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There's no train in that coffin

A section of railroad going through a neighborhood, crossing a street, with a trail alongside it behind a short chain link fence.
The southern of the Rail Trail in Ukiah, alongside the tracks, is part of the Great Redwood Trail that's already been built.

In spite of Senator Mike McGuire's declaration that “We have finally put a nail in the coffin of Big Coal," an anonymous company may still pose a threat to the Great Redwood Trail.

June 3, 2022 — Senator Mike McGuire may have taken his victory lap a little too soon at a town hall about the Great Redwood Trail on Wednesday night.

“Tonight we are able to announce — and this is late breaking,” he declared; “We have finally put a nail in the coffin of Big Coal. We have beat back Big Coal and the toxic coal train.”

The nail may be in the coffin, but there’s no train in it yet.

McGuire was exulting about what he thought was the extinguished threat of an anonymous coal interest, registered in Wyoming, that was planning to buy the railroad from Willits to Eureka and use it to ship coal to Asia out of the Humboldt Bay.

That would put an end to years of effort to turn the railroad into a recreational trail all the way from one Bay Area to the next, from Marin, through the Eel River canyon to Eureka. Sections of the trail have already been built in some communities alongside the tracks. But McGuire and trail advocates were looking forward to railbanking, or filling up the tracks with dirt and gravel, so the trail could be on top of the ready-made line. In order to do that, the federal Surface Board of Transportation would have to declare the tracks abandoned, and grant McGuire and his allies permission to railbank. Anyone who wanted to prevent that from happening was supposed to file their intent to buy the tracks with the Surface Transportation Board by May 31.

But the next day, possibly while McGuire was thanking supporters for beating back Big Coal, the North Coast Railroad Company announced its intention to buy the entire 176 miles of track from Willits to Eureka, including appurtenant branch lines.

Congressman Jared Huffman issued a statement Thursday, saying “their late application should disqualify them for further consideration. If not, the coalition of community opposition and their lack of transparency certainly will.”

The only name associated with the Wyoming-based LLC is Robert A. Wimbish, the attorney, who apologized for his tardiness by explaining that it was “due to unforeseen vacation travel delays.”

At a hearing last month, Huffman asked the Surface Board of Transportation Chair, Martin Oberman, where he stood on demanding transparency. “Would the Board require that entity to engage with the community and the public in an open and transparent way,” he began; “in other words, if they’re secretive about who they are, about where their funding comes from, is that a factor that you would consider?”

Oberman replied, “that’s not a factor that’s come before us. But I generally believe in full disclosure, and when we get those kinds of applications, we have the ability to insist on a more fulsome application of the facts, which would include revealing the basic financial structure of the entity and so forth. So the general answer to your question is yes, but it’s very much case-specific.”

But North Coast Railroad isn’t the only company trying to buy part of the track. McGuire is also worried about another application, by Mendocino Railway, the parent company to the Skunk Train. Mendocino Railway wants to take over 13 miles of track from mile marker 139.5 to 152.5, from Willits to just past Highway 162, in order to ship gravel from Outlet Creek to Willits or Fort Bragg. However, there is a tunnel on that stretch of the track that long been out of operation due to a landslide. “So right now, if there was a rail company operating on this line, they couldn’t even get to the coast because of this massive landslide that’s blocking the track,” McGuire said. He added that he does “have some concerns with this application…number one, it’s going to create a huge hole right in the heart of the Great Redwood Trail.” In addition, he estimated that, while the cost of railbanking could be $12,000 to $15,000 a mile, repairing the damaged track and the tunnel would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Oberman told Huffman the Surface Board of Transportation doesn’t concern itself too much with financial details. “You know, we generally are mandated by statute to make it easy for rail lines to come into existence,” he said. “That’s one of our jobs. “There’s a spectrum on how much we look at financial viability. Generally speaking, we take the view that the market will determine whether a rail line is viable.”

Two other train-track oriented interests filed their intent to buy sections of the track, as well. The Timber Heritage Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the timber history of Humboldt County, wants to buy 18.5 miles from Eureka to Samoa, to offer excursion rides on restored timber crew cars. Pete Johnston, the Association’s president, assured the Surface Board of Transportation that “Designation of this portion of the right of way is not in conflict with the larger Great Redwood Trail Agency’s trail mission;” and he is willing to negotiate with the Agency “on any dual access or potential conflicts emerging to preserve corridor usage for both parties.”

And Rail Runners Humboldt Bay in Arcata operates what it calls “a recreation concession for passengers to experience a pedal-powered rail vehicle for an excursion along Humboldt Bay.” In 2019, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, the mayor of Eureka, and the Humboldt Bay Harbor Recreation and Conservation District, all wrote letters in support of the concession. The owners demonstrated their financial viability by taking out a line of credit on their home and putting up part of a retirement account to buy 5.5 miles of line in Eureka and Samoa.

In his remarks to Surface Transportation Board Chair Oberman, Huffman characterized the coal train as, “very unlikely to happen, certainly is at odds with the climate policies expressed by the Administration and Secretary Buttigieg. So I just hope these factors will be on your mind as you discharge your responsibility.”