Western Railway, VCTC still at odds over track maintenance, lease
Fillmore & Western Railway has been in operation since 1991.
Fillmore & Western Railway has been in operation since 1991.

Will the City of Fillmore continue to attract tourism to town without the Fillmore and Western Train is a question many Fillmore residents are asking. It all comes down to money and who is responsible for maintaining the tracks and capital improvements.

There are approximately 177,200 miles of track in service in the U.S. which require vigilant inspections, maintenance, repair and replacement in order to keep freight and passenger trains moving safely. The dispute with Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) and Fillmore and Western is a 32 miles stretch of track from Montalvo to Fillmore.

In 1991 the City of Fillmore, through its Redevelopment Agency (RDA), agreed to move Short Line Enterprises Fillmore Production Railroad (SLE) to Fillmore to create film production and tourism in town. The agreement between Southern Pacific and Fillmore's RDA was a lease of railroad tracks from Fillmore to 12th Street in Santa Paula for filming and tourist trains. SLE was responsible for maintaining the tracks at a Class 1 standard.

In 1995 the Cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ventura RDA's and Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) agreed to purchase Southern Pacific's branch line between Montalvo Wye to the Los Angeles County Line for a price of $9,000,000, mostly paid by government grants, with each town's RDA's contributing $50,000. At the time that stretch between Montalvo and Santa Paula was "Excepted" and could only haul freight. The following year Dave Wilkinson purchased the train and changed the name to Fillmore and Western (F&W).

According to Dave Wilkinson's blog when the trains first came to Fillmore, SLE was in charge of maintaining the tracks between Fillmore and Santa Paula with some minor financial assistance from the Fillmore's RDA and private donors. Southern Pacific agreed to continue to maintain the ‘Excepted’ tracks from Montalvo to Santa Paula. During the 90's Southern Pacific hauled about 10 to 15 freight cars each month using the Montalvo to Santa Paula lines, but in 1997 that line of tracks were upgraded from "Excepted track" to "Class 1 track".

The class of track determines the speed a train can travel. There are 9 classes of track with the first 5 having a different speed for freight and passenger. "Excepted" is the lowest and must travel under 10 mph with no passengers, only freight. On Class 1 tracks trains can travel up to 10 mph with freight and 15 mph passengers, Class 2 allows for 25 mph with freight and 30 mph with passengers, Class 3 allows 40 mph with freight and 60 mph with passengers, Class 4 (most major tracks) allows 60 mph with freight and 80 mph with passengers and Class 5 allows 80 mph with freight and 90 mph with passengers. The remaining three higher classes allow speeds from 125 mph to 200 mph regardless of passenger or freight.

Under Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations, each railroad has primary responsibility to ensure its track meets or exceeds the federal safety standards. This includes railroad inspections, performing track inspections as specified minimum frequencies based on the class of track, the type of track, the annual gross tonnage operated over the track and whether it carries passenger trains. The responsibility of maintaining train signals also falls on the railroad. In California the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) also regulates railroad travel with requirements similar to the FRA.

Class 1 and higher track (not Excepted track) require a minimum inspection frequency of twice weekly for passenger trains with accurate records of inspections kept. Railroads can change the class of track, increase or decrease track speed, without prior notification or approval by the FRA, but are liable for civil penalties if they fail to comply with safety standards or operate in excess of designated track speed.

According to Dave Wilkinson the cost of a single Class upgrade, say from Class 1 to Class 2, is approx $4,000 to $5,000 per mile if no other conditions exist such as a bridge, train crossing, problem terrain, etc which increase the cost considerably.

Because of the 1997 track upgrade between Montalvo and Santa Paula from Excepted to Class 1 (which then allowed passenger cars to use the tracks) and the added cost involved, Southern Pacific stopped maintaining that area of track. A contract between VCTC and F&W was then agreed to for the service maintenance, but not the cost of capital repairs; which F&W billed VCTC separately.

In 1998 Union Pacific Railroad bought Southern Pacific and continued to haul freight from Montalvo to Santa Paula; Union Pacific, just like Southern Pacific, did not maintain the line.

In 2001 F&W received a new 20 year contract (2001-2021) with Fillmore's RDA and VCTC. Today RDA's do not exist and the Fillmore and Ventura RDA's are called the Successor Agencies, while the City of Santa Paula relinquished its RDA assets to the State of California.

In 2001 a maintenance contract between F&W and VCTC was agreed upon for $186,000 per year and the contract stated F&W could renegotiate some terms and conditions every three years. By 2008 the maintenance contract had almost doubled to $316,000 a year.

With that same contract F&W also received permission to haul freight; but Union Pacific, who had the lease on the line, stipulated a 'sidetrack line' must be installed for the transfer of the lease to be approved on their end of the agreement. A sidetrack line is a parallel track that allows for the changing of freight cars. According to VCTC Executive Director Darren Kettle the cost of such a sidetrack is between $700,000-$750,000.
Wilkinson disputes that amount and said such a track can be installed for about $250,000. At present there is only one customer, Speers Plastic, hauling freight on the Montalvo to Santa Paula line.

In June of 2010 Kettle informed F&W that VCTC had overpaid them $140,000 and began deducting the overpayment each month. Kettle said VCTC tried for three years to negotiate a contract with F&W but talks failed and in June 2013 VCTC canceled Fillmore and Western's contract stating lack of maintenance. The maintenance referred to F&W considers capital improvements, while VCTC considers them part of maintenance and sites the FRA and PUC rules that state the maintenance is the railroads responsibility.

Kettle, who has worked for VCTC for seven years, believes VCTC should not allow pubic funds be use on a private business where the only benefit is to that business. But Wilkinson counters that the tourism and filming brought to Fillmore by F&W benefits other businesses in town including the town itself through sales tax. Direct from train ticket sales the City receives $8,000-$9,000 per year. With average ticket sales at 35,000 to 70,000 per year at $16-$25 per ticket, it equates to a total average of $1,221,000 per year for F&W. Also adding revenue to other businesses in town are sales of product and services and sales tax when tourists spend money in town; which Wilkinson states is about equal to the price of the train tickets and benefits Fillmore with $1.2 million in added sales and additional sales tax. There are also the permits taken out when the movie industry is filming in town, which generates which generates money directly to the city and business for rentals services, food and lodging.

The railroad lines themselves are an asset to VCTC. The Newhall Ranch area is expecting to build thousands of homes in the next 30 years and the corridor from Ventura to Santa Clarita having a train service of freight and passenger, will benefit both Ventura, Santa Clarita and all towns surrounding and in between.

F&W continues to maintain the 32 miles of track, but the question of what are considered capital improvements and who should pay is still something Wilkinson wants answered. F&W has not received any VCTC money for the last 6 months. There are seven years left on that 20 year contract with both parties battling it out in court. On July 1, 2014 the court order F&W to cease operations, but overturned that decision on July 16, 2014; allowing the trains to run until a new court hearing, possibly in October 2014. VCTC is confident the original court decision to stop operations will stand, while Wilkinson still has a valid contract lease with seven years remaining.