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Dispute could shut down Ventura County railway used in film shoots

Dispute could shut down Ventura County railway used in film shoots
Fillmore & Western co-owner David Wilkinson, shown in 2010, is fighting an eviction lawsuit. Behind him is a rail car being transported for filming of "Water for Elephants." (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

The local film industry's go-to location for shooting railway scenes could be nearing the end of the line.

Fillmore & Western Railway Co. may be forced to shut down as a result of a legal dispute with the Ventura County Transportation Commission, which recently filed a lawsuit to evict the company.


The Fillmore-based company, which owns 50 freight, passenger and commuter cars and 10 locomotives dating to the 1880s, calls itself Home of the Movie Trains.

For nearly two decades, Fillmore & Western has been operating a tourism excursion and movie rental business along the nearly 30-mile rail line that runs from Ventura to the Los Angeles County line east of Piru. The railway operates under a contract with the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

Now, the commission, which owns the line itself, wants to evict Fillmore & Western, saying the line is too costly to maintain. The company's owner disputes the claim and says Ventura is forcing it out of business.

The standoff comes at an awkward time for Ventura County, which has been taking steps in recent years to promote its film industry, which dates to the 1920s and operates in the shadow of Los Angeles County, where the vast majority of filming occurs.

"It's undoubtedly a major asset and it would be safe to say it is the most commonly and consistently used film site in Ventura County," said Bruce Stenslie, president of Ventura County's Economic Development Collaborative. "Its closure would take a big bite out of the financial and economic pie."

The prospect that it may be forced to shut down has raised widespread concerns in the film community. Fillmore & Western's trains, trestles and railway line have been featured in more than 300 commercials, TV shows and films, including "Water for Elephants," "Seabiscuit" and "The Lone Ranger."

"It's an iconic and historic location, and the fact that it is so close to L.A. is critical," said Amy Lemisch, director of the California Film Commission. "If it closes, it would be a loss because it adds to the diversity of our locations.... It would give our productions one less option."

Fillmore & Western Railway Co. has been a fixture in Southern California's film industry for nearly two decades. Since the late 1990s, the company has been operating its popular tourism excursion trains and renting out its line to film crews. The company signed a contract with the agency in 2001 to operate and maintain the line.

The arrangement generated little controversy until last year, when the Ventura County Transportation Commission sent an eviction notice to the company. The commission terminated the railway's lease to use the Santa Paula Branch Line effective Dec. 1, citing concerns that the county was paying Fillmore too much to operate and maintain the line.

Fillmore & Western ignored the request and continued operating, prompting the commission to file an eviction lawsuit against the company in March.

The commission has spent about $7.5 million since 2001 to maintain the railway. During the same period the county collected about $3.6 million in revenue from leases charged to farm owners along the train route as well as fees from filming and other activities, according to Darren Kettle, the commission's executive director.

Kettle also alleges that Fillmore & Western has not properly maintained railway crossings and signals on the corridor.

"They've not met the requirements of maintaining the line," he said. "They're creating a potential risk to the public."


David Wilkinson, co-owner of Fillmore & Western, disputes such claims, saying the specific maintenance issues cited by Kettle aren't his responsibility.

He has filed his own lawsuit against the commission, alleging it breached a contract that dates back to 2001.

"They've absolutely refused, no matter what they say, to sit down and negotiate with us," Wilkinson said. "It's been 'our way or the highway.' I'm not willing to accept that, so I look forward to my day in court."

The family-run company at one point employed as many as 35 people, including Wilkinson's wife, Tresa, and a son and sister-in-law. The company generated about $3 million a year in revenue, about half of it from film-related leases, Wilkinson told The Times in 2010.

The company could generate about $450,000 from a big movie like "Water for Elephants," but most of that would be eaten up by the costs of operating trains, replacing parts and paying for fuel and oil, Wilkinson said.

For most of his career, the Ojai resident worked as a film projection technician for Mann Theatres in Ventura County. Wilkinson left his day job at Mann and in 1996 bought the company, operating it under the Fillmore & Western name.

Wilkinson relied mostly on word-of-mouth referrals to expand the business and its fleet of trains, which include fully operational 1920s Pullman passenger trains and an 1891 Porter steam engine that was once used to haul lumber in Oregon.

"We bent over backward to make this a go-to place for Hollywood," he said.