The Fremont Trestle is the first domino. If it falls, literally or figuratively, it could set off a chain of events that would lead to permanent relocation of the freight railroad tracks that slice through Davis.
There are many benefits: No more waiting for long freight trains, no more horns blowing through town, the removal of potentially dangerous at-grade crossings and improved emergency vehicle access, among others.
And it’s not just Davis that could rid its commercial area of intrusive tracks and trains. As part of an idea for an extensive track relocation project, freight lines throughout Yolo County soon could be stripped from residential or commercial zones and banished to undeveloped or industrial areas.
Note: The east-west Union Pacific tracks on which Amtrak rides would not be affected.
To think, it all came about because of an old wooden bridge.
Built in the early 1900s, the Fremont Trestle has long served as the way for Sierra Northern Railway to rumble across the Yolo County Bypass to reach customers north of Woodland.
Carrying cargo often dropped off from Union Pacific freight trains, Sierra rolls up from West Sacramento on tracks along the Sacramento River, past Elkhorn and across the trestle that runs parallel to Interstate 5.
When the bypass floods, however, the trestle becomes a problem. And not just for the railroad.
Built on a series of bulky wooden support piers, the trestle collects platelets of sticks, logs and other debris floating in the water, creating a dam of sorts and impeding the southern flow of the bypass.
According to hydrologist reports commissioned by Sierra, the trestle without debris blocks 34 percent of the overall flow capacity of the bypass, contributing to the area’s flooding problems.
Rather than smoothly flowing under the bridge, water is pushed to the Cache Creek Settling Basin, causing Woodland’s storm water system to back up at times.
The high water in the bypass also prevents Natomas in Sacramento County from solving its own flood problems that are caused by the Sacramento River, as it becomes more difficult to divert river water into an already overfilled bypass.
Meanwhile, when the water levels climb high enough, Sierra can’t run its trains over the flooded bridge.
“It causes the water to press against the trestle and that dam-like obstruction and it makes the track move and the trestle move,” said Val Toppenberg, project manager for Sierra. “You can’t take a train out there when the trestle is moving around during a flood event.”
To address these issues, railroad officials first considered a project to rebuild the trestle with a more modern structure that would allow the water and whatever it carried to pass through cleanly.
But another idea, to remove the trestle entirely, surfaced and it was a solution that answered more than just a question about flooding.
Rail relocation project
Instead of rebuilding the trestle, planners envisioned laying down a new rail line on the west side of the Yolo Bypass that would allow Sierra Northern to avoid the old trestle entirely.
The project, in part, would call for construction of a new exchange near the Union Pacific main line along Interstate 80 about four miles east of Davis. Then a brand-new eight-mile track would be built north through Conaway Ranch on the west side of the bypass that would link up with the existing Sierra Northern rail line just west of the old trestle.
Rather than picking up cargo from Union Pacific in West Sacramento, Sierra Northern would make hand-offs at the new exchange near I-80 and ride the new tracks up to its customers north of Woodland.
This idea, planners saw, would eliminate any need to travel over the old bridge, erasing any problems with traversing a flooded bypass. The new track also would allow the trestle to be demolished, thus easing the flooding pressure in the area.
“By removing the trestle, hydrology studies calculate that the water surface elevation at flood stage immediately north of the trestle will be lowered by almost one foot,” a report by Sierra said. “This will lower levee construction profiles and costs for areas in Sacramento County protected by water diversions to the bypass, as well as for the city of Woodland, as its storm waters drain into the Cache Creek Settling Basin.”
But the potential benefits to building the new track didn’t end there.
Sierra officials realized that a new rail line built four miles east of town would allow the California Northern Railroad line — which operates the short-line freight rail through the heart of Davis — to pull up its ties locally and shift to the new tracks.
Toppenberg says that California Northern, a railroad company separate from Sierra, has shown an interest in the proposal. However, a California Northern official said last week it has not made any official statements about the project.
If the plan comes together as Toppenberg and Sierra would like it to, four at-grade crossings in Davis at Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth streets would be removed.
Additionally, if the tracks were eliminated, the surrounding easements adjacent to the tracks could provide the city with a great opportunity for infill development, as potentially dozens of acres of land would be freed up.
The city also would be rid of the idle train cars that sit along Olive Drive and Second Street just east of downtown, at the very least removing a visual blight from the area.
But the project plans don’t end in Davis.
The project also would extend to Woodland — through which California Northern also ships cargo — where nine at-grade crossings could be eliminated with similar development opportunities possible.
The city of West Sacramento, which has had this type of track relocation in its plans for decades, according to Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, would be able to remove tracks from its residential areas as well.
“One of the opportunities that opens up for us is relocation of one of our principal rail lines from the eastern side of the city near the riverfront, next to populated areas of intense urbanization, to the west side of the city,” Cabaldon said. “That has large implications for traffic congestion, but also safety and conflicts between rail service and rail storage with other uses. It is a big deal.”
West Sacramento also would see several at-grade crossings removed.
Toppenberg estimates, roughly, that the entire project — including the new tracks west of the bypass, north of Woodland and in West Sacramento — will cost about $50 million.
Within that total, the project will need several million dollars up front to pay for environmental studies and legal documentation to survey the land and to ensure that the new lines won’t have any adverse effects on the surrounding environment.
Neither Toppenberg nor Cabaldon believe the funding for the initial work or the overall project would come from local jurisdictions, however, regardless of the benefits each could be in line to receive.
Cabaldon pointed to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, fund as a possible source.
— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash