Rail Opens for North Coast Wine Freight

Trains run again, still waiting for wine to flow

by Jane Firstenfeld
northwestern pacific railroad
NWP CEO John Williams and one of the locomotives now hauling freight between northern Sonoma and eastern Napa.
Windsor, Calif.—What would it be worth to the North Coast wine industry to remove hundreds of freight-hauling trucks from congested highways and ship wine and supplies via rail? Northern California railroad investors are betting years of effort and millions of dollars on that question, while waiting for wineries and their vendors to get on track.

For the first time in a decade, freight trains are running again between northern Sonoma County and eastern Napa County. On July 13, Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. (NWP) hauled its first commercial freight from the Brazos terminus in American Canyon to southern Sonoma County: Five covered hoppers of grain from the Midwest destined for Hunt & Behrens, a livestock feed purveyor in Petaluma. Each car carried about 110 tons of grain, the equivalent of four or five semi-trucks.

Railroad consultant John Williams of Woodside Consulting Inc., Woodside, Calif., is president of NWP. After a failed 1997 bid to run the historic railway, he tendered a successful proposal in 2006. “We’ve had a lot of battles along the way,” he told Wines & Vines. “We are glad to be up and running, and expect our market to extend to the wine industry in the coming months.” It may take a while to get the wine business back on the tracks: With the prolonged absence of rail freight along the route, some abandoned rail spurs and some purchased truck fleets.

He envisions primarily shipping case goods headed east but suggested that NWP could also provide refrigerated cars for fresh grapes. Vineyard and winery supplies from the Union Pacific’s national network of routes can now be transferred at the American Canyon yard.

Grain and lumber are already being shipped along the short but strategic route, which traverses southern Napa County, runs through the Carneros district and Sonoma Valley, northeastern Marin County and north past Santa Rosa to Windsor. NWP has a potential loading facility at Schellville, beside Highway 12 just south of the city of Sonoma, where trucks from Carneros and the Sonoma Valley could transfer freight.

Shipping tariffs are determined by Union Pacific. “We’re trying to become a handling carrier for Union Pacific,” Williams said. “They’d set the prices from the point of origin: for instance, Windsor to Chicago.”

Shipping by rail is both cheaper and greener than shipping by truck, Williams said. At the insistence of the Novato planning commission, NWP added a modern, low-emission locomotive to its rolling stock. The acquisition, and an agreement to operate at reduced speeds through Novato, prompted the commission finally to approve the train’s route through Marin County’s northernmost city.

NWP leases the tracks from Ukiah-based North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA); the organizations had labored together for almost six years to clear red tape in three counties and re-introduce rail freight service, which had been discontinued after floods in the late 1990s.

Statements from NCRA reported the authority had invested more than $60 million to repair 56 crossing signals, replace 50,000 cross-ties and 23 tons of ballast, shore-up levees near Schellville and repair 43 trestles and rail bridges along the route. NWP plans to operate three round trips weekly, each hauling as many as 15 cars, Williams said.

Wine country benefits
Although NWP will carry freight and not people, the return of the railway may bring unexpected benefits to wine tourism. Its route passes through North America’s most-visited wine country. Multitudes of travelers drive from San Francisco and points south to visit the wineries of Napa and Sonoma—not to mention Mendocino and Lake counties to the north.

Eliminating hundreds of slow-moving, visibility-inhibiting, pavement-devouring semis from Highways 37, 121, 12 and the eternally congested U.S. Highway 101 is bound to streamline the flow of wine country visitors and residents as well as provide an enhanced experience for wine-loving pleasure seekers.

Grapegrowers, wineries and those who supply them can learn more about NWP and its services by phoning John Williams at (650) 289-9850, ext. 11, or emailing jhw@woodsideconsulting.com. An NWP website is in the works.

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