Grain, lumber moves; businesses see service as a key to economy
NORTH BAY — Regularly scheduled freight rail service is once again a reality in Marin and Sonoma counties bringing with it a lower cost alternative for businesses compared to trucks for shipping raw materials in, and finished goods out, of the region.
Cost savings associated with rail shipments can be as much as 50 percent per ton and one rail car has the capacity to replace four trucks, making this a highly desirable, energy saving “green” substitute for trucks on local highways.
With the arrival of five cars of grain at the Hunt & Behrens Feed Mill in Petaluma on July 13, and the first shipment of lumber to Standard Structures in Windsor on July 15, the 10-year interruption in freight rail service in the North Bay is officially over.
A growing number of firms are in the process of negotiating agreements with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) to do the same. The list already includes Dairyman’s Feed and Supply and Petaluma Poultry with a dozen or more other companies exploring the possibility along the first 62 miles of track.
A key factor in the decision process is access to spurs branching from the main line to private industrial sites.
Larry Wasem, managing general partner of the Airport Business Center, said he and his partner, Rich Coombs, “have been working to add a spur to Alexander Valley Cellars for three years.”
“We believe that rail service gives firms at our center or planning to come here a real advantage,” Mr. Wasem said.
Some 120 to 140 trucks a day enter and leave Alexander Valley Cellars delivering from 20,000 to 40,000 cases of wine collectively representing some of the 270 labels stored and shipped from this six-acre facility at 1010 Shiloh Road in Windsor.
“We are located close to the existing tracks and want to add a spur at the rear of our 284,000-square-foot building,” said Meritt Dahlgren, CEO and managing partner of Alexander Valley Cellars. “I’m sure that there are many other wineries along the rail route in the Highway 101 corridor who are thinking about doing this as well.”
Shamrock Building Materials in Santa Rosa is considering adding a spur to bring aggregates to its location.
Troy Soiland, president of Northgate Ready Mix, says his firm would like to bring cement powder and fly ash to their facility by rail. “We talked about this just the other day, but first have to design and build storage containers for these ingredients.”
For Dick Caletti, head of Standard Structures in Windsor, the arrival of the first shipment of lumber was a cost-saving milestone.
“Our existing spur line is 1,100 feet long plus an additional 700 feet from a switch to the main line – enough capacity for 12 railroad cars or more. We have been bringing in shipments by rail from a center in Vallejo for 13 years at a cost of $1,350 per car for loading and reloading,” Mr. Caletti said. “Also we can ship from our own location and still connect with the national rail system. This will make us more competitive as we ship to markets beyond the Rockies. “
Standard Structures is planning to offer the use of its spur to other firms, such as a major lumber company in the North Bay, to load, unload and store their goods at our site for up to 48 hours for a fee that could range from $300 to $400. The company is still working out the details and the fee schedule is not final.
The issue of adding customer freight spurs has already been addressed, according to Debora Fudge, vice mayor of Windsor and a member of the SMART passenger rail system board. “SMART has agreed to pay for electrical and switching equipment associated with customer spurs for up to 16 turnouts.”
John Williams, President of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, said that the cost of turnout signals, electrical connections to the main signaling system and mechanical switches for additional spurs would be paid by NWP and the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA).
However, customers would have to pay for building the tracks, roadbed as well as any additional property needed to extend the spur from the main line to the firm’s location.
The NWP also is still interested in exploring the possibility of out-hauling garbage by rail from Sonoma County – some 68 trucks currently leave the county each day with garbage that cannot be recycled.
The NWP’s portion of North Bay freight rail system is part of a route from Windsor to Ignacio, then to the east over the Petaluma River to Napa and the Brazos Junction interchange where it connects with the California Northern Railroad link to Suisun. At this junction, the Union Pacific Railroad will carry freight from the North Bay to and from the national rail network. The EIR for this system could ultimately expand the NWP line to Willits.
“For a decade Marin and Sonoma have been the only Bay Area counties without freight rail service. How can we attract new business and improve the economy without it?” Mr. Caletti said.
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