Speeder Raises Rail Concerns – August 19, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – The Timber Heritage Association’s recreational “speeder” rides are becoming increasingly controversial and plans for a new, expanded run caused a stir after the group’s volunteers did unauthorized track work.

Safety and other concerns about the rides have led the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) to pursue a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) defining how they will be operated.

The Timber Heritage Association (THA) seasonal speeder rides began last June. This is the second summer that the THA has offered the rides from Samoa to Manila and the addition of a newly renovated rail car increased their capacity to 25 passengers.

The Speeder. TMc | Eye

And last weekend, the rides were to have ventured into new territory – the Arcata to Bracut segment of the NCRA rail line. But concerns about a potentially unsafe trestle led the NCRA to ask that the Bracut rides be halted and unauthorized track work by THA volunteers has raised questions about how the NCRA is controlling the use of its railroad right-of-way.

An Aug. 2 letter from NCRA Board Chairman Alan Hemphill to Marcus Brown of the THA outlines “two matters of an urgent nature” that triggered a directive to stop the Arcata to Bracut speeder ride. “First, it is our understanding that THA volunteers have engaged in track repair, including placement of rock fill, to a slip-out near Bracut,” Hemphill writes. He adds that an original agreement only “contemplated removal of brush from the right-of-way” and track repairs would have to be done under a “full environmental review.”

The NCRA was aware of the Arcata to Bracut ride, Hemphill continues, and although “there were no objections,” he states that “subsequent safety matters have been brought to our attention and until these are resolved we cannot permit you to operate on this track segment.”

Marcus Brown of the THA said that subsequent to receiving Hemphill’s letter, an agreement was reached to allow the Bracut speeder run in a limited form that stops short of the trestle and the area where the fill work was done.

He said his group has gotten clearance from the Federal Railroad Administration to operate the speeders but he described the unauthorized work as a “mistake” that his group has learned from.

Brown added that the rides are popular and appreciated. “People love those speeder rides – we are getting rave reviews,” he said.

But increased attention to the speeder rides is related to an upcoming lawsuit against the NCRA that will allege the agency is illegally segmenting its environmental review of railroad redevelopment. A July 29 letter to Hemphill from the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Humboldt Baykeeper, Friends of the Eel River and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics includes a photo of a THA poster advertising the new Arcata to Bracut ride and describes it as “an invitation to the public to participate in a commercial business involving operations being conducted on NCRA’s rail lines.”

The letter refers to the NCRA’s draft Environmental Impact Report for redevelopment of the rail section between Lombard and Willits and states that concerns about piece-mealing “are only heightened by the fact that the NCRA appears to be allowing, encouraging and expanding commercial activities in sections where it explicitly states it has no plans for operations.”

NCRA Manager Mitch Stogner said the premise of the letter is removed from reality. “I’ve never seen such a misrepresentation of facts as I read in that letter,” he said. “And furthermore, they know it.”

He said equating the speeder rides with “commercial operations” of the railroad is “blatantly false.” Stogner added, “These are speeder runs by a non-profit organization to cover some of their costs” and he said the rides “fall under a whole different category in the eyes of all regulators,” including the Federal Railroad Administration.

But he also said that expanding the speeder rides and doing the Bracut track work “is clearly beyond what (the THA) has been authorized to do” and “everything is going to be on hold until we have an MOU with them.”

The rides from Samoa to Manila were approved by the NCRA’s board of directors in 2005 and the agency is covered under the THA’s liability insurance, Stogner said.

He also said over 300 advance reservations – essentially ride tickets – had been purchased for the Aug. 7 Bracut ride. Asked about the distinction between commercial and non-commercial operations in those circumstances, he said the rides have been done on an RSVP donation basis but the Bracut situation has highlighted the need for an MOU.

“This expansion of the speeder service has raised the level of the discussion,” said Stogner. “We need to get a better handle on these speeder runs, for safety reasons first and foremost.”

Scott Greacen of EPIC said the recent events are “troubling” and led to the July 29 letter. “It’s not at all clear what the line is between operations on the rail line and running equipment on the rail line when you’re charging money,” he continued.

Advocacy for using the dormant rail line for a bay trail wasn’t mentioned in the letter but there is tension between the THA and trail supporters. One context of the situation is that railroad use has to be accommodated in planning for bay trails and some people think the NCRA will never be able to extend freight service this far north.

“To think that we should sit on the rail corridor or let the THA guys basically use it for their hobby raises serious concerns for me about public accountability,” said Greacen.

The MOU for the THA’s use of the rail corridor is planned to be an agenda item for the NCRA board’s September meeting.

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