Sierra Northern Railway to expand operations with leased line

A lease agreement with the Ventura County Transportation Commission will enable the short line to operate freight trains on the Santa Paula Branch Line for 35 years. Sierra Northern Railway

Sierra Northern Railway (SERA) long has provided both freight-rail and tourist-train services in northern California. And soon, the short line will provide those services on more trackage. 

SERA recently negotiated a 35-year lease with the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) to operate freight and tourist trains on the Santa Paula Branch Line. The 32-mile VCTC-owned line extends from Ventura to near Piru in eastern Ventura County. 

SERA plans to develop a customer base along the branch line to provide freight and transload services, and use the route to offer tourist and seasonal passenger-rail services through its sister company Mendocino Railway, which operates the historic Skunk Train. In addition, the short line expects to support film and television productions on the branch line. 

SERA was formed in August 2003 via the merger of the Sierra Railroad Co. and Yolo Shortline Railroad. Since 1916, Sierra Railroad Co. has hosted the production of more than 300 movies, television shows and commercials because of its scenic and unique location, which features foothills, historic train stations, ports and military bases. 

SERA currently operates about 100 miles of track in Mendocino, Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Yolo counties, and interchanges with BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. 

Built in 1887 by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Santa Paula Branch Line was originally part of the railroad’s mainline that connected Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. The branch line was abandoned east of Piru in 1984 because of washouts, then later was purchased by VCTC in 1995 to protect freight transportation uses and eventually serve as a commuter-rail route. 

Sierra Northern Railway Several transload operators are interested in establishing a facility along the branch line. Sierra Northern Railway

“The Santa Paula Branch Line and the entire Heritage Valley has not seen regular freight service since the SP pulled out more than two decades ago. We believe there is a want and a need for freight-rail service to the area,” said SERA President and CEO Kennan Beard in an email. 

The short line plans to install spur lines off the branch line, and repair rail and bridges. The route will be used to switch and store rail cars. 

“I have been talking with several potential freight customers along the line who are interested in either rehabilitating their existing spurs or adding new spurs to facilities that don’t currently connect to the railroad,” said Beard. “On top of that, I have been in discussions with a couple different transload operators that are looking to establish a facility in this general area.” 

SERA has relocated two of its Railpower RP20BD Gensets to the route and expects to purchase the necessary maintenance-of-way equipment to rehabilitate the line. 

“One of our managers from our Sacramento Division has relocated down to the area and has hired a staff to maintain the right of way and rolling stock, as well as to operate both our freight and tourist trains,” said Beard. 

In addition to kickstarting freight-rail business, VCTC officials believe the lease agreement will lead to the resumption of excursion trains along the branch line, bringing more tourists to the Heritage Valley area. 

“[SERA] has a proven record of professionalism and excellent tourist opportunities, and has been meeting with local businesses to see what [it] can do to help the tourism industry in our valley,” said VCTC Commissioner Lynn Edmonds in a press release. “At present, Sierra Northern … hopes to be ready to have the trains starting by the spring break.”