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NWP ready to haul freight again

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After years of delay, a state-funded rail agency has finished repairing the Northwestern Pacific freight line in California's Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties, paving the way for a return of cargo service early next year, according to The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. But barriers remain before trains roll again on the 102-year-old railroad.

"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.

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