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Railroad wars in Vallejo


Photo courtesy Mare Island Historic Park Foundation

Both the city of Vallejo and its Mare Island developer on March 22 filed a protest of the San Francisco Bay Railroad (SFBR) to operate trackage connecting to and on Mare Island. This is a somewhat involved story, but it has had everything to do with what both Vallejo (to a lesser extent) and its developer, Lennar Mare Island, LLC (LMI), view as an audacious land grab masquerading as providing common-carrier rail service to the island.

The facts are disputed and all parties have filed submissions to the Surface Transportation Board (yes, it’s called the Surf Board for short). However, unless revoked, the SFBR has trumped the game by applying in 2009 for common carrier status to serve its one active client on the island. This action was remarkable for its complete lack of notice to the other interested parties.

Alstom won a repair contract for California passenger cars and needed delivery at their repair shop on Mare Island.  The California Northern, who formerly served Mare Island, was not interested and advised Alstom to hire a switching carrier.  So they hired SFBR to deliver rail cars from its connection with the national rail system in Vallejo. Now this is where it gets technical. A switching service to one client is not a common carrier and therefore not subject to the Surf Board regulations. But since SFBR applied for common carrier status and it was granted, the whole mess is now before the agency.

The real estate owner, LMI maintains that the tracks on Mare Island have never been part of a common carrier and so can’t be regulated. For that reason they cancelled rail service to all seven active shippers in 2008, apparently not caring about the effect on their renter’s pocket books. Their vision for Mare Island would remove most of the railroad tracks.

SFBR argues that from the 1890’s to World War I, the railroad was privately operated as part of the national railroad system. At that point, the US Navy took over operations and ran it outside of other governmental authority. But in 1957, common carrier Southern Pacific resumed operations until it leased its operating authority to the California Northern Railroad. Since SP didn’t own the tracks on Mare Island, it could not include that area in the lease.

LMI argues that the land under the tracks will have to be environmentally remediated, and that they need the right to cancel rail service at any time. Common carrier status doesn’t allow that, but it does allow an embargo (a temporary cessation of service) while major capital works are undertaken.

LMI is trying to hire a more pliable railroad operator to operate on the Island, but the current operator has a temporary contract to operate the portion owned by Vallejo. That contract expires in March, so the problems get more interesting. A longer-term contract with Vallejo was blocked by LMI’s maneuvering.

SFBR and the shippers, according to Surf Board filings want to leave the tracks intact and provide rail service. Apparently, LMI doesn’t want that. The whole issue will now revolve around whether Mare Island was a switching service or whether at some point it was part of the common carrier system. And if a common carrier, the SURF Board can make sure that LMI can only impose reasonable rents, probably similar to ones Vallejo charged for its portion. LMI had offered SFBR a contract so onerous as to make rail service uneconomic.

Since the railroad has no mileposts and one station, Mare Island, the lines they are arguing about are spur tracks and could be removed without requiring an approval from the Surf Board.  However, without mileposts, no one could ascertain exactly where the station exists.  Oddly enough, neither side has presented that argument.

Right now, it is part of the national system, but LMI has filed to have that status revoked. SFBR has filed for Expedited Relief (168 pages) to start service to the five current customers who want rail service. LMI has asked for more time to respond in greater detail, which would of course allow SFBR’s temporary contract with Vallejo to expire. Insiders, who asked not to be identified, said this one is up for grabs. If they had to guess, they said the agency would side with the shippers who want rail service. But nothing is certain in this railroad war.