Lumber trains comin’ around the mountain

Lumber trains comin’ around the mountain

Written by Ryan Campbell, The Union Democrat November 17, 2011
The nostalgic clankety-clank of steel on steel is once again echoing across the foothills.The Sierra Pacific Industries lumber mill in Standard began shipping lumber by train this month via Tuolumne County’s little-used rail lines.Once a familiar sight in the Mother Lode, train traffic ground to a halt two and a half years ago when the SPI mill closed down temporarily.

SPI recently completed a $15 million retrofit of the mill, which included plans to bring commercial rail cars directly onto the sprawling mill complex, according to SPI spokesman Mark Luster.

The trains began hauling lumber on a limited basis this month, and he said the mill plans to ramp up shipments gradually over the next year.

“It’s not a whole lot at this point, but as we get more orders we will ship much of it on the rails,” he said. “We are reinstituting a process that has worked very well for us over the years.”

The company uses a variety of shipping methods to transport wood products throughout the state, and while the majority of the wood shipped into and out of the mill is still done by truck, trains provide a more economical means for moving larger orders, Luster said.

The diesel-electric locomotives can haul as much as 50,000 board feet of 4-by-12-inch Douglas fir beams. The trains pull anywhere from just two cars to 12 cars full of lumber bound for locations throughout the West Coast, he said.

It takes a skilled forklift driver about an hour and a half to load one rail car with freshly cut stacks of lumber.

The trains travel from Tuolumne County west along the Sierra Pacific rail line that roughly follows Highway 108 to Oakdale, where the shipments are rerouted to their final destinations. Luster said the rail transportation system is helping to create jobs.

“It just goes to show the different job sectors that are affected by the mill opening up again,” he said.

Railroads were historically a major method of transporting goods to and from the foothills for much of the last century. The SPI trains will use the same rail line that was constructed by the Sierra Railway Company in 1897, which lends its name to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown. The rails stretched from Oakdale to Jamestown initially, before being extended to Sonora and eventually the Standard Mill and Tuolumne by the early 20th century.

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