Railroaded: The History and (Possible) Futures of the Northwestern Pacific Rail Line

By Patty Clary, Director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs)

An elegant solution to the problem of what to do with the northern 175 miles of the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP)—where reconstructing the defunct railroad is comparable to building one in Switzerland or Norway, the most difficult location possible—was signed into law on September 30. This law, converting the NCRA to the Great Redwood Trail Agency, will come into effect March 1, 2022, dividing the railroad line in two, with commuter rail in the south and the coming transformation of rail to the Great Redwood Trail in the north. 

The railroad’s inevitable demise was foreshadowed in 1914, when a landslide covered tracks on the  nal day the golden spike was
driven, preventing celebrants from returning home by rail. This tunnel is indicative of the old Northwestern Paci c rail line’s overall
condition. Photo by Patty Clary.

 Yet, even as the governor signed the bill, a battle for its future was underway as the latest wild dreams of fortune seekers relying on antiquated pro-railroad law threatened to put trains back on the track after a forced twenty-three year pause in operations with a proposal to carry a highly dangerous commodity: toxic coal.  

Western coal, particularly that mined in the Powder River Basin as the still-shadowy proposal suggests, is well known within the coal industry as prone to uncontrollable spontaneous combustion. A coal train on the old NWP line could roll a smoldering fire through hills and canyons historically the scene of regular derailments. Access is difficult to impossible by other means along much of the line in a region struck hard by massive wildfires in recent years. Among highly sensitive areas at risk would be the Rockefeller Forest, where trains passing through Dyerville could expose the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coastal redwood forest in the world to smoldering coal.


 A laundry list of other problems plague the multiple daily train passages required to profit, such as severe noise and traffic congestion in urban and suburban areas, but the greatest is toxic coal dust. At least several hundred pounds of dust escape each coal car in transit. Though it was apparently expressed in secret meetings with local elected officials and Tribal staff that covered cars would prevent such calamity, coal dynamics leading to spontaneous combustion increase when kept under cover. Uncovered, coal transport leaves in its wake a toxic dust composed of dangerous airborne particulates and mercury, lead, cadmium and many other highly toxic chemicals.  

 Originally the railroad was built for one purpose: to transform old growth forests of northwestern California into bank accounts packed with gold. The ancient trees became part of the nation’s urban infrastructure, from water tanks topping buildings in New York and Chicago to shingles cloaking homes in Berkeley. 

 Tracks on the 300-mile line were first laid in the late 1800s. By 1914, forty-five short lines were merged into one jointly owned by two major rail companies, with the last section punched through the unstable Eel River canyon. The railroad’s inevitable demise was foreshadowed when a landslide covered tracks the day the final golden spike was driven, preventing participants from returning home by rail.  Eighty-four years later, in 1998, the current owner, the State of California, lost all rights to operate on the line when federal rail safety authorities closed it completely, the only railroad in the nation to suffer that fate.

 Maintenance of the south portion has always had its difficulties and environmental impacts, but the north became known as the most expensive stretch of railroad to maintain in the nation. A constant cycle of build/storm damage/rebuild done within northern California’s coastal geology (the most unstable in North America and perhaps the world) and accomplished with little engineering or regulatory oversight left the environment severely impacted. 


Rotten railroad ties and rusted tracks alone the old line north of Ukiah. Photo by Patty Clary.

Fast forward one hundred-plus years to now, past floods, earthquakes, landslides, burned and collapsed tunnels, twisted steel, shattered bridge piles and rail ties, toxic waste often indiscriminately dumped and irreversible environmental destruction caused by building and operating a railroad in the northern section where one should never have been built. The decision to shelve railroad activity until it could be useful and affordable, and use the right-of-way it occupies as a trail for public use looks to be the only useful option currently available. 

 California bought the failing railroad line in 1989, creating the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA), to own and operate it as a freight hauler. It was a failed effort that lasted less than a decade until the line was shut down in 1998, and though the NCRA soldiered on it never recovered from the closure. 

 The state rebuilt the southern section with a commuter rail from Cloverdale to the San Francisco Bay. The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, aka SMART, has restored rail service from Larkspur north to Windsor, with huge and ever-increasing expense anticipated for the rebuild further north, coupled with dwindling willingness to foot the bill among the local populace taxed to support it.

 The commuter line also had to accommodate NCRA’s freight service as far south as Novato.  There, a branch of the line leaves the north-south corridor and heads east to Schellville in southern Napa County where it joins the national rail system. Only freight is hauled on this line currently.

 Backers of two proposals that would disrupt the rail to trail in the north appealed to the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to reject California’s application to suspend railroad activities and instead rail bank the line until finances, technology and economics might combine to reopen the line to railroad operations. They propose the STB instead consider their takeover plans. Though neither proposal appears adequately funded, the main requirement of the STB to allow takeover of the rail line, their financial plans will not be known until formally submitted.

 Big coal interests from the Midwest entered this scene in mid-August, their identity hidden behind a smokescreen blown by Chicago lawyers, announcing their aim to seize use of the rail line. 

With at least eight attempts to secure ports on the West Coast for coal export across the Pacific having failed in the last decade, Big Coal’s frustration has increased, especially as coal prices in China skyrocketed 137% recently and low stocks of coal also plague India, both countries ready targets for coal exporters.


Washouts and landslides are common along the unstable geology of the northern portion of the rail line, especially along the Eel River Canyon. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Eel River.

In a separate but significant attack on the trail project, the owners of the Skunk Train — once-famous as an excursion train that ferried tourists on day trips between Willits and Fort Bragg but now restricted to mini excursions at either end due to a tunnel collapse years ago — propose to seize possession of 40 miles of the rail to trail from Willits to the southern entry of the Eel River Canyon at Outlet Creek. Their gold rush dreams center on hauling away large gravel deposits at Outlet Creek to an old mill site on the Mendocino coast for barging south, an ambitious plan involving seizure of the mill site by eminent domain in an adverse procedure. If successful, the plan would harm the environment of the Eel River. 

 Though Californians for Alternatives to Toxics and Friends of the Eel River were victorious in the California Supreme Court in winning the right of California to develop environmental protection plans and decide for itself whether to reopen the railroad, such power is overwhelmed by federal railroad law if the line is allowed to be seized. Less stringent federal environmental protection would also be in play.

 The Surface Transportation Board is enabled by out-moded railroad law to prioritize rail over trails if those who would seize the rail line can show sufficient funding to resurrect it to safe running conditions. Big Coal and the Skunk train each seek to submit what’s termed an Offer of Financial Assistance to the Board for their consideration. Therein lies the rub: How much money is really needed for either proposal to float? 

 It will be up to the state to argue that the costs are far higher than either applicant is likely to admit. With applicants kicking sand in the face of officials who could support them in obtaining state and federal loans and grants to undertake their projects, and meeting strong opposition from local governments, this is a big fight for the future of the Northcoast. 

 Two members of Congress representing districts through which the coal train would roll, Jared Huffman of the north coast and Mike Thompson, representing an adjacent district, wrote a strongly worded letter to the Secretary of Transportation, requesting that no federal funds be granted for rail or port construction to support a coal train in their districts. State Senator McGuire has proposed a law that would prevent the same at the state level and other strategies are being considered. 

 If Offers of Financial Assistance are allowed to come before the Surface Transportation Board it will be extremely important for concerned citizens to write letters of personal opinion and, especially helpful, with evidence of why either of these proposals is a Very Bad Idea. 

 Stay tuned as information develops. 


 [Patty has worked for CATs since 1988 in local, state and international arenas advocating for the health and safety of residents and the environment of northern California, her lifetime home ground]