Sierra Northern seeks new yard location in California

The city of Fillmore and Sierra Northern Railway could not reach a new yard lease agreement, so the short line plans to relocate its freight and excursion train operations. Sierra Northern Railway

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

When the Fillmore & Western Railway Co. ceased excursion train operations in mid-2021, Fillmore, California, lost a valuable asset and longtime user of city-owned property.  

For more than 20 years, the railway and its predecessors had hosted a variety of excursion trains in Fillmore, such as adventure and murder mystery dinner trains and weekend scenic trips in the pastoral surroundings of Ventura County. In addition, Fillmore & Western long had marketed its unique, historic and appealing location as a filming location for many movie and television productions — the one part of its business that continues. 

Excursion trains appeared poised to resume in Fillmore earlier this year. In January, Sierra Northern Railway’s (SERA) Ventura Division purchased the Fillmore & Western’s passenger-rail equipment and negotiated a 35-year lease with the Ventura County Transportation Commission to operate freight and tourist trains on the 32-mile Santa Paula Branch Line from Ventura to near Piru.  

Formed in August 2003 via the merger of the Sierra Railroad Co. and Yolo Shortline Railroad, SERA now operates about 100 miles of track and interchanges with BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. The short line offers such passenger excursions as the Sierra DinnerTrain, Skunk Train and Sacramento River Train. 

SERA set out to restart excursion trains in Fillmore, a plan that included obtaining a lease from the city to use its yard to support both passenger and freight operations. But now, the railroad is moving in another direction — literally — and Fillmore is dealing with what appears to be the permanent loss of a tenant and a prime visitor attraction.  

Fillmore leaders in early June requested that the railroad vacate the yard. Efforts between city and SERA officials to negotiate a 35-year lease proved fruitless. The lease would have allowed the short line to use the yard for tourist train and railbike operations, and to store freight cars. 

“We thought this was going to be our home for a long time since we had just acquired the Fillmore & Western’s equipment. We had hoped to be there for 100 years,” said SERA President Kenan Beard during a phone interview with RailPrime. “We went back and forth with the city for months. But because of one or two major issues, we could not sign a lease in good conscious.” 

Several clauses in the lease agreement would have violated SERA’s common-carrier duties, Beard claims, declining to go into specifics because the lease terms were confidential. 

Fillmore Yard The city-owned yard in Fillmore was home to excursion trains for more than 20 years. Fillmore & Western Railway Co.

City leaders were concerned about removing language in the agreement — per SERA’s request — that the use of the yard property would not disturb neighboring residents, said City Manager David Rowlands in an email. The short line also sought to perform grading and install buildings on the property without first enabling the city to review plans for compliance with local safety, drainage and code requirements, he said. 

“We always need to look out for Fillmore and our residents by enforcing laws to protect public health and safety,” Rowlands said. 

However, the city should not be allowed to demand permits or seek contract language that would force the railroad to violate common-carrier laws, said Beard. To that point, SERA never provided any information to the city about how the lease agreement would cause such violations, Rowlands claims. 

“We would not propose terms that violate the law,” he said. 

Moreover, SERA rejected language that would have allowed the city to deny the railroad’s request to transfer its interest in the property to a third party or to designate the yard as the center of its tourist train and railbike operations, city officials claim. 

“Their actions have led me to believe SERA never really wanted to be a part of Fillmore and they are using this opportunity to relocate to where they really wanted to be,” Rowlands said. 

One last-ditch meeting between SERA and city officials on June 15 failed to resolve differences. Fillmore leaders are concerned about freight operations bothering residents, even though SERA does not operate freight trains 24/7 and instead would mostly park rail cars in its yard while operating Monday through Friday, said Beard. The city would only welcome the resumption of excursion train operations, he added. 

So, now SERA is in the process of pursuing a new yard location in another community along the Santa Paula Branch Line, including in Santa Paula. The short line is working with realtors to find a suitable 10-acre site, said Beard. The chosen property would be used for both tourist and freight train operations. 

SERA plans to soon establish a temporary locomotive shop in Santa Paula while sites are analyzed for a permanent facility.

Although it’s disappointing the short line won’t be maintaining operations in Fillmore, it's clear city leaders only envisioned SERA as a stereotypical loud and disturbing freight railroad operating in the municipality's backyard, Beard said. 

“This shows the usual trials and tribulations of railroading in the United States,” he said.