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To say lumber and forest products traffic is a key portion of Sierra Northern Railway’s business is an understatement. So, the weak U.S. housing market has hit the 88-mile northern California short line hard.
Last year, the railroad moved about 7,300 carloads, a notable decline compared with prior years, says Sierra Northern President Dave Magaw.
“We believe we had a 9 percent drop-off in business because of the housing market,” he says.
To help make up the difference, the short line is pursuing every traffic opportunity, even those that involve only one or two carloads.
“We look at every carload as good business to us,” says Magaw.
That includes 80 to 100 carloads of inbound liquid petroleum gas Sierra Northern will transport each winter season because of efforts to regain tank-car business that had been lost for decades.
A few years after Sierra Railroad Co. acquired the former Yolo Shortline Railroad Co. in 2003, merged it with other freight-rail operations and renamed the subsidiary Sierra Northern Railway, the short line attempted to convince propane provider J.S. West Inc. to divert its inbound traffic from truck to rail. Sierra Railroad also owns and operates the Sierra Dinner Train, Sacramento RiverTrain and Skunk Train.
In 2006, Sierra Northern officials approached the liquid petroleum receiver with a proposal. The short line — which as Sierra Railroad hadn’t moved tank cars of liquid propane gas for about 30 years — would cover the cost to build a spur to J.S. West’s Sonora, Calif., plant if the propane provider constructed its own tank-car unloading facility.
J.S. West officials, who hadn’t shown much interest in accessing rail in the past, accepted the deal because their trucking costs were escalating, says Magaw.
“They also gain efficiencies by doing the move by rail car and not having to transload any of it to truck,” he says.
Sierra Northern conducted a few trial moves in late 2006 and early 2007, then began moving tank cars in fall 2007 after the spur and unloading facility were completed. The short line moves the cars 43 miles from a BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad interchange in Oakdale to the Sonora plant spur.
Sierra Northern will only move the liquid gas in winter because propane is a seasonal product, says Magaw.
Although the moves won’t make a huge dent in the short line’s annual carloads, Sierra Northern welcomes the traffic.
“It’s small, but good business to us,” says Magaw. “Every bit of business we can get, we like. It all adds up.”
— Jeff Stagl
Brownsville & Rio Grande
Carolina Coastal Railway
Finger Lakes Railway
Pacific Harbor Line
Sierra Northern Railway