Railroad runs from Riverbank to Sonora area. Federal grant will help it run faster

A $35.8 million rehab will make for faster, safer trains on a freight line between Riverbank and the Sonora area.

The Sierra Northern Railway just got a $17.4 million federal grant and will cover the rest of the cost itself. The six-year project will involve new ties, rails and road crossings on much of the 55-mile route.

The line, which started 122 years ago as the Sierra Railroad, hauls lumber, propane, crushed rock, canned food and several other goods. They move ever so slowly, thanks to aging track in the mostly hilly terrain.

“Currently, we operate about 10 miles per hour on a majority of the line,” said Ken Beard, president and CEO of the Sierra Northern, in a phone interview Thursday. “This will increase the speed to 25 miles per hour.”

The Sierra Northern pulls freight cars that become part of much longer trains on the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads. Both can reach much higher speeds on the straightaways of the Central Valley and other parts of their multi-state networks.

The Sierra Northern carries about 6,000 carloads of freight per year. It projects a 420 percent increase after the upgrade, thanks to both faster speeds and more frequent trips.

The railroad employs about 20 people on this line and about 30 more on a freight service it owns between Woodland and West Sacramento.

One of them is Alex Sharp, an engineer and conductor on trains that run up to the Sonora area a few times a week. He described parts of the route as a slow-speed roller-coaster.

“They surveyed it and laid tracks (in 1897), and basically that’s where they are today,” Sharp told The Modesto Bee during a Friday morning visit to the Oakdale rail yard.

The upgrade is scheduled to start in January 2020 and will not interfere with service.

The Federal Railroad Administration awarded the grant. The application came with letters of support from public officials in Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties and businesses that ship on the Sierra Northern. Many noted that the improved rails will reduce truck traffic on Highway 108 and other roads.

The Sierra Railroad was built between Oakdale and Standard, a few miles east of Sonora, mainly to serve the timber industry that emerged around 1900. The rails also carried concrete during Tuolumne County’s dam-building boom from the 1920s to 1950s. A daily passenger service ran until 1939.

Today, the line hauls lumber down from sawmills owned by Sierra Pacific Industries in Standard and Chinese Camp. J.S. West & Cos. of Modesto runs propane tank cars up to Tuolumne County, where this fuel is widely used for home heating.

The railroad brings turkey feed to Diestel Family Farms, a premium producer with a branch in Chinese Camp.

The new Cooperstown Rock Quarry, near the Stanislaus-Tuolumnne county line, plans to ship on the upgraded tracks. The crushed rock will go into road construction, levee repair, home-building and other uses.

“Much of public objection to construction aggregate mining stems from the high amount of truck traffic and associated pollution from emissions,” said Patrick Embree, part of the quarry leadership, in a letter last year to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “Rail transportation is more efficient than truck, and produces far less pollution.”

Down in the Valley, the railroad picks up carloads of Rosarita refried beans, canned at the ConAgra Foods plant in Oakdale. The same plant turns out canned tomatoes hauled by UP.

The Sierra Northern tracks reach the former Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant, which is being redeveloped for various smaller industries. They include a propane company and railcar repair business served by the railroad.

The tracks used to carry the Sierra Dinner Train on passenger excursions out and back from Oakdale, but declining ridership ended them in early 2018. The locomotive and cars have been leased to the Napa Valley Wine Train.

Chris Hart, who helped launch the Sierra Dinner Train in 1999, said by phone Friday that its long-term future is uncertain. The track it had used could be upgraded fairly soon, since the Sierra Northern project will start in Riverbank and work east.

The track also serves Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, which offers six-mile excursions pulled by steam or diesel engines. Details were not available Friday on whether the Sierra Northern overhaul will enhance this experience.

The line is mostly flat and straight as it runs from Riverbank to Oakdale and up into the lower foothills. It twists and turns as a train moves northeast toward the Gold Rush towns of Chinese Camp, Jamestown and Sonora. The track passes the strip malls of East Sonora and ends at Standard. It was a company town with sawmill worker housing until the 1960s, but now is mainly industrial.

The grant will improve the surfaces at 10 locations where pavement meets track. The line will not get the crossing arms common in more populated areas.

The work will include replacing about 90,000 of the 175,000 wooden ties on the line and about 10 miles of steel rails. The latter tend to wear out faster on curves, Beard said.

He is part of the family that established the massive Beard Industrial District near the southeast corner of Modesto. He used to run the affiliated Modesto and Empire Traction Co., a short-line railroad between the UP and BNSF.