The colorful "Skunk Train" tourist railroad, which chugged into controversy earlier this year when its owners proposed to reduce service along its 40-mile Northern California line, has been sold for an undisclosed price, it was announced Friday.
Georgia-Pacific Corp., owner of the 102-year-old railroad since 1973, signed an agreement Thursday to sell California Western Railway, as the Skunk is formally known, to Mendocino Coast Railway, a subsidiary of Kyle Railways of San Francisco. The sale to Kyle, which has been operating the Skunk Train under a lease agreement since 1976, will become effective Monday.
The railroad, which began construction in 1885 and was completed in 1911, was dubbed the Skunk when the line bought its first gasoline-fired engine in 1925. The odoriferous locomotive reportedly could be smelled before it was seen.
The popular standard-gauge line carries about 70,000 passengers a year along a winding route through the redwoods between the towns of Willits and Fort Bragg. But about 80% of those passengers travel in the summer months, and the railway lost about $250,000 last year, said Victor Ryerson, an attorney with Kyle Railways.
To reduce the losses, the railroad had proposed cutting service during the winter months. Residents and other Skunk Train fans protested.
An investment group in Willits called Little Lake Development Corp. had negotiated an agreement to buy the line with a vow to save the winter service. But Mendocino Coast Railway exercised its first right of purchase as part of its lease arrangement.
Mendocino Coast, which has been unable to persuade the Interstate Commerce Commission to allow a reduction in service during the winter, plans to continue daily service all year to see if it can do so profitably, Ryerson said.
"The sale of the California Western is another step by Georgia-Pacific to strengthen our Northern California operations by selling assets that do not relate to our core building products business," Georgia-Pacific Vice President Dewey L. Mobley said.
"Mendocino Coast and the Kyle organization are among the nation's most experienced operators of tourist railroads and short lines like the California Western, and we are confident of their ability to operate this railroad successfully," Mobley said.
Privately held Kyle Railways owns eight other railroads that range in length from eight miles to 440 miles. They include such tourist attractions as the Sugarcane Express in Hawaii and a steam-engine line in Colorado and New Mexico.