Workin' on the Railroad / The Northwestern Pacific rolls through glorious, rugged country -- but the line is one of the toughest in the nation to keep running. If it fails, a vital link between the North Bay and the North Coast will be lost.
Published 4:00 am, Sunday, September 7, 1997
1997-09-07 04:00:00 PDT Eureka, Humboldt County -- Most folks would have given up a long time ago. Quit the business, walked away. But railroad people are stubborn -- obsessive, romantic. The thought of closing down a line gnaws at their bones.
"I never gave up on anything," says George Scott, standing beside his repair truck at the Northwestern Pacific Railroad offices in Eureka, his hands caked with grease. "I could make a lot more money elsewhere. But I was born and raised here, and I want to see this thing survive."
Scott has slaved on the railroad for nearly 30 years. He oversees a crew of seven men and women who maintain the 32 tunnels and hundreds of bridges and trestles along the Redwood Empire route -- 315 miles of track known for its breathtaking scenery and treachery.
The railroad has been a linchpin of the North Coast economy since the beginning of the century -- a lifeline delivering passengers and freight to Marin, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties.
Its former passengers recall a glorious ride -- boarding at San Rafael, chugging over the rolling hills of Marin County, barreling past the lush vineyards of Anderson Valley, skimming across the Russian River, scaling the steep redwood canyons north of Willits, whistling through the salt air along the North Coast, pulling into Eureka. But for now: no passengers allowed.
Instead, the publicly owned rail line is a rusty freight hauler -- a dilapidated railroad straining to operate on a shoestring budget.
There have been numerous signs that the Northwestern Pacific Railroad is in trouble. It runs tired-out locomotives on badly worn track. It is $5.5 million in debt and losing thousands of dollars a month -- financial problems that could further delay efforts to run commuter trains in the North Bay.
Yet its black-and-red locomotives continue to snake through spectacular wilderness -- hauling loads of timber, plywood and wood pulp from sawmills in Blue Lake and Scotia, fresh milk from dairies and creameries near Fortuna, frozen seafood from Eureka fish processors, grain from Petaluma. And its train crews still ogle river otters and golden eagles along the way.
"For 30 years, I've been going to work and having fun," Scott says. "I wouldn't have it any other way -- except in the wintertime . . . when it's wet."
Running the Northwestern Pacific Railroad has always been a struggle -- one of the most difficult rail lines in America. Because of the rugged terrain and bad weather, it was one of the last U.S. rail lines to be built. Its northbound tracks did not reach Eureka until 1914.
Since its beginnings, the railroad has endured dozens of floods, floods that can wash out miles of track along the Eel River. It rains so hard sometimes that train conductors can only see 20 feet ahead of them. The tracks sit on a geologically unstable roadbed known for its devastating mudslides.
In 1972, four locomotives were derailed in the Eel River Canyon. In 1978, a fire destroyed the 4,000-foot- long Island Mountain tunnel.
Last January, the rail line was hit with heavy storm damage near Schellville in Sonoma County and along the Russian and Eel rivers. Tons of gravel and hundreds of railroad ties were washed away. Big sections of track were covered by mud and debris. One tunnel collapsed. The railroad spent $1 million for repairs; contractors and suppliers advanced it another $2.5 million, and the line reopened March 12.
During the dry months, the sun heats up some sections of rail like boiled spaghetti -- causing kinks that can derail a moving train.
"The trainman is a different breed," says Frank Lovio, the railroad's project manager. "People think it's easy, but there's a lot of stress. . . . You ask yourself, 'Am I going to stay on? What will I see around the corner?'
"In January, there wasn't one mile of our track where we didn't have something happen," he recalls. "There was either a washout, a sinkhole or a massive slide."
One mudslide in the Eel River Canyon grabbed a section of track half the length of a football field, raised it 35 feet and tossed it 75 feet from the roadbed.
"The soil is that blue goo you can't do anything with," Lovio says. "The mountains melt, and the roadbed disappears."
The "blue goo" is a clay-like material that oozes when it's wet. Railroad workers say it comes from deep within the Earth's crust, the product of tectonic plates scraping against each other under the coastal mountain range.
Like many others who work for the rail line, Lovio comes from a railroading family. His father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the days of steam engines. All four of his brothers now work for railroads.
Lovio was 14 years old in 1964 when a major flood hit the Eel River. The Lovio family lived in railroad quarters on top of a trestle at South Fork. Both the trestle and their house were swept away by the river.
The flood also wiped out 100 miles of track, washed away highway and railroad bridges and left Humboldt County isolated. It took six months to reopen the rail line -- a massive effort made possible only by Southern Pacific's vast resources.
"We have a 500-year flood every 10 years," Lovio says. "We've had five federal and three state disasters since 1992. The weather up here is the problem. This is like a training center for Railroading 101. If you can survive here, you can survive anywhere."
Lovio began working for the rail line in 1970 as a laborer, putting in ties near the mill town of Alderpoint. In those days, the hamlet had four bars to serve 500 people working at its sawmill. There were two southbound freight trains each day -- chock-full of lumber -- and dozens of logging towns along the route. The trains were pulled by as many as five locomotives.
But the North Coast timber industry reached its zenith in the 1970s. Environmental restrictions and the spotted owl controversy put a crimp on logging operations. Now, the mill at Alderpoint is closed. There's not a working bar in sight. And the lumber industry's demand for freight service is intermittent.
"Tourism is all we have left," Lovio says. "Lumber has plateaued."
In the last quarter of the last century, two short lines began serving towns from Sausalito north. They were merged in 1907 by two of the nation's most powerful railroads -- the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe -- who formed the jointly owned Northwestern Pacific. In 1914, following one fork of the Eel River, the line was extended all the way to Eureka.
Until 1935, a branch line delivered passengers to Russian River resorts like Guerneville, Monte Rio and Cazadero. Rail buff John Smissaert recalls taking the Guerneville train to visit his grandmother as a young boy. "It was raining like mad, and the train crossed the Hacienda Bridge at no more than 5 miles per hour," he says. "They were worried that the bridge might fail."
Smissaert, who lived in San Rafael in the 1950s, also recalls how northbound trains sometimes had a tough time getting over the San Rafael hills. "When the tracks were slick, the train's two locomotives had to occasionally back up and try again to get over the ridge." During its heyday, in the 1940s and '50s, the railroad provided night passenger service between San Rafael and Eureka.
San Francisco's legendary stockbroker, Dean Witter, was a frequent traveler on the Redwood Empire route. He often rode the train to and from his ranch in Mendocino County. When the railroad hit hard times in the 1950s, Witter was rumored to have lobbied to keep its passenger service going.
In the 1960s, a Budd-RDC car (a single, self-propelled "rail diesel car") took passengers from San Rafael to Eureka. But passenger service was dropped altogether in 1971.
By 1984, the railroad had proved to be a financial sinkhole for Southern Pacific, and the parent company sold the costly northern portions to businessman Brian Whipple. Whipple formed the Eureka Southern Railroad -- but after just 18 months, the Eureka Southern filed for bankruptcy. A federal bankruptcy trustee sold off large chunks of the railroad, including 26 miles of sidings and spurs.
In 1991, the state Legislature created the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), with the goal of purchasing the rail line out of bankruptcy -- which, one year later, the agency did.
Today, the railroad's headquarters is a small, one-story building at the Eureka depot. A few yards away, two rusty old boxcars serve as storage bins.
"It's an ill-equipped, financially burdened railroad," says Dan Hauser, the NCRA's executive director. "We don't have a tax revenue or any other sources of revenue except our freight revenue, so it's put us in a horrible cash-flow crunch."
The short line now hauls freight between Eureka, Novato and the Napa County town of Lombard, leasing the tracks south of Healdsburg from the joint powers board that purchased them last year.
A burly man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Hauser sits behind a desk at the Eureka depot. Nearby, a redwood block has his name carved in it. Photos of vintage trains are on the wall. A bookshelf displays a collection of caps from other railroads.
He is new to the railroad business. But as a former state legislator and longtime resident of Arcata, he's been a staunch advocate for the railroad since the early 1980s.
It's been a bumpy ride since he took over the reins 11 months ago. The railroad is in hot water with the Federal Emergency Management Agency because Hauser's predecessors in the early 1990s used FEMA money for operating expenses instead of emergency repairs -- and so far, FEMA has refused to cover any of the repair costs from last winter's damage.
During the spring, the railroad lost as much as $70,000 a month. The freight business has since picked up, but the rail line is still struggling to turn a profit. The railroad's 98 employees have had to put up with a few late paydays.
Hauser plans to eventually offer an excursion service along the North Coast. So far, because of the broken and ill-kept track, his other attempts to attract tourists -- including a "Wine Train" excursion service in the summer from Healdsburg to Ukiah -- have lost money.
The troubles resonate in Marin and Sonoma counties, where transportation planners hope to introduce commuter rail service in the next few years. They view Northwestern Pacific's excursion service as the first step toward running commuter trains between Cloverdale and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal -- and the freight line's difficulties have siphoned money away from their own project.
In June, the Federal Railroad Administration cracked down, ordering the railroad to stop weekend passenger service until 18 miles of track is fixed between Healdsburg and Willits. The track problems caused the city of Cloverdale to postpone its big fund-raiser -- the Celebrity Wine Train, a special train ride between Asti and Hopland.
In July, the railroad installed 2,000 ties near the town of Hopland to repair the track. But federal inspectors found new defects and ruled that the track was not fit to carry passengers. The celebrity event took place, but without a train ride.
Adding to Hauser's travails, there was a serious wreck in July at the Willits depot when four unmanned locomotives got loose. The engines rolled through the train yard, gathering speed on a downhill grade. A locomotive with a two-man crew was sitting nearby. The runaway engines -- each weighing 243,000 pounds -- smashed into it. The crewmen were knocked unconscious. The force of the impact caused the conductor's head to shatter a half- inch-thick bulletproof windshield. Two of the locomotives remain out of service.
Charlie Vogele, whose right eye was bloodshot two weeks after the wreck, points to strands of his hair still embedded in the locomotive's windshield. "We didn't even see it coming," he says.
Hauser insists that the railroad's problems are due to 30 years of neglect -- first by Southern Pacific, which fell behind in track repairs, followed by its successor, the Eureka Southern Railroad, and the bankruptcy trustee.
"We're playing catchup," he says. "The line is safe for freight, but not necessarily as safe as it should be for passengers. If the tracks were in halfway decent condition, we could make money on freight."
Government subsidies for freight lines are rare, but Hauser also blames the state's failure to pay any of the operating expenses of the railroad -- which is the only publicly owned freight line in California.
"The legislature recognized that the railroad was a vital part of the economy of the North Coast," he says. "But Governor Deukmejian deleted the money (from Proposition 116, which was approved by voters in 1990) to operate the railroad. I can't think of any business, especially a multimillion-dollar business, that would try to start up without operating money."
With government assistance, Hauser says, the railroad could carve out a "niche market" to deliver bulk goods between the North Bay and Eureka and enhance the prospects of turning Eureka into a lucrative West Coast port.
"It's hopeful that the state and federal government will realize that a publicly owned freight railroad deserves support," he says. "Every other civilized nation in the world says railroads are important not only in moving passengers but also goods."
Meanwhile, the railroad is lobbying for federal and state transportation funds to rebuild its worn track and repair bridges and tunnels.
Hauser says he fears shutting down the railroad. "My biggest concern," he says, "is the startup costs would be so much greater than hanging on day to day."
Jack Tremaine, an affable man in his 50s, has spent most of his life in the railroad business. Railroading is in his blood. His great-great- grandfather was a railroad employee -- killed by William Quantrill's band of guerrillas in the Civil War.
In early June, the NCRA's board of directors hired Tremaine as its operations manager, in charge of making the complex decisions that keep the freight line's daily schedule running smoothly.
"Dan (Hauser) knows how to find funds, and I know how to run a railroad," he says. "We need some breathing room so we can do it right. We're in a rehab mode. It's going to take a long time."
"Railroads have only one thing to sell, and that's service. And if you don't provide that, you're out of business. We have to re-establish our credibility and do things right."
Tremaine started out 38 years ago on the Rock Island Railroad in Iowa, and later worked on rail lines in Colorado, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Nevada. He did a brief stint on the Eureka Southern Railroad in the 1980s.
"These are good engines. They're good pullers," he says, showing off one of the railroad's 15 diesel-electric locomotives. In a pinch, Tremaine can operate a train. But these days, he's trying to keep the railroad from going belly up.
"This is probably one of the toughest railroads in the United States. Period," he says. "It's a tough line from Willits north. It's an engineering feat, constantly, just to keep it running. You pray for dry winters. We're trying to get the maintenance back on line. It's been let go for 10 or 12 years."
Forty-six men and women maintain the railroad's 315 miles of track. Their equipment includes front-end loaders, backhoes, spike pullers and tie cranes that can ride along the rail to trouble spots.
He's optimistic about the freight line, which can move 40 to 50 freight cars a day. Three-quarters of its load consists of forest products, including particle board and raw lumber. Generally, the railroad charges lower freight rates than trucks, especially for long distances.
"I've more business than I can handle. I need more locomotives and more people," Tremaine says. "It's going to be tough, but I stuck my foot in it. And I love railroading. I enjoy the challenge."
It's a costly business. The railroad's 15 locomotives are worth up to $250,000 each. But it owns only one locomotive and pays a monthly rental fee of up to $3,300 per engine to lease the others. Locomotives get only five miles per gallon. The railroad spends about $40,000 a month on diesel fuel.
Tremaine is also busy making peace with federal and state regulators, who are known to show up for spot inspections to examine everything from track conditions and crew schedules to hazardous waste disposal. In the old days, oil from the locomotives' maintenance shed would be allowed to sink into the earth. Not anymore.
The locomotives are tuned up at the Willits rail yard, where the company has an open-air shed. Each morning, machinist Ken Sturtz and his apprentice, Jim Wyatt, start the engines of several locomotives and listen to them. They select one to work on for the day.
But they can barely keep the engines running. Recently, one locomotive blew a piston. The engine sat for two months before the company had the money to buy parts for it. Meanwhile, Sturtz had to cannibalize the engine for parts to fix other locomotives.
At the yard in Willits, train conductor Randy Peterson peels the wrapper off a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. He sets the tin on top of the diesel-electric locomotive before leaving the Willits train depot. An hour later, miles up the line, he retrieves the can and opens it. The soup is piping hot, ready to eat.
Five days a week, Peterson and train engineer Ed Lynch make the 11-hour round trip from Willits to a rendezvous with another train at Island Mountain, a remote spot on the Eel River.
At midday, there's a sweltering heat in the canyons north of Willits. The temperature in the locomotive's cabin climbs to more than 100 degrees. Opening the cabin door brings no relief, only a furnace-like blast of hot air from the engine. But Lynch says the sight of "the blue azure water" of the Eel River makes the heat bearable.
"Not everyone loves the railroad like I do," Lynch says. "My wife tells me to quit, quit, quit. But I spent 20 years in a job with the Air Force that I didn't like. I love this job. I'm not going to quit."
ORCHESTRATING THE MOVES UP AND DOWN THE LINE
The dispatch facility of a big freight line can look like an air traffic control tower, with rows of computer terminals and sophisticated circuit boards to track its freight trains.
But the Eureka-based Northwestern Pacific Railroad is much more primitive. The railroad has no signal blocks, nor any red lights hanging above its track.
Tanya Fleming, a dispatcher, uses "direct control" to order trains from one quadrant to the next along the rail line.
She relies on penciled notations, yellow highlighters and maps to coordinate the movement of train crews and maintenance crews. She uses radios and a cell phone, but there are still some communication gaps in the canyons where crews cannot be reached.
It takes two days for cargo to be transported from Eureka to Schellville in Sonoma County. There, a freight car filled with lumber or gravel can be switched to other railroads bound for places like Utah, Nevada or other transcontinental delivery points.
The railroad's schedule is carefully choreographed so that its crews do not exceed federal rules of a maximum, 12-hour day for train operators.
A night "local" picks up loads of timber from lumber mills between Scotia and Eureka. Another night train picks up empties and spots them at various mills and creameries between Arcata and Eureka.
A southbound "hauler" with a two-person crew -- an engineer and a conductor -- and more than two dozen fully loaded freight cars leaves Eureka at 8 a.m. A northbound train with mostly empty freight cars leaves Willits each morning. (Similar runs occur between Willits and Schellville.)
The two trains intersect in the afternoon at Island Mountain, a remote canyon on the Eel River. There, the two crews take a lunch break and switch trains. That way, the crews can return to their starting points and be home at the end of a long day. -- Jim Doyle
COMMUTER TRAINS IN THE NORTH BAY?
Local transportation planners dream of running commuter trains in Marin and Sonoma, with diesel trains linking the counties' major cities and high-density pockets -- homes, jobs and shopping centers. It would provide an alternative to driving on Highway 101, the North Bay's only north-south freeway link.
Commuter trains are popular, but costly to operate; ideally, a successful Northwestern Pacific Railroad could help subsidize commuter service. Instead, the ailing freight line has borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from a joint powers agency in the Bay Area to pay for track repairs along the North Coast -- money that was originally intended to be spent on commuter service in Marin and Sonoma counties.
"Funneling that money for repairs to the Eel River has delayed commuter service from a financial standpoint, but it won't make it impossible," says Robert Roumiguiere, a former Marin County supervisor who helped create a long-term transportation plan for the North Bay. That plan includes high- speed ferry service to San Francisco, increased HOV-lanes on Highway 101, and an increase in the number of inter-county buses in Marin and Sonoma counties.
"The Eel River Canyon is a disaster for a railroad," he says. "It's sort of a sinkhole for money."
Under a complex arrangement, rights-of-way and track south of Healdsburg are owned by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority (NWPRRA), a joint powers agency with representatives from the Golden Gate Bridge District, Marin County, and the Eureka-based North Coast Railroad Authority.
The Eureka-based rail line recently asked for a $50,000 loan from the NWPRRA. The southern agency turned down the request, noting that it had already given the railroad a $73,000 loan to pay for track improvements. The freight line also owes $33,000 to the NWPRRA in lease payments.
The collapse of the North Coast freight line, Roumiguiere says, would be "terribly unfortunate."
"I've always been a supporter of that line up there. The only difference of opinion is who is going to do the subsidizing," he says. "My opinion is that it should be the responsibility of the state of California to subsidize it."
Jim Harberson, a Golden Gate Bridge District member who who chairs the NWPRRA, says he does not want to see the railroad shut down for two main reasons: "One, the freight is important to the North Coast and North Bay, and two, because the excursion service (between Healdsburg and Ukiah) is a good precursor to passenger service."
But, he says, "The responsibility for their operations is with them." Proposition 116, approved by California voters in 1990, set aside $28 million to build a commuter rail line in Marin and Sonoma counties, but transportation planners estimate that a government subsidy of at least $500,000 a year will be needed.
And commuter service cannot get running without modified tracks.
"To upgrade for passenger rail, a massive amount of work needs to be done," Harberson says. "Right now, we have a lot of 10-mile-an-hour track. . . . We can't get it done with operating revenues."
Marin and Sonoma planners say they may put half-cent sales tax initiatives on the November 1998 ballots in their counties to help pay for rehabilitating the railroad tracks for passenger service. -- Jim Doyle