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The Skunk Train runs railway motorcars that include both an engine and passenger seating. Here, it is crossing the Noyo River.
A railway motorcar crosses the Noyo River on the Skunk Train route. This section of the track  
is no longer accessible to the rolling stock after the catastrophic tunnel collapse.
Skunk Train (California & Western) logo
Once upon a time, there were railroads everywhere in our nation, moving cargo along critical routes. One such railroad was the California & Western, a route moving redwood logs, people, and supplies between Willits, California, and Fort Bragg, on California's north coast.

The line has run several different engine types, from steam, to diesel-electric, to special all-in-one motorcars that put the passengers and the engine in a single car. All three types of equipment are part of the line today. It was nicknamed "The Skunk" from the original motorcars, which burned crude oil for heat and gasoline for propulsion, and emitted a pungent odor. (Today's Skunk rail cars are not at all stinky, thank goodness!)

Aboard the Skunk Train (Santa Edition) near Willits, CA
Aboard the Skunk Train (Polar Express edition,
complete with lights and Santa Claus), in 2011.
Today, the Skunk Train is mostly a tourist railway, though it does provide service to a few families who live along the rail line. It typically runs daily, a distance of 40 miles, with an elevation change from 20' to 1,740'. Quiet days are run with the motorcars; on summer weekends they usually break out the steam engines and run steam from Fort Bragg to the midpoint at Northspur and diesel between Northspur and Willits. (The grade on the Willits side is a tough go for the steam engine.) The operation employs 40 full- and part- time workers.

The north coast of California is geologically chocolate pudding - ie, mud that is constantly becoming saturated and sliding. Keeping the tracks maintained (for that matter, roads too) is a constant battle. Caltrans regularly wakes up to find a major road section has moved dramatically since yesterday, and so too is the situation for the Skunk Train. Usually the issues are small - a rock slide over the track, a little area that needs a fresh infusion of gravel.

However, on April 11 of this year, a small bulge was noticed in Tunnel #1 during routine inspection. This is common and the repair process is normally straightforward. When they returned April 13 to do the repairs, they discovered that an entire section had collapsed.

On April 13, 2013, a portion of Tunnel #1 on the Skunk Train collapsed, blocking the tracks between Fort Bragg and Willits. This tunnel was dug by hand in 1893 through rock and lined with redwood timbers.
On April 13, 2013, a portion of Tunnel #1 on the Skunk Train collapsed, blocking the tracks between Fort Bragg and Willits. This tunnel was dug by hand in 1893 through rock and lined with redwood timbers.
There are two tunnels on the route. This one, Tunnel #1, is 4 miles from the terminus in Fort Bragg. All the rolling stock was in Fort Bragg at the time of the collapse - which means that operations at the Skunk are now limited to essentially a kiddie excursion of a 60 minute, 8 mile round trip in the (beautiful) Pudding Creek area - hardly the experience we know and love for this railway. Although this short trip is running now, it is not sufficient to support the operation in the long term, let alone generate the funds to complete the repairs.

Repairs to the tunnel have been estimated at $300,000. Normally, the Skunk would have this amount in reserve. However, in 2011, Aaron Bassler shot two people in the forest and became a fugitive, shooting at police and anyone who happened across him for 36 days. The Skunk ceased operations for a period and then staffed with extra precautions, including armed guards. They also provided additional support to the sheriff's office, in total costing them approximately $200,000.

This calamity comes at a time Skunk Train operations were expanding in both ridership and income, despite the recession, both out of Willits and Fort Bragg. Before the tunnel collapse, Pinoli was planning to expand operations out of Willits even more this year due to rising customer demand. While the ongoing operations have been improving, the Skunk Train has already absorbed two other major financial challenges since 2006; one natural and one man made. In 2006, a substantial landslide cost the train about $500,000 in repairs and lost revenue and in 2011, a 36-day search for suspected murderer Aaron Bassler in the wild area adjacent to the Skunk line cost $200,000 in direct help to law enforcement and lost revenues, according to Pinoli.
MacKerricher State Park's glorious coastline
Fort Bragg is home to MacKerricher State Park, one of my favorite locations in the whole world. The glorious ocean, boardwalked trails, tidepools, seal- and bird-watching, and sand beaches have something for just about everyone who likes to go outside.
The Skunk Train is run lovingly by railfans, for the enjoyment of the general public. It is a key attraction for Mendocino County and an important part of its history and economy. To repair the tunnel, Chief Skunk Robert Pinoli has set up a fundraising campaign. Any and all amounts are appreciated, or you can purchase what are effectively advance railpasses with your donation: $300 gets you free rides for you plus a guest through 2014, and for $1,885, you can get free rides on the Skunk Train for life. For smaller amounts, they're offering other Skunk souvenirs, including bits of rock from the tunnel.

Much of the loose rock has been removed from the tunnel, nearly all by hand. A huge boulder remains on the tracks about 300 feet in from the western tunnel edge, says Pinoli. This boulder must be removed before there is any chance to push a car through the tunnel to the Willits side. Pinoli hopes to slip some equipment through the tunnel to re-establish some Willits traffic before the tunnel reconstruction begins. This delicate operation involves pushing unmanned train cars known as a "ghost train"  through the tunnel until they emerge on the Willits end. A train crew will board this "ghost train" which is then uncoupled from the Fort Bragg "pusher." The Willits crew will then bring the train and cars through back to Willits.
Here are the options for repairing the tunnel:

Tunnel #1 was completed in 1893 (dug by hand), and is a monument to Chinese & Italian immigrants who painstakingly worked in very tough conditions for six years.

The repair process - Since the actual cave in occurred Skunk Train crews worked for two weeks clearing debris and in the meantime we retained a geotechnical engineering firm to serve as the head of this project. They advised until we begin re-construction to leave things as is. We have completed the interview process of contractors and are ready to start work, but we need to raise these critical funds. We are really faced with five options for rebuilding; the fifth and least preferred would be to reconstruct with timbers and back filling the void area (this is how the rest of the tunnel is built) it is the least preferred because it is the oldest method though it has worked very well for 120 years; the fourth would be to reconstruct in the same fashion as the fifth method but to use steel beams in place of redwood; the next three methods are all contenders for the first choice depending on the geological assessment and what the professionals think; they are inserting a pre-engineered steel plate (similar to a giant culvert) in the void and back filling the voided space with slurry, casting shotcrete / gunite panels and bolting them in place and then back filling the void with slurry, and the most preferred and most modern would be to rock bolt the existing rock and covering with a steel mesh and then shotcete the entire area.The geotechnical engineering contract is $42,000 and the construction estimate is about $250,000.

Locomotive for the California & Western
A California & Western diesel locomotive, seen here in Willits in 2011.
More about the Skunk Train at:

You can contribute at:

Articles include:

The Skunk Train runs steam engines from Fort Bragg, CA to Northspur, in the heart of the redwoods.
Help ensure the steam engines return to Northspur!

Originally posted to elfling's Magical Mystery Tour on Wed Jun 05, 2013 at 08:38 AM PDT.

Also republished by Koscadia and J Town.

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