Fillmore & Western: Saturday could
be last ride on popular tourist train

July 05, 2014
Santa Paula News

Saturday might be your last ride on the Fillmore & Western Railway tourist train according to a spokesman for the popular attraction after a Ventura County Superior Court judge evicted the F&WR from the Santa Paula Branch Line on Wednesday.

The action was just the latest stop on the line or the long dispute between the railway and the Ventura County Transportation Commission, which owns the 32-mile branch line through the Santa Clara River Valley.

The chair of the commission comprised of officials appointed to the panel, is Santa Paula City Councilman Ralph Fernandez.

On July 2 Ventura County Superior Court Judge Rebecca Riley issued the ruling in an unlawful detainer lawsuit filed by VCTC, which had asked that the railway be evicted without going to trial. 

In her tentative ruling that the judge finalized at the hearing, she wrote, “It is VCTC that owns the rail line,” and in a separate ruling, Riley also denied F&WR’s motion to dismiss the eviction lawsuit over the objections of the railway’s attorney, Donna Standard, who argued that the issue should be decided in a trial.

The railway has used the corridor, which runs from Ventura to the Los Angeles County line east of Piru, since 1991 and has been a popular destination for tourists as well as a favorite of film production companies which have used the trains for dozens of movies, television shows and commercials. 

Recent productions that prominently featured F&WR engines included “The Lone Ranger” and “Water for Elephants” among others.

Railway President Dave Wilkinson has stated that the company has been involved in at least 450 productions and carried well over a million tourists through the years, the latter for not only rides through the Heritage Valley but also special murder mystery and other activity dinner trains and special holiday train runs with stops for Christmas trees in December and pumpkins and in October. A popular attraction was the free Santa Train that would make stops all the way to Ventura to the west to give children a chance to visit with Santa and the ever-patient Mrs. Claus.

The company also owns and operates The Loose Caboose, a historic property east of Santa Paula that included a gift shop. That property has been put on the market and just this week F&WR announced that last month they sold a 123-year-old Porter locomotive named Sespe -described as the railway’s mascot piece but not a moneymaker - to the Jacksonville, Ore., historical society.

Still to be decided is if the railroad can continue to use portions of the branch line for freight purposes and to rent its historic trains for such Hollywood productions, the revenue from the latter also at the heart of the dispute; a hearing on the issue will be held July 17.

More than a year ago there was a sharp exchange between representatives of VCTC and the railway at a commission hearing regarding several issues including revenue from film productions.

The railway has an agreement to pay the commission 5 percent of all filming revenues and at the May 2013 meeting commissioners questioned F&WR about disclosure.

The commission stated that a previous meeting F&WR had agreed to let VCTC examine financial records but there has been no communication since, even to a written follow-up request by the commission.

Also being disputed is actual maintenance costs with each side claiming they are shouldering more than contractually agreed upon. 

The VCTC, after their demands for F&WR to stop running their trains were ignored, filed the lawsuit in March after the railway ignored its demand to stop running its trains. In turn, the railway filed its own suit charging that the commission improperly terminated its 20-year lease December 1.

The commission cancelled the railway’s contract, which was set to expire in 2021, as part of an effort to stop the rail corridor from losing money... since about 2003, VCTC has earned about $3.5 million from the corridor, primarily from agricultural leases, but has reported spending of about $7.2 million including for track maintenance.

The railway alleges that VCTC has mismanaged the Santa Paula Branch Line, which has caused its financial problems. 

Once the judge’s order is formalized, expected to take about one week, the agency expects the railway to stop running its tourist trains and if not, reportedly will ask the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department to evict the railway.

But F&WR doesn’t appear to consider itself derailed yet: “After the judge’s ruling yesterday we are regrouping and going over options,” noted a F&WR Facebook statement posted Thursday. “We ask that you keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Again, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all the love and support to keep this historic railroad going. Thank you, Dave, Tresa (Wilkinson), Crew & Staff.”

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