“Rail line is vital to Tulare County,” an opinion piece written by Allen Ishida, a Tulare County Board of Supervisors Councilmember and a member of the T.C. Association of Governments Rail Committee, in the March 13, 2009 Visalia Times-Delta attempts to clear up the “recent misinformation in the media about the involvement of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors and the Tulare County Association of Governments regarding the purchase of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Line’s assets.” Ishida also wrote that the “Tulare County Board of Supervisors and TCAG are not currently negotiating with San Joaquin Rail Road or Rail America to purchase any portion of their rail lines within Tulare County.”
There are 30 miles of rail line in Tulare County between Jovista and Strathmore that are up for abandonment. The line is owned by the Union Pacific and operated by RailAmerica subsidiary San Joaquin Valley Railroad. When word got out the SJVRR wanted to abandon the Jovista-Strathmore segment, there was much opposition by online shippers and others to stop the abandonment proceedings, but short of the ability to do this, if outright abandonment is inevitable, then the possibility does exist the County could purchase the line so service to existing online shippers could be maintained. But, it would have to be at the right price, the railroad would have to agree, and the federal Surface Transportation board would likely have to approve. And that’s exactly what Tulare County tried to do once the fate of the railroad was learned, a fate that involved selling the segment of track in question for its scrap value. Bottom line: “Tulare County was unsuccessful, and SJVRR accepted another offer which was approximately three times what the county offered,” Ishida wrote.
That second offer did not pan out either, apparently.
If the line is ultimately pulled up, torn apart and goes away, chances are extremely remote that rail service would ever resume again once this happens. Should the line not come back, it is then that people will realize the value of what once was. But, of course, by then, as is so often the case, it’ll be too late.
Here are the facts.
“The appraiser Tulare County hired to evaluate the 30-mile section indicated in his report it would cost $48 million to replace the subject rail line if the ties and rail were removed. We were also advised by others that it would be extremely difficult and possibly impossible to replace the line, because once it was removed it would trigger an environmental review required by the state of California and the federal government,” noted Ishida.
Should a buyer to keep the rail line and service intact not be found prior to the line being granted abandonment approval, not only is the Jovista-Strathmore link likely to have a date with the scrapper’s torch, but it is probable other segments would receive the same fate, namely, Exeter-Dinuba and “Dinuba into Fresno County,” according to what Ishida wrote.
As if to add insult to injury, Ishida notes the “TCAG Rail Committee has learned the following:
• Rail users on the subject 30-mile section of rail have been discouraged from using rail service because the SJVRR placed a $650 per rail car surcharge.
• The Union Pacific Railroad is implementing a plan to discontinue service to customers who aren’t able to ship or receive 100 or more cars at one time.”
But there are also these revelations.
The “TCAG Rail Committee found there is very little rail service off the Union Pacific or BNSF main lines. We want local shippers to have access to the rail main lines,” Ishida wrote. “Many other California counties currently receive or have received significant rail funding and financing from the federal government. There is a growing demand by manufacturers for rail service.”
And there is a benefit of keeping the line intact, especially from the standpoint of the Kern County COG. KC COG “produced a report outlining the benefits of establishing a rail link from the Port of Oakland to Kern County using the existing SJVRR rail alignment. This report indicates approximately 400 trucks and trailers a day could be removed from valley roads. That would have a significant impact on our air quality.
“The rail line is extremely important to the future of moving freight, improving air quality and reducing truck traffic on Highway 99. The eight counties also produce $24 billion in agricultural goods — farm production that could in many cases be shipped by rail. The ability to move less than 100 cars at a time will give manufacturing companies an added incentive to locate in the Central Valley. Moving freight by rail is 10 times more energy efficient than using trucks,” Ishida wrote.
Finally, Ishida brought the following to light:
“The San Joaquin Policy Committee adopted three main points to lobby the State of California and the Federal Government during ‘Valley One Voice Trips’ to Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
• Improve freight movement on valley roads and to widen Highway 99 to six lanes to decrease congestion, help freight movement and promote cleaner air.
• Preserve and expand short haul rail in the San Joaquin Valley as a public/private partnership,” he noted.
If there’s a third point, I’m hard pressed to figure out from the op-ed just what it is. Then again, it could be that the issue goes way beyond just the 30 miles of Jovista-to-Strathmore track up for abandonment, as Ishida pointed out. To reiterate once again, preserving this rail line is critical to the state’s transportation future.
Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.