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  • Smell That Lonesome Whistle Blow

    California Northern’s Napa Trash Trains

    Text & Photography by Sean Zwagerman

    A few miles south of California’s Napa Valley, known worldwide for its superb wines and locally for its crush of tourists, is a little-known pass through the Bay area foothills called Jameson Canyon. After the demise 50 years ago of Northwestern Pacific’s rail ferry between Tiburon and San Francisco, Jameson served as the funnel for the voluminous traffic coming from the Sonoma and Napa valleys, Marin County, and the North Coast lumber region. Today, the line through the Sonoma Valley is nothing but a seldom-used, two-mile spur ending at a turkey farm. Trainloads of wine once traveled Southern Pacific’s Napa Valley Branch; today it is the route of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which carries tourists loaded with wine. Northwestern Pacific has just one customer left in Marin, and the North Coast timber industry has been in decline for decades.

    In 1993, SP freed itself of the Schellville Branch through Jameson Canyon and its dwindling traffic. California Northern Railroad leased the line and has diligently won back disgruntled shippers and lured new ones. Today, this line is busy once again: California Northern moves about 200 cars per day through Jameson Canyon. The scene is typical of the modern regional short line: Several GP15s strain to drag over the summit a long train with the varied profile and patchwork colors of a mixed freight. The cars carry flour for the General Mills plant at Vallejo, lumber and chicken feed for NWP at Schellville, and enormous steel pipes from the Napa Pipe plant at Rocktram. But about twice per week, a train of solid blue glides through the pass, a serpentine reflection of the California big sky, a seasonal stream flowing toward San Francisco Bay. Guiding the blue train are the powerful locomotives of two of the nation’s great railroads, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern & Santa Fe. What vital trade brings these titans onto the rails of a California short line? What magical cargo is sped northward out of the Golden State in these gleaming blue containers? Far away, in Roosevelt, Washington, the blue steel stream reaches its destination and discharges its precious freight: MSW. Otherwise known as municipal solid waste. Otherwise known as garbage. Roosevelt is a gaping landfill which will consume 120 million tons of trash over the next 40 years, including the garbage Northern California hauls out of Napa Junction in those long blue trains.

    The blue containers are owned by the Rabanco Corporation, the largest “waste by rail” carrier in the country and partners with Klickitat County, Washing­ ton, in developing the Roosevelt site. At least six trains are dedicated specifically to serving the landfill at Roosevelt, carrying about 200 containers per day between the landfill and nine intermodal hubs in Washington and California. Every four days or so, a train of empty containers – on occasion led by a Burlington Northern SD40-2 and a Southern Pacific tunnel motor – leaves the arid hills of Roosevelt on B SF, bound for Napa. At Klamath Falls, Oregon, the BNSF crew hands the southbound train over to UP. From there, the train enters the high plains of Northern California, makes its descent along the volcanic slopes of Mount Shasta, and eases to a stop be­ side the icy clear waters of the upper Sacramento River at Dunsmuir. Nearly 300 miles away in American Canyon, a computer screen in the California Northern offices gives advance notice that a trash train is on its way. Back in Dunsmuir a fresh crew guides the train slowly down out of the Trinity Range before crossing Lake Shasta and speeding across the Sacramento Valley into Roseville. After another quick crew change, the empty trash train turns southwest and travels 60 miles to Suisun. The crew takes a cab back to Roseville, and U P’s role is finished.

    Soon a white Carryall with a California Northern emblem on the door pulls up in a plume of dust next to the locomotives. Behind the engines, 3,000 feet of blue containers, stacked two high on yellow flatcars, taper into the distance in the siding at Suisun. A conductor and engineer climb out of the Carryall and onto the locomotive. Soon the trash train is passing the ranches and vineyards, the dry hills and oak trees, of Jameson Canyon. Since SP leased this line to California Northern in 1993, the hollow rattling of GP15s has joined the lowing of cattle and the hum of the adjacent highway as one of the familiar sounds in Jameson Canyon. The jet­ like whine of larger locomotives and their earth­ shaking vibration seem foreign and improbable here; the trash trains seem too big for the track and out of scale with their surroundings. Rounding the wye at Napa Junction, the train pulls into the yard at Lombard in the small town of American Canyon.

    Once the big engines are removed from the cars, the Napa Switcher – powered occasionally by GP15 106 – begins to pull the train apart and shuttles cuts of empty containers up the Napa Branch to the South Napa Solid Waste Management site, located about one mile north of Lombard. The landfill at Roosevelt represents the state of the art in garbage. Pipes collect the leachate – the smelly, runny stuff that leaks from garbage – and recirculate it through the landfill to promote faster decomposition. Other pipes collect the methane produced by the rotting trash, which is con­ vetted to electricity. The Napa site on the other hand, though efficient and inexpensive, is decidedly low­ tech. Garbage trucks come to dump their household waste, and tired, sway-backed pickups line up to un­ burden themselves of garden trimmings and construction materials. The trucks dump this potpourri of swill onto a concrete floor where bulldozers pile it in­ to the big blue containers. The trash is then mashed down by a giant press, the same technology we use on Sunday nights when we jump up and down on our garbage cans. The trash is not sorted until it reaches Washington, though heavy construction materials go into separate 20-foot containers at Napa.

    If all goes well, a loaded train of 30 to 40 cars – 60 to 80 containers – will be ready to go east shortly after the big engines bring an empty container train down the hill into Lombard. Whenever possible, California Northern likes to combine the loaded trash train with the daily general freight, running a single, massive train over to Suisun in the afternoon. It is not unusual for such a train to consist of 40 loaded double stacks from Rabanco, 40 loaded pipe cars, and an equal number of general merchandise cars. Recently, according to conductor Scott Lefler, these combined trains have been up to 10,000 feet long. In addition to the powerful road units on the point, these enormous trains require a couple of GP15s, either mid-train or on the rear, for the push over the 1.8 percent grades of Jameson Canyon. If, however, the trash train is ready to roll earlier in the day, California Northern will run it as a separate train. “The minute it’s loaded and built,” says John Speight, California Northern’s assistant vice president of marketing, “it’s gone.”

    This is not a train the folks of American Canyon want lingering any longer than necessary. The three railroads tend to keep the trash trains moving swiftly, for although the cargo is not perishable, it is pungent. For anyone standing beside the tracks, there’s no mystery what this malodorous train carries as it speeds by on its northbound journey to Roosevelt. But despite their distinctive bouquet, the blue containers were carefully designed by Rabanco specifically for hauling trash. They are specially sealed, water-tight, and according to Speight, “You could probably push one over a cliff and it wouldn’t break.” When packed to capacity, one container holds 30 tons of MSW. At that weight the containers are not street legal; in fact, it would take three containers hauled by trucks to carry the same load as two containers on a flatcar. Thus the trash train is not only well engineered and environ­ mentally safe, it is efficient and economical.

    From California Northern’s perspective, the trash train “is a good move for us,” says Speight, although it is more profitable to haul pipe and lumber. Just as recycling is a nickel and dime affair, none of the participating railroads are turning this trash into gold. The cost figures are very close on shipping garbage 710 miles from Northern California to Roosevelt. Were UP to list its most important and profitable unit trains, the Rabanco trash train would be far down on that list. The narrowness of the profit margin demands a unique level of cooperation among the par­ticipating carriers. Union Pacific and BNSF share the expense of powering the trains, each contributing one locomotive. This leads to some interesting and colorful combinations: UP, SP, Chicago & North Western, and all the colors of the current Burlington Northern & Santa Fe rainbow have preceded the long blue streak over Jameson Canyon.

    The need to slice the profit thinly onto the plates of all three railroads also explains the routing of the Rabanco train through Northern California. If the train were to travel on California Northern’s West Valley Subdivision from Tehama to Davis instead of UP’s parallel East Valley Line, its journey would be 25 miles shorter, and California Northern would increase its profit on the move. But such an arrangement would simply not be worthwhile for UP, so instead the trash train runs on UP all the way to Suisun. As a result, all three railroads get a small, consistent re­ ward for their participation in the 10-year contract, which began in 1995. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Rabanco operation is Klickitat County. In a region suffering from the chronic effects of the declining timber industry, the Roosevelt landfill brings a restorative infusion of $5 million to $6 million per year. There are modest benefits for customers in the Bay Area as well. A rancher whose land borders the California Northern near the small town of Cordelia told me that he saves money trucking his garbage over to Napa rather than going to the closer landfill in Solano County. “The place in Napa is clean, it’s indoors, and you don’t have the wind blowing a hundred miles an hour like over here in Solano.”

    The blue containers of the Rabanco Corporation are now a familiar sight on the railroads of the West, and the movement of waste by rail – by Rabanco and others – will no doubt become even more common. In mid-1999, towns like Eureka and Arcata in the far northwestern corner of California plan to begin ex­ porting their garbage via NWP. Unfortunately, last winter’s storms moved several mountainsides onto NWP along the Eel River, and the line remains partially closed and nearly bankrupt. For now, Eureka trucks its trash north to Medford, Oregon. In Southern California, where the population continues to swell exponentially, urban and suburban dumps have had their fill and are closing. East of the Los Angeles basin, the vast arid valleys which may once have been viewed as landfill country are instead being trashed with housing developments, thus simultaneously increasing the production of waste and complicating the problem of its disposal. In the not-so-distant future, any enormous and remote hole in the ground will be considered valuable real estate. Amid the creosote bushes and ocotillo of eastern Riverside County, the rusting rails and sun­ bleached ties of the Eagle Mountain mining railroad wait for the day when Los Angeles is finally over­ whelmed by its own excreta and looks for salvation in the bottomless mining pit at the end of this abandoned railway. But environmentalists who appreciate the alien beauty of these desert mountains are alarmed at the idea of filling the Eagle Mountain Mine with oozing garbage, given the mine’s proximity to the Joshua Tree Wilderness. For now, Orange County is providing inexpensive disposal. But it is, to be sure, a matter of time before Los Angeles puts the waste into this wasteland, and the dusty scent of desert sage is adulterated by the smell of diesel exhaust, old beer cans, and empty bottles of suntan lotion. A society built on ever-expanding consumption is bound to produce an increase of waste. Until this equation and its significance command more attention, perhaps the best we can do is move the mess around. The big blue containers leaving the Bay Area through Jameson Canyon represent a reasonable, if temporary, response for a growing society of waste-producers living on a finite amount of land.            


    With SP business cars at left, a Rabanco container is held aloft before being placed on a flatcar during the opening ceremonies for the South Napa site on June 29, 1995. 

    Normally UP and BNSF each provide one locomotive to power the trash train, but occasionally two units from the same road will appear, as on December 7, 1995, when SP SD40-2R 7346 and SD40T-2 8381 pulled the empty trash train over the summit at Creston. 

    California Northern 107 leads SP SD70M 9808, BN SD70MAC 9627, and the inaugural train out of Napa on June 29, 1995, seen here between Rabanco's South Napa facility and Lombard.

    Burlington Northern SD40-2s 8139 and 8134 lead the emp­ ties through Jameson Canyon, followed by the Fairfield Switcher, also returning to Lombard, on April 3, 1996.

    On February 26, 1996, BN S040-2s 7123 and 7253 roar as they haul 34 cars of loaded trash containers and 28 loads of pipe up the 1.2 percent grade to Cre­ ston. Pushing on the rear end are California Northern GP15 105 and S09 200.

    On October 17, 1998, California Northern 110 and 103 have joined UP SD40-2 3836 and DASH8-40CW 9418 in hauling a 4O-car trash train into Suisun-Fairfield. Having cut out the 110 and 103, the California Northern crew here re-attaches 3836 and 9418 to the loaded trash train. The train will sit here at Suisun for several hours waiting for the UP crew to take it east.

    Southern Pacific SD40T-2 8535, BNSF SD45-2 6504, and C&NW DASH8-40C 8529 haul loaded cars out of Rabanco on October 2, 1998.

    Burlington Northern & Santa Fe SD40-2 6947 and Helm Leasing SD40-3 6512 haul the loaded trash train eastward through Jameson Canyon on March 13, 1998.




    Article Details

    • Original Author Sean Zwagerman
    • Source RailNews

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