Mendocino County's famed Skunk Train will resume operations from Willits on Wednesday, four months after a tunnel collapse near Fort Bragg largely closed the historic railroad.
General Manager Robert Pinoli said the tunnel was clear enough by Tuesday to send equipment to the eastern end of the line. Trains will resume their normal runs from Willits to the midway point, known as Northspur.
It will be at least two more weeks until operation resume from the Fort Bragg headquarters to Northspur, he said. In the meantime, the train will continue to offer a short trip from Fort Bragg, just a few miles through the woods west of the tunnel.
"We still have more work to do in the tunnel: more bolts to put in, more metal mesh, more shotcrete" to shore up the collapse site, he said.
The 120-year-old tunnel collapsed unexpectedly in April, dumping tons of rock on the tracks just a few miles east of Fort Bragg. Engineers still cannot explain why it collapsed, he said.
All of the railroad's equipment was in Fort Bragg at the time, cutting it off from the Willits end of the line.
Tourism officials say the Skunk Train, a historic logging and passenger railroad, is the largest tourist attraction in the county other than parks. They had worried the rail line might be forced to close after Pinoli said the company had no money to clear out the tunnel.
Restoring service from Willits "is awesome news," said Scott Schneider, president and CEO of Visit Mendocino County. "It really brings the Skunk Train back from just being a costal attraction to a county-wide attraction. We're thrilled."
He said it is impossible to say how much the partial shutdown of the railroad had cost area tourism businesses, though it was clearly something.
As recently as six weeks ago, the attraction's future remained in doubt. A public fundraising effort in May and June brought in only about $110,000 toward the cleanup, expected to cost at least $300,000. In mid-June, however, San Francisco-based conservation group Save the Redwoods League stepped in to fund the cleanup, paying $300,000 for an option to buy some or all of the tree-lined 40-mile right of way between Fort Bragg and Willits.
The group expects to take about a year to decide whether to buy a conservation easement to protect the trees, or to buy the right-of-way outright, leasing back the tracks themselves to the Skunk Train.
Pinoli said the final tunnel cleanup will just about eat up all the money raised this summer. The work took almost a month longer than Pinoli had hoped, meaning the rail line will miss out on almost all of the lucrative summer season.
"July and August are pretty much past us, with school starting so early," he said, "but what are you going to do?"
At least, he said, the railroad did not have to lay off employees because of the curtailed service.
The railroad intends to continue offering the short ride west of the tunnel, at least in the summer season, even after full service is restored, Pinoli said. After customers got over their disappointment at finding the full line closed this season, they reported they enjoyed the short ride, which takes about two hours round trip.
He also expects to maintain the year-long and lifetime pass system, which the railroad created as part of its fundraising efforts in the spring.
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