"It would be foolish to say there are no obstacles," said Allan Hemphill, chairman of the North Coast Railroad Authority. "That's not the history of this railroad."
U.S. rail regulators shut down cargo traffic in 1998 after the storm-battered railroad failed safety inspections. They must certify that it's now safe for trains. Meanwhile, three environmental groups are threatening legal action to stop the freight service, arguing the rail authority hasn't weighed all the impacts. And questions remain about whether there's enough shipping business to support cargo trains.
Still, the completion of $50 million in repairs to 62 miles of rail line between Napa County and Windsor is a major step toward improving the North Bay's transportation network, Hemphill said. The railroad will take trucks off Highway 101 and give businesses a lower-cost option for shipping products, he said.
The railroad will be a lifeline for North Bay dairy farmers and ranchers who pay high rates to import feed by truck, he said.
Freight service could start by next March, according to NCRA. The railroad's private operator, NWP Co., will be ready when it gets the go-ahead, said John Williams, the company's president. But the timing remains uncertain, he said.
Williams, who said he's already invested $5 million in the project, said there's enough demand that the railroad could turn a profit after two or three years. Besides animal feed, the railroad will haul rock, lumber, wine and other commodities, he said. It also could carry Sonoma County's solid waste, which has been shipped by truck to out-of-county landfills since the dump closed in 2005.
State lawmakers created the rail authority in 1989 to take over the route, calling it a vital transportation link. The rail authority contracted with private operators for freight service. But the railroad's problems continued. Storm damage closed the line in 1998, although traffic was briefly restored on the southern segment in 2001. The entire route has been mothballed since then.
It took five years for the rail authority to get state funding to begin repairs, said agency director Mitch Stogner. Some of the work was held up in 2007 and 2008 when the city of Novato sued the rail authority over environmental issues. That case was settled last year, but environmentalists are still fighting the railroad. Last month, three North Coast groups told federal regulators the rail authority hasn't considered impacts on the environmentally sensitive Eel River Canyon between Willits and Eureka.
The groups -- the Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics -- also said the authority has taken no action to clean up polluted rail yards. The groups said it is "very likely" they'll challenge the authority's environmental impact report, which must be certified before freight service starts.
The rail authority said it hasn't ignored environmental concerns. The Eel River Canyon wasn't addressed because there are no plans to run trains there, Stogner said. The authority has started cleanup work on toxic sites, but has been stalled by a lack of state funding, he said.
So far, workers have repaired 55 rail crossings and 43 bridges between Windsor and the rail junction at Lombard, south of Napa, where the Northwestern Pacific links to the national rail system. Crews shored up levees, replaced 50,000 ties and rebuilt the railbed with 23,000 tons of rock ballast.
Service will start with three round trips per week, growing to three trips per day in future years, the authority said.
In the Highway 101 corridor, the freight line will share track with Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), the commuter service that's scheduled to start in 2014.
The authority hopes to extend cargo trips to Cloverdale in 2011 and Willits in 2012. There's no timeline for service from Willits to Eureka, where repair costs could exceed $500 million.