May 19, 2013

Huge tunnel collapse imperils Mendocino County Skunk Train

Train tunnel No. 1 on the old California Western Railroad has endured a lot of punishment since it was hacked out of the serpentine and metasandstone rock east of Fort Bragg by Chinese and Italian laborers a century ago.

FORT BRAGG – Train tunnel No. 1 on the old California Western Railroad has endured a lot of punishment since it was hacked out of the serpentine and metasandstone rock east of Fort Bragg by Chinese and Italian laborers a century ago.

It has endured earthquakes, landslides that blocked the tunnel openings, most recently in 1997 and 2006, broken timbers and even an oversized boxcar that got wedged inside and had to be cut up and removed piece-by-piece in the 1970s.

But now it is facing a threat that could shut down the 128-year-old rail line and Mendocino County's beloved tourist attraction, the Skunk Train.

Sometime overnight between April 12 and 13, a 40-foot length of the tunnel collapsed for reasons still unexplained, dumping thousands of tons of rock onto the track, rubble that Skunk Train officials say they cannot afford to remove.

"What happened, I don't know; even the geotechnical engineers don't know," said Mendocino Railway Vice President Robert Pinoli. "Was there a shift in the mountain? Was it a small earthquake?"

The train is launching a campaign to raise the estimated $300,000 it will take to remove the largest blocks of rock sitting on the rails, offering special "Save Our Skunk" passes and opening a fundraising campaign through the website Kickstarter. Unless that tunnel is reopened, Pinoli said, the future of the railroad is bleak.

The 40-mile historic railroad connects Fort Bragg and Willits, winding along the redwood-lined Noyo River and passing through two mountain tunnels. The collapse came in the tunnel just three miles outside Fort Bragg.

"We can do tunnel repairs, but this is far larger than anything we have ever encountered before," Pinoli said.

The scale of the collapse is difficult to describe. The 13-by-16-foot tunnel, lined with huge redwood beams bracing walls of 3-inch-thick redwood planks, now suddenly ends about 300 feet from the eastern end at a tangled pile of boulders and rubble. At the center is a huge, square chunk of rock, at least 15 feet across.

"We've pulled out some big pieces, broken them up" during the preliminary cleanup, Pinoli said, nodding toward the huge boulder, "but this is a monster."

The best estimate is that once the rocks are hauled away, the cave-in will leave a cavern more than 50 feet wide, 40 feet long and 30 feet high.

Inspectors had noticed some bulging in a retaining wall in the 1,122-foot-long tunnel two days before the collapse, indicating a problem, but they didn't expect a massive collapse before repair crews could shore it up. Such bulges occur once every few years, Pinoli said, and they usually indicate just a small shift in the rocks behind the redwood planking that is easily cleaned out and shored up.

After the collapse, railroad crews did their best to remove the rubble, Pinoli said, but after hauling out at least six dump-truck loads of rock, they concluded the scale of the damage was so great that they would need outside help. Bids are coming in, he said, but it appears the remaining work will cost more than $300,000 and require several weeks.

The privately run company won't release its financial information, but Pinoli said its reserves are drained after suffering a series of expensive blows in recent years. Heavy rains in 2006 caused mudslides that cost a great deal to clear, he said. A 2011 manhunt for an armed killer hiding in the woods along the tracks dragged on for more than a month and cost the company $200,000, none of which has been reimbursed by the law enforcement agencies that used the tracks and trains for the search.

The lack of money leaves the company at a near standstill in the face of the collapse. With the tunnel shut down, it is able only to run a short jaunt from the Fort Bragg end of the line to Glen Blair along Pudding Creek, just a few miles through the woods. All of the company's train equipment was in Fort Bragg at the time of the collapse, so there is no way to run trains on the remaining 36 miles of track on the Willits side of the line.

The Skunk Train is the county's top tourist attraction other than parks, said Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino Inc., and its loss affects the tourism economy. The train carries more than 40,000 passengers yearly, and the vast majority of those stay at least one extra day in the area, boosting revenue for hotels, shops and restaurants, railroad and tourism officials said.

"It's definitely an economic engine for us – all over the county, really," said Lynn Kennelly, executive director of the Willits Chamber of Commerce. "People come from all over the world to ride that train."

She said several businesses in her city have expressed interest in helping, but the chamber still is trying to coordinate its efforts with the railroad.

The railroad also serves the handful of residents along the route. They are allowed to flag down the trains, which pass two to four times per day depending on the season, and hop a ride to town, Pinoli said.

So important is the railroad that tourism-based businesses are discussing a plan to add a dollar or two to customers' bills to help fund the tunnel cleanup, Schneider said.

The railroad, meanwhile, is reaching out to fans and railroad buffs to raise money.

In addition to the online Kickstarter campaign, it also is offering yearlong "SOS" passes for $300 and $750 each, and a lifetime pass for $1,885; the latter number picked in honor of the year the railroad was founded. They sold three of the lifetime passes in the first 12 hours, Pinoli said.

Schneider said Visit Mendocino will be using its marketing muscle, including a social media operation, an outside PR firm and national press contacts, to promote the passes and Kickstarter campaigns.

Pinoli expressed some cautious optimism this week that the summer season might be saved, albeit with a late start.

The line was established originally to carry freight, mostly timber. It added passenger service in 1924.

The name "skunk" came from the distinctive smell of oil-fired pot-belly stoves used to keep passengers warm in self-propelled passenger cars added to the line in the 1920s. The rail line still owns those original "rail buses" but no longer runs the stinky stoves. The skunk name, however, has stuck.

Now, with the Skunk Train facing a new crisis, local train historian Tony Phillips says he's concerned about not only the loss of a rare nugget of railroad history, but of the heartbeat of Fort Bragg itself. With the timber industry nearly extinct, he said, there is precious little else to bring business to the small town.

"You take the Skunk Train away, you ain't got Fort Bragg," he said.

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