PICTURED: Sierra Northern locomotive at Santa Paula station. Photo by Dave Lustig

by Alex Wilson

Fillmore’s reputation as the railroad capital of Ventura County might be nearing the end of the line.

For decades, tourists and locals have boarded trains in Fillmore for scenic excursions, dinner rides or even nostalgia-filled trips to cut down a Christmas tree at a farm.  

But a dispute between Fillmore city officials and a Northern California company that recently secured a 35-year lease for the tracks stretching between Ventura and Piru could result in the company leaving behind its current base of local operations in Fillmore for greener pastures.

Positions hardened in the face of two news releases issued by Sierra Northern Railway and the city of Fillmore this month regarding stalled contract negotiations related to city-owned property in the center of town.

Railroad officials sent out a June 1 news release claiming city officials asked the company to move off of the property, a location where people bought tickets and boarded trains operated by the Fillmore and Western Railway before the excursion train company ended about a year ago.

“It is unfortunate that the city does not want to continue to work with us as this means a loss of excursion operations for the residents of Fillmore who for so many years grew up around the trains,” said Matthew Blackburn, Sierra Northern Ventura division manager.

A June 2 news release from the city of Fillmore confirmed the breakdown in the negotiations.

“It is unfortunate we could not come to an agreement with Sierra Northern Railway. One item of concern was Sierra Northern Railway removing language that their use of the properties cannot bother neighbors,” Fillmore City Manager David Rowlands said in the news release. “Their actions have led me to believe Sierra Northern Railway never really wanted to be a part of Fillmore and that they are using this opportunity to relocate to where they really wanted to be.”

Officials with Fillmore and Sierra Northern have both said that there’s a glimmer of hope negotiations could get back on track in spite of the conflict. But railroad officials said they’ll continue to look for alternative locations for their operations from Ventura to Piru, including both government-owned and private property.

One potential new location is Santa Paula. Santa Paula city officials confirmed that a meeting with railroad officials took place on June 10 to discuss the possibility of relocating there. Santa Paula officials told the Ventura County Reporter that they might be open to hosting an excursion-related train stop, although there’s not enough room in Santa Paula for other aspects of the railroad operation such as storing and maintaining trains. 

History of the Santa Paula Branch Line

Matthew Blackburn, Sierra Northern Ventura division manager, shows locomotive to VCTC staff members. Photo by Dave Lustig

The Santa Paula Branch Line was built in 1887 by what was then called Southern Pacific Transportation Company to connect Santa Barbara to the main line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) documents.

A 1978 storm severely damaged the tracks east of Piru, and by the early 1990s Southern Pacific sought to abandon the remainder of the branch line. In 1995, the VCTC purchased the line from Southern Pacific for $8.5 million with the goal of future train use and to develop a recreational trail along the tracks that’s been built in some places near cities but is still far from completion.

The tracks were leased to the previous excursion train operators, Fillmore and Western Railway Company, which also hired out the trains for the film and television industry. Many productions have been shot along the line in recent years, including Water for Elephants and episodes of TV shows Bones and Justified.

The lease with Fillmore and Western ended in June 2021, and the owners did not seek to renew the agreement. In anticipation of the lease ending, VCTC sought new rail operators and received two proposals. The proposals were reviewed by a team of VCTC staff and railroad experts which resulted in December’s long-term agreement with Sierra Northern approved by the VCTC board.

VCTC Director of Planning and Sustainability Amanda Fagan said the new agreement has numerous advantages for the agency and taxpayers compared with the lease under which Fillmore and Western operated. For example, the new operator is leasing the entire right-of-way on both sides of the tracks instead of just the tracks themselves, relieving the agency of the responsibility for picking up trash and maintaining those areas.

Fagan said the VCTC has not been directly involved in the negotiations between Fillmore and Sierra Northern, which is complicated by the fact that VCTC owns the tracks while the city of Fillmore owns the nearby property that’s been used to support the excursion trains.

“We want them to all be successful,” Fagan said.

Sierra Northern looks south

Sierra Northern Railway is new to Ventura County but has deep roots in California. 

The company dates back to 1897 when railroad tracks were built to connect California’s Central Valley to the Gold Country area. Today, the railway operates over 100 miles of tracks in Northern California, serving customers that ship products including produce and lumber, officials said.

A sister company, Mendocino Railway Company, operates three tourist trains including the popular Skunk Train which runs through redwood forests near Fort Bragg. Sierra Northern has also pioneered the use of recreational railbikes, human-powered vehicles that could one day come to Ventura County in addition to excursion trains, railroad officials said. 

Sierra Northern President and CEO Kennan H. Beard III said his company has been interested in taking over the tracks in Ventura County for many years, and previously tried to purchase Fillmore and Western. He’s hopeful that the rail line will attract new freight customers in the future, and will also continue to be successful at supporting excursion trains. 

In addition to securing the long-term lease, Sierra Northern purchased most of the equipment owned by Fillmore and Western, including locomotives and passenger cars. If the company brings back excursion trains as planned, they’ll relocate more equipment from Northern California.

Beard said whether or not the base of operations remains in Fillmore will not affect the company’s prospects in Ventura County for the long haul, since Sierra Northern has a 35-year operating agreement with two 30-year options. He pledged to establish locations to base freight operations, as well as excursion train and railbike boarding facilities. 

“Just because we couldn’t come to terms with the city of Fillmore doesn’t mean we’re walking away,” he explained. “It’s not that we’re going to take our ball and go home. We still are committed to operating trains on the Ventura County Transportation Commission Santa Paula line.”

Negotiations derailed

Beard did say that he was disappointed with how things have worked out in Fillmore, and disputed many statements in the city’s news release. “This is the honeymoon phase, and the city gave us kind of raw treatment. So if we want to move forward and be in their town, we need to know that they’re going to treat us as a respected part of their community, not the way they came across in both the lease negotiations as well as their press release with all the inaccuracies and untruths.”

The breakdown in negotiations with Fillmore led railway officials to look for more sites, Beard said, and they’re investigating all opportunities near the tracks. 

The ride through the Santa Clara River Valley boats views of orchards and mountains. Photo by Dave Lustig

“Any location along there could work. We’re looking at property as far east as Piru to as far west as Saticoy. So Santa Paula is certainly in the running. I can say that the city of Santa Paula has been nothing but accommodating and would love to see us land in their town,” said Beard.

It would be a blow to Fillmore’s reputation as a tourist destination if the city no longer had trains based there, Beard said. “Let’s face it. Tourist trains have been the base of Fillmore’s tourist industry for many, many years and it would be a shame to get up and leave. It’s a great location, but we have to feel wanted and appreciated.”

One of the issues Rowlands brought up in the city news release was the storage of “creosote-soaked” railroad ties near homes that “sickened” people with “noxious odors.”

“We got some complaints from the neighborhood that there was a strong gas smell. We went out and found it was valid. We identified it as being from the new railroad ties,” Rowlands told the Ventura County Reporter.

Beard said Sierra Northern dealt with the complaint as quickly as possible and moved the rail ties away from homes.

He also pointed out what he called “numerous inaccuracies” with Fillmore’s news release. According to Beard, the railroad ties that became an issue were stored on property owned by the VCTC and not the city of Fillmore, for example.

“About the only thing that holds 100% true is the first paragraph where it says we were unable to come to terms with the city,” he said.

Beard said they had hoped to get the excursion trains operating again by the end of the year, but that timeline has been pushed back due to the stalled negotiations with Fillmore and “ultimately coming to a point where we couldn’t agree to the terms they were asking us to accept in the lease, and they basically told us that it was a take-it-or-leave-it agreement. And we chose to leave it.”

Beard said he was told he would be given a timeline by Fillmore officials on when the company needs to move all their equipment off city property, but has not received one yet.

City Manager Rowlands, however, said he’s still hopeful negotiations can get back on track to keep the trains based in Fillmore.

“I welcome them back to talk if that’s what they want to do, and hopefully we can move forward and get this thing done,” Rowlands said. “I know that the residents and the city council still would like to have them to have their operations in Fillmore. We had a good relationship with the past operator and we’d like to have a good relationship with Sierra as well.”

Sierra Northern Railway