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A whiff of hope: Operator of California's 'Skunk' train files Chapter 11 reorganization

In what it terms a "last-ditch effort" to save the historic "Skunk" tourist train, the California Western Railroad board announced Dec. 5 that it had filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. bankruptcy code.

The board plans to continue operating the 117-year-old railroad on a limited winter schedule, but has no plans to interrupt planned special events, said Chairman John Mayfield in a prepared statement.

The 40-mile Skunk line operates along the so-called "Redwood Route," which runs from Fort Bragg to Willits, Calif. The tracks cross about 30 bridges and trestles, and pass through two deep mountain tunnels.

In 1996, Mayfield and five local businessmen purchased the Skunk from Kyle Railways to protect what Mayfield termed "a community asset."

"We knew it wasn't going to make a lot of money," he said. "We just wanted to keep it going."

At the time, the Skunk carried passengers by day and lumber, by way of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, at night. But in 1997, the Northwestern Pacific terminated its operations. While the Skunk’s freight business — more than 600 annual carloads — wasn’t significant by rail industry standards, it helped the railroad service its debt and pay operational costs, Mayfield said. California Western’s subsequent efforts to improve the Skunk's financial situation, including a stock offering, weren’t enough to offset lost freight revenue.

"The Skunk Train is a huge asset for the county that carries an average of 65,000 tourist passengers each year," Mayfield said. "However, passenger revenues alone are not enough to sustain the operation."

In the meantime, California Western’s immediate needs include figuring out how to fund the reorganization plan and drumming up community support.

Named for the pungent odor its early gasoline-powered cars emitted, the Skunk is one of about a dozen historic railroads still operating in the United States. It also is America's last rail mail carrier, California Western says.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 12/6/2002