Abandoned train equipment in the Eel River. | Photo: Friends of the Eel River.


After months of behind-the-scenes scheming and closed-door meetings with powerful interests, a shadowy corporation’s bid to export coal out of Humboldt Bay got unceremoniously shot down today by the Surface Transportation Board.

The North Coast Railroad Co. LLC, an opaque corporation formed just last year, had submitted a notice to the federal agency declaring its intent to file an Offer of Financial Assistance (OFA) in hopes of taking over the 320-mile rail line between Eureka and the Bay Area. The apparent idea was to export coal from the Powder River Basin via rail through the Bay Area, up the Eel River Canyon and onto ships in the Port of Humboldt for transport to Asian markets.

The scheme threatened the future of The Great Redwood Trail, a state-backed endeavor to convert the former North Coast Railroad Authority’s right-of-way into a multi-use rail-to-trail project connecting San Francisco and Humboldt bays.

But the company’s attorneys missed the Surface Transportation Board’s May 31 filing deadline by a single day, which was proved sufficient cause for the agency to reject the filing. The agency didn’t even get into the laughable bank statement the company had submitted, which claimed to come from an account with balances in the $15.7 million range — that is, unless you copied-and-pasted numbers that had been inadequately redacted from the statement. Those poorly hidden numbers showed account’s actual balances hovering around the $2,000 mark. 

Reached via phone, Congressman Jared Huffman was delighted with the ruling.

“This is outstanding news,” Huffman said. “I think North Coast residents can breathe a lot easier knowing that this outrageous coal train proposal has been rejected.”

Alicia Hamann, executive director of environmental nonprofit Friends of the Eel River, gave credit to vigorous push-back to the coal train proposal from the local community and lawmakers including Huffman, state Senator Mike McGuire and U.S. Senator Alex Padilla.

McGuire’s office sent out a press release with comments from the senator.

The North Coast has always known this dangerous project was dead on arrival, and today the Surface Transportation Board confirmed it,” he said in the statement. 

Hamann said she wasn’t so sure. “We were kind of expecting the STB to maybe make an exception in favor of the North Coast Railroad Company,” allowing the bid to move forward despite the blown deadline, she said. “But it turns out that their late filing has been rejected.”

The Surface Transportation Board also rejected a proposal from Arcata resident and frequent LoCO commenter Uri Driscoll, who, under the name “Seeker Enterprises,” proposed converting a couple of short sections of rail line around Humboldt Bay for railbike recreational service.

The agency said Driscoll’s notice “fails to demonstrate preliminary financial responsibility.” His filing said that he had secured a $200,000 line of credit on his home to finance the endeavor, and he offered his retirement account as collateral. The Surface Transportation Board also rejected Driscoll’s bid because he didn’t obtain a current quote for rail steel scrap, as required.

But the agency did not reject a notice from Mendocino Railway, operator of the Skunk Train, which has proposed taking over a 13-mile stretch of line from the Willits area to a spot near Dos Rios, ostensibly to ship gravel. The Great Redwood Trail Agency, formerly the North Coast Railroad Authority, has questioned Mendocino Railway’s financial fitness for such an endeavor, noting that their operations have historically been confined to excursion trains and railbikes. 

Huffman said the STB may wind up rejecting that proposal, too.

“I would not say that the Skunk Train is somehow in a great position now because they didn’t get rejected,” he told the Outpost. “I think you can read between the lines in what the STB wrote, [which is] that they think that the Skunk Train has got some financial viability problems.”

Mendocino Railway has said it intends to be connected to the national rail system, though Hamann said the company may have ulterior motives.

“It seems obvious that they’re trying to bolster their claim to be a public utility, because that would then make them exempt from environmental review and permitting requirements for their development plans in Fort Bragg,” she said.

As for the North Coast Railroad Co. and its coal train ambitions, Hamann said she thinks the company is highly unlikely to appeal the decision. Huffman agreed.

“You know, there are always some ways in which you can challenge an agency decision like this, but it is expensive, difficult and in this case it’s just not going to work,” he said.

But if the company wants to try?

“Good luck with that, is what I would say,” Huffman replied. “If they want to light some coal money on fire pursuing that appeal, I wish them well.”

McGuire said in his press release, “The best is yet to come with the Great Redwood Trail. We’re beyond thrilled to kick off the Trail Master Plan in the coming few months and we look forward to moving this once-in-a-generation project forward full steam ahead!”

You can read the Surface Transportation Board’s ruling here