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Light at the End of the Tunnel for a Struggling Little Railroad

California and the West

Trains: North Coast line closed by U.S. in 1998 reopens a short segment. Businesses are thrilled, but environmentalists object.

April 22, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SCHELLVILLE, Calif. — 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.

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