TRAC files STB response, challenging transfer of freight rights to SMART

Last Updated: April 6, 2021By

By David Schonbrunn, President of TRAC

In response to the threats to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP, which spans over 300 miles from Larkspur Landing in Marin County to Samoa in Humboldt County), the Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) took action today based on its letter to Senator McGuire about his Great Redwood Trail Bill, SB 69.  TRAC filed comments with the Surface Transportation Board (STB), the federal regulatory agency that governs railroad legal matters. (The bookmarked comments are a 140 page, 20 Mb. download.)

Today’s action opposes the request of the current freight operator on the NWP, which is named NWPCO, to have the transfer of its freight operating rights to SMART be exempt from a full administrative process. TRAC opposes the transfer on three principal grounds: 1). SMART has neither the financial strength nor the institutional competence or temperament to be in the freight business; 2). SMART appears to be moving to become freight operator in bad faith–it seems more likely that SMART wants to discontinue freight service than operate it; and finally, 3). exempting the transfer from a full administrative process would strand shippers located along the Cloverdale to Willits segment of the NWP.

The Cloverdale to Willits segment of the line is part of an extensive portion of the NWP that has been out of service since 1998, after damage from floods and deferred maintenance left the line in such poor repair that the Federal Railroad Administration shut it down with an Emergency Order. Senator McGuire’s SB 69 would rip out the tracks north of Cloverdale and put a trail where the tracks had been, in an effort to reduce construction costs. TRAC asserts that this approach is penny-wise and pound-foolish. A look at the Los Angeles area shows how incredibly expensive it is to restore rail service after its pre-World War II rail infrastructure was converted to highways. Building trails alongside rails is what SMART is already  doing, and what NCRA has been doing in Humboldt County. TRAC vigorously opposes SB 69’s attempt to change that approach.

The North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) currently owns the tracks between Healdsburg in Sonoma County and Samoa in Humboldt County. TRAC’s ally, TRANSDEF, has sent NCRA a letter demanding its Board retract its vote to file an application to railbank its tracks between Willits and Samoa. Railbanking is an alternative available to railroads that seek to legally abandon their rail infrastructure. If railbanking is approved by the STB, the rails can be removed without (arguably) affecting the easements from adjacent landowners that establish the rail right-of-way. We say arguably, because there is a large amount of litigation seeking to have these easements revert to landowners. If rails are not removed, there is absolutely no reason to railbank. Trains cannot legally be operated on railbanked lines.

Because NCRA’s railbanking application avoided dealing with the Cloverdale to Willis segment of the NWP, today’s action by TRAC specifically seeks to have the STB order NWPCO to propose the future status of that segment in the current proceeding.

TRAC recognizes that the Eel River Canyon is an entirely different issue than the restoration of rail both north and south of the Canyon, both of which TRAC views as feasible. As such, TRAC has no objection to railbanking the Canyon, although it would serve little purpose.

If TRAC is successful in blocking SMART from becoming the freight operator of the southern portion of the NWP,  it would remain possible for cost-effective extensions to Willits and Suisun City to move forward, led by a private-sector freight operator that would offer freight service, passenger service and excursion service. Passenger service could possibly be undertaken as a subsidized public-private partnership, once freight service is restored to Willits.