions of dollars -- to clean up the mess left behind.
The railroad cannot simply be abandoned or the state would face “huge environmental and economic liability,” said state Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata), who represents the area.
Doug Christy, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public body created by the Legislature to run the railroad, said the authority hopes to use federal disaster funds originally designated for the Eel River Canyon to salvage the southern half of the railroad between Willits and Napa.
But, Christy said, state budget cutbacks have scrapped ambitious plans to rebuild the treacherous 110-mile section of track north of Willits where it passes through the Eel River Canyon.
“It’s all about money,” he said, “and we don’t have it.”
For state transportation officials, many of whom have consistently opposed the state’s costly and controversial experiment as a freight railroad operator, the budget setback is another chapter in what they view as an ongoing saga of wasted public funds and ill-considered policy.
“I was never satisfied in my mind that this railroad was essential. For the state, it’s been a bottomless pit,” said Peter Hathaway, a former deputy director of the California Transportation Commission and author of a 1997 report critical of state participation in the railroad.
Over the years, the North Coast Railroad Authority has been the subject of an extraordinary number of critical financial audits, negative environmental assessments and poor safety reports by state and federal authorities.
One state Department of Transportation audit classified the public body as high-risk. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials at one point refused to release disaster relief funds until the railroad authority could prove that the money would be used to repair the track and not for salaries, contractors or other expenses.
But due largely to lobbying by North Coast civic and business leaders, who see the railroad as a key to their economic future, the state has never been able to uncouple from its commitment.
“Rail is one of only three basic connections we have to the rest of California,” said Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser. “Highway 101 is a very fragile two-lane link frequently closed for weeks at a time. Highway 299 going east to Redding goes over four substantial ridges often blocked by landslides and snow. For freight, the railroad is our only realistic transportation corridor.”
Hauser, a member of the state Assembly from 1982 to 1996, is one of the coauthors of the 1992 bill that created the North Coast Railroad Authority. He later served as executive director of the body.
In addition to the profound sense of isolation felt here in the California north, there is also a powerful romantic attachment to the railroad dating to the days when the line hauled massive old-growth redwoods from the Humboldt and Mendocino County forests to the Bay Area.
Ruth Rockefeller, 85, is a former Willits schoolteacher who for years was the only woman to serve on the North Coast Railroad Authority board. She led the successful 1982 fight to stop Southern Pacific from abandoning the short-line Northwestern Pacific. (The line later was sold and closed anyway.)
“It would be criminal to let this railroad go now,” said Rockefeller, who recalls the time when the Northwestern Pacific hauled passengers as well as freight. “It’s a glorious ride through that canyon. For 70 miles there are no roads, just a beautiful river surrounded by geological wonder. In certain periods of the year, the Eel is almost an emerald green, flanked by cliffs that seem to go straight up in the air.”
Not everyone in the north thinks the railroad is such a gem. Laytonville newspaper editor Jim Shields has been writing about the “travails of the bankrupt, mismanaged North Coast railroad” for years in his Mendocino County Observer.
To Shields, 54, a former Southern California labor leader with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, the politically appointed seven-member railroad authority is composed of people with little or no background in railroads who “believe in the defiance of reality and, beyond the realm of reason, that they can open up the canyon and get it running again.”
Environmentalists also have rallied to try to block restarting the train.
The Environmental Protection Information Center recently published a tract titled “Ten Terrible Truths Behind the Northwestern Pacific Railroad.” In it, the group contends that the hidden reason behind the push to save the line is to “subsidize the logging, gravel and other extractive industries.” It argues that the railroad poses a threat to plants and 13 bird species including bald eagles, marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls.
Since the state bought the Northwestern Pacific out of bankruptcy in 1992, the line has been devastated by storms, sued by three state environmental agencies, cut off by creditors and ordered shut down by federal railroad inspectors.
Although state and federal agencies have given more than $110 million to keep the line operating -- including a $60-million infusion approved by Gov. Davis in 2000 -- not a single train has traveled the 110 miles of track that slithers through the remote Eel River Canyon since 1997, when El Nino storms destroyed much of the roadbed.
In an alarming report to his superiors at the California Department of Transportation in the summer of 2000, planner Daniel Yerushalmi said restoring the Northwestern Pacific would be like “building a railroad in Switzerland or Norway, the most difficult and unpromising location possible for railroad construction.”
Yerushalmi, a rail specialist who had worked previously for the Federal Railroad Administration, accused the state board that oversees the line of grossly underestimating the cost of resurrecting operations, which federal inspectors shut down in 1998 for numerous safety and maintenance violations.
“All in all,” Yerushalmi wrote in the memo, obtained by The Times, “the North Coast Railroad Authority resurrection would cost from $500 million to $1 billion and require a maintenance expenditure that would rule out profitable operation ever under any scenario. That is precisely why the Southern Pacific Railroad, despite its very deep pockets, was unable to maintain operations on the line.”
But Yerushalmi’s memo warning of an “economic and public relations disaster” came during the heady period of state budget surpluses when political leaders dreamed of a “new economy” fueled by the dot-com boom.
Facing reelection in 2002, Davis had come up with an ambitious $6.8-billion “traffic congestion relief program” that bypassed the Department of Transportation, the Transportation Commission and other state agencies, instead appealing directly to local leaders to come up with their own pet projects.
Topping the wish list of Sen. Chesbro, who also was facing reelection, was saving the Northwestern Pacific.
“As notorious as the railroad is,” said a senior transportation official working in the Legislature, “it always seems to find a champion like Sen. Chesbro who comes through for it.... It’s like that cousin you have in the family who has a substance-abuse problem but who keeps getting welcomed back.”
Instead of heeding Yerushalmi’s warning, the governor’s office recommended sinking $60 million into the state’s only publicly owned rail freight line. Rather than being rewarded for his efforts, Yerushalmi was reprimanded by his Caltrans boss for sharing his negative memo with a staff member of the Transportation Commission.
Faced with the current budget crisis, which has put a freeze on all but $18 million of the Davis rescue package, arguments by the railroad’s supporters have shifted from touting the line’s economic advantages to warning about the costs of a shutdown and cleanup. Those estimates range from $100 million to $500 million.
“Allowing the railroad to die,” said Arcata City Manager Hauser, “is not just a matter of walking away from it. It means going back in and removing the structures, rails, ties, tunnel and bridges from the Eel River Canyon. At the time of the proposed abandonment by Southern Pacific, this was three or four times the cost of rehabilitation.”
Because most of the Eel River portion of the line is inaccessible by road, the tracks would have to be restored so that dismantling equipment could get into the canyon.
“The ultimate irony,” said North Coast Railroad Authority director Christy, who recently announced he was quitting to take a job with a Wisconsin trucking company, “is that we aren’t going away even if it is decommissioned. You would have to build [another] railroad to clean it up.”