Napa Valley Wine Train

From TrainSpottingWorld, for Rail fans everywhere

The Napa Valley Wine Train is operated by the Napa Valley Railroad (AAR reporting marks NVRR). The train is a privately operated excursion train that runs between Napa and St. Helena, California. Much of the rail line parallels California State Route 29 after leaving the City of Napa and passes the towns of Yountville, Rutherford and Oakville. The route skirts many of the region's notable vineyards and wineries located in the picturesque Napa Valley.

The Early Years

The railroad's track is part of the what was originally The Napa Valley Railroad Company founded by early California pioneer Samuel Brannan in 1864. Brannan established it to bring tourists to the resort town of Calistoga, California which he also founded. The railroad's original track ran from Calistoga to Vallejo, California where it connected with San Francisco Bay Area ferry boat service. California Pacific Railroad Extension Company purchased the Napa Valley Railroad Company at a foreclosure sale on June 9, 1869. Later that same year on December 23, the railroad was renamed the California Pacific Railroad. The track was leased to Southern Pacific Railroad on April 1, 1885 and was soon connected to their main line in Suisun, California. California Pacific Railroad was acquired by Southern Pacific on April 14 1898. The line was electrified in 1904 and was extended to Benicia, California. The San Francisco, Napa and Calistoga Railway (later named San Francisco and Napa Valley Electric Railway) started operations one year later in 1905 carrying passenger traffic to St. Helena. The electrified line was extended to Calistoga in 1912 and carried passengers until 1929. The track was utilized by Southern Pacific as a non-electric freight branch line for the following 58 years until 1987 when the railroad abandoned the line.

The Birth of a New Railroad

The NVRR operating company headed by Vincent DeDomenico was formed in 1987 by local entrepreneurs to buy up the line after Southern Pacific notified the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1985 of its intent to abandon that line. DeDomenico is a veteran of more than 50 years in the food business and was formally the President of Golden Grain which is famous for its Rice-A-Roni and also owned Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.

The new company's plans to create a tourist-oriented Wine Train were strongly opposed by local NIMBY's and several city governments. Some people disliked the noise and pollution of an active passenger train line in their midst, while others felt that the train would attract even more visitors to the Napa Valley, which they saw as already over-saturated with tourists. The project's opponents persuaded the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to order the company to comply with the rigorous requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). However, in a 4-3 decision handed down on March 19, 1990, the Supreme Court of California held that the PUC had no jurisdiction to require CEQA certification because the train fell under the CEQA exemption for "the institution or increase of passenger or commuter service on rail lines already in use." Napa Valley Wine Train, Inc. v. Public Utilities Commission, 50 Cal. 3d 370 (1990). The gap in actual usage during the prolonged transition from Southern Pacific freight use to the proposed Wine Train service was not enough to take the line out of use.

Current Operations

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been in operation since September 16, 1989 and has now carried over 1 million passengers. This train has a capacity of 370 passengers and normally makes two runs on weekdays and three on weekends The train is normally pulled by two of the four late 1950's era Alco FPA-4 engines in the company's inventory. These engines were originally built by Montreal Locomotive Works and first owned by Canadian National Railway and later by Via Rail. The engines have been modified by the railroad to run cleaner on a combination of natural gas and diesel fuel. NVRR currently runs nine cars on its passenger train consist. The cars include lounge, observation and dining cars originally built by the Pullman Company in the early 1900's for the Northern Pacific Railroad. These cars were later sold to Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1960 and used for the Ski Train between Denver, Colorado and Winter Park, Colorado before the NVRR purchased them in 1987. The cars were extensively refurbished and modified by NVRR before the railroad placed them back into service. Modifications included adding air conditioning and 4 inches of concrete to the car floors in order to stabilize the ride due to the train's low speed. The interiors were remodeled using Honduran mahogany and plush fabrics. The railroad added a vista dome car its fleet in 1997. This car was originally built in 1947 for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and had logged over a million miles for that railroad prior being acquired by the NVRR. After the railroad bought this car, the exterior was was rebuilt by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train repair yard in Palmetto, Florida while the interior was restored, updated, and customized by NVRR.

During the 3 hour long, 37 mile round trip between Napa and St. Helena, passengers can choose to enjoy a gourmet meal prepared on board for an additional charge. They can also sample several of the region's wines available at the wine bar located in one of the lounge cars. The train offers optional stops for tours of the Domaine Chandon or Grgich Hills wineries for an added fee. The train hosts several special events throughout the year including murder mystery dinner theatre, family fun trips, vintner's luncheons, appellation dinners and holiday excursions.

Future Plans

The NVRR track is currently utilized for limited daily scheduled passenger excursions of the Napa Valley Wine Train and occasional freight service. There has been mention of extending service to Calistoga and also adding additional commuter trains that would stop at various locations along the route and connect to other passenger service beyond the Napa Valley. The rail line connects to the Southern Pacific and Northwestern Pacific Railroad and has hosted special trains from Amtrak as well as private excursion trains.


Napa Valley Wine train shot some time back in the 90's.

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