For more than a decade, Sacramento and other American cities have been ripping out unused railroad tracks and turning old rail corridors into bike and recreation trails. In Folsom, a group of train enthusiasts is bucking that trend by bringing a slice of the region’s rail past back to life.
Their nonprofit organization has won approval from officials in Folsom and Sacramento County to launch a weekend excursion train, pulled by a 44-ton diesel locomotive, through the east county hills on a section of the historic Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad – billed as the oldest rail line west of the Rockies. The trains will take off from a spot near Highway 50 and Iron Point Road and trundle 3.5 miles to the south through open fields along the Sacramento and El Dorado county line before heading back. The rides will include commentary.
“We are doing this so generations to come can have a connection to those who came before them,” said Eric Olds, who will serve as a conductor and tour guide for the excursion rides. “It’s experiencing what people did 150 year ago. You get to see it, hear it, smell it and feel it.”
The Sacramento Valley Railroad ran between Old Sacramento and Folsom starting in 1856. It later combined with the Folsom and Placerville Railroad to become the Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad, eventually reaching Placerville in 1888. It contended briefly as a possible route for the Transcontinental Railroad, but lost in an 1864 trial race to Virginia City against a train using the rival line built by Sacramento’s “Big Four” Central Pacific owners.
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The excursion program, promoted as a rolling museum, has support from Folsom city officials as well as those in Sacramento County, but turf wars in El Dorado County and some train safety worries in Folsom are keeping the train on a short stretch of track for now.
The old rail line’s tracks still wind for several miles through the city of Folsom, branching from Sacramento Regional Transit’s light-rail line. But Folsom city officials are limiting the excursion train start point to the southeast edge of town, near the Hampton Inn and Suites, to avoid running trains across major city streets. The Placerville & Sacramento Valley Railroad group has been offering limited excursions in recent years on a small, self-propelled Skagit train car. It has done some recent practice runs with a 1943 diesel locomotive donated by the California State Railroad Museum, and plans to start using it regularly this spring.
“We see the historical, education and recreation value of the excursion train,” Folsom city transportation manager Mark Rackovan said. “We have worked with their organization to define an area where we would like them to operate, where it minimizes the impact to our community.”
Train buffs say they would like to extend the excursion ride into the picturesque hills around Latrobe, and possibly to Shingle Springs, where the trains could link with an existing excursion line there. But that idea has met resistance.
El Dorado County officials denied the group’s request a few years ago for regular weekend rides to Latrobe, although the county board recently agreed to allow one train a month into Latrobe for the remainder of this year, in conjunction with the town’s monthly pancake breakfast.
The portion of the old rail corridor in El Dorado County, which runs to Missouri Flat, has long been the center of a fight among various recreation groups that would like to use it, including bicyclists, equestrians, hikers and train enthusiasts. The track is controlled by a joint powers authority made up of Folsom, Sacramento County, El Dorado County and Regional Transit. El Dorado County requested a few years ago that a section of the rail line be taken out to make room for a Class 1 bike path, but the JPA rejected that request. The joint powers authority now plans to build a wilderness trail in the portion of the corridor between Iron Point Road and Latrobe, where it’s wide enough to hold both the path and the train tracks.
El Dorado County parks manager Vickie Sanders said she will brief the Board of Supervisors next month on a new proposal that she hopes will refocus the county’s efforts to determine a future for the corridor all the way up to Missouri Flat, as well as allow some recreational use for now. She said her proposal will steer clear of recommending any specific use over another.
“I feel like I have to move this forward in a positive manner,” Sanders said. “We have to back up and (get) the corridor open. This is a great recreational opportunity.”
While El Dorado officials prepare to consider the rail corridor question, Folsom’s train buffs have been doing practice runs this summer on the Sacramento County side of the line. The group will offer rides on the Skagit at a RailFest this weekend, Sept. 21 and 22. The rides will depart from 155 Placerville Road, just across the street from the Hampton Inn.
At city and state request, the train group is spending about $15,000, raised through donations, to add crossing guard arms where the tracks cross White Rock Road. That road is the busiest crossing for the excursion train and eventually will be widened to four lanes. Officials in Folsom and the county say the expansion would likely necessitate an overpass at some point, which could be designed to allow numerous non-car uses, including trains, express buses, bikes and pedestrians.
Cities nationally have been pulling up old tracks as part of a Rails to Trails effort to turn unused corridors into recreational parkways. In Sacramento, for instance, a section of the former Sacramento Northern Railway has been turned into a bike and recreation trail.
Still, Sacramento remains a railroad town, and the Folsom line is not the only one in the region that could carry trains again. State officials have discussed extending the tourist train that steams along the waterfront in Old Sacramento south of its current terminus near Miller Park. One proposal is to extend the excursion to the Sacramento Zoo. State officials also have talked of adding a brunch or dinner train on that line in the Freeport and Hood area.
“There is a strong interest in rail preservation” in the Sacramento area, said Sacramento Country transportation planner Dan Shoeman. Speaking about the south of Folsom plan, he said, “We see it as something worth expanding. Excursion trains can be operated safely.”