Off the rails

Off the rails

Fillmore & Western loses court battle, but continues operations for now

By Chris O'Neal 01/09/2014


The Fillmore & Western Railway will continue operations until the Ventura County Transportation Commission decides to enforce their lease termination, which was decided in court on Tuesday, Jan. 7.


The Fillmore & Western Railway (F&W) was given notice in April 2013 that the lease giving access to the Santa Paula Line was to be terminated by the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) on Dec. 1. The commission, however, decided not to enforce the lease termination and the company was allowed to continue usage of the line through December. The annual Christmas train, which takes passengers from the station to a lot selling trees, continued operation despite the expiration of the lease.


In 2001, a deal reached between the commission and the railway gave the operators until 2021 to use the 32-mile track that connects Ventura and Los Angeles counties.


The two parties entered mediation but failed to reach an agreement to renegotiate the lease and, in December, the railway sued the commission for breach of contract.


The commission has provided close to $290,000 a year for Fillmore & Western Railway to maintain the tracks along the corridor. Under the agreement, the railway has the right to run movie shoots, deliver mail and make arrangements with other railroads to deliver freight, but Fillmore & Western CEO Dave Wilkinson said he believes that the commission has ignored his attempts to broker contracts for use of the line and isn’t being honest about the maintenance performed.


“They claim that they’ve been trying to negotiate with us, which we feel that they have not,” said Wilkinson. “We have had one meeting that we came together when this first started in April and we were dictated to what we could do and that certainly wasn’t in the realm of being able to run a railroad.”


While the commission provided Fillmore & Western with compensation to maintain the railway, Union Pacific runs an operation on the line at no cost.


Darren Kettle, executive director of the VCTC, says that the Fillmore & Western Railway hasn’t been maintaining the line as was stipulated in the 2001 agreement.


“The commission has placed the railroad on notice based on cause that they have not adequately maintained the line,” said Kettle. “We are terminating for deficient maintenance.”


The commission has two agreements, one with F&W and another with the city of Fillmore. The first — giving the railway the right to operate on the line — can only be terminated with cause. The second between the city of Fillmore and the commission that allows the city to sublease the line for the F&W excursion trains (i.e., the Christmas trains and murder mystery dinners) is a lease that can be terminated without cause.


Since the 2001 agreement, the VCTC has spent $3.6 million on maintaining the line — an amount that made the commission question how the funds are being spent.


“What that boils down to is that over the last 11 to 12 years that we’ve had this arrangement with the F&W Railway, VCTC has had to subsidize all of the operations for the rail line,” said Kettle.


“We are inspected by the railroad commission and the California Public Utilities Commission,” said Wilkinson. “If there is a lack of maintenance, we don’t know where it’s at and they won’t tell us.”


The two parties met on Tuesday, Jan. 7, at the Ventura County Courthouse to determine whether or not the F&W can continue operations while the case is being litigated. Judge Tari Cody determined that the VCTC can terminate the contract, leaving the F&W with little recourse.


A lawyer representing the commission, however, said that there will not be an immediate action to halt the F&W operations.


Mayor of Fillmore Manuel Minjares, who is also the liaison between the city and the commission, said that he believes that the two parties could reach a deal to allow the F&W to continue excursion operations on the line. For the city of Fillmore, F&W is an important part of the economy.


“[The F&W] means a lot to the city, a lot to its identity and also to its economic development,” said Mayor Minjares. “It’s at the center, not only of town, but also of the attention we get not just from the county but also from all of Southern California, more or less.”


For Wilkinson and the F&W, there are options. Buyers nationwide have expressed interest in purchasing the classic rail cars and engines as well as the numerous movie sets and pieces the F&W have accumulated over the years, if a deal cannot be reached moving forward.


“We’ve spent 20 years putting together one of the best examples of American railroad,” said Wilkinson. “I enjoy doing what I do, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy retirement, too. It would be a huge disappointment to see this go away.”

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