Railroad school sours on Yacolt, chooses

Modoc couldn't resolve problems locally

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 

As a new freight railroad operations training program in Vancouver prepares to start this summer, Clark County's smallest incorporated community has learned that a similar program it tried to woo a year ago has moved across the country.

Last week, Northwest Railroad Institute, a satellite operation of the International Air and Hospitality Academy, announced that starting in July it will begin offering a six-month training program for railroad jobs. The announcement came just two months after the Modoc Railroad Academy, based in Sacramento, Calif., quietly relocated to Marion, Ill., after engaging Portland-Vancouver Junction Railroad in months of negotiations to sublease part of the 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie Railroad near Yacolt to start its own program.

The brainchild of former Port of Vancouver Commissioner Arch Miller, CEO of the International Air and Hospitality Academy, the Northwest Railroad Institute vows to do much of what Modoc originally promised: Bring dozens of students to Clark County and fill a burgeoning need for skilled rail workers.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of the freight railroad industry's 175,000-strong workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, the institute's backers say, meaning there will be a need for younger skilled workers to take their places. The program will train brakemen, conductors, switchmen and yardmen during its 24-week program, ending in January 2014.

But at the center of the scramble to create a first-of-its-kind training program in the Pacific Northwest, there were issues Modoc couldn't resolve.

David Rangel, Modoc's founder, said "cantankerous" discussions with residents of Yacolt soured the academy on its move to Clark County.

"We had funding in place to go," Rangel said. "But the issue was: Did we want to go someplace where we were on a knife blade with relations with the community?"

Yacolt Mayor Jeff Carothers said he hadn't heard of Modoc's decision to side-step the town entirely in favor of Illinois, but he wasn't surprised.

He acknowledged that many folks in the town of 1,605 residents had raised questions about Modoc at meetings with the academy while negotiations were ongoing.

"I think they got irritated with the town," Carothers said.

There were concerns about noise, he said, and whether engines would be left idling. There were also questions about safety: At what speeds would the cars travel and would the academy install warning signals on the tracks?

The questions were never adequately answered, Carothers said.

Illinois eventually offered Modoc, a private nonprofit, $250,000 to move its operations to the Midwest, Rangel said. It was an impossible offer to turn down.

Mark McCauley, the county's general services director, said Modoc had requested similar subsidies from Clark County before it would fully commit to a new location near Yacolt.

In March 2012, officials from Modoc said they'd raised $250,000 for a move to Yacolt. At the time, they also noted that the locations they were looking at were inaccessible without major repairs to bridges and tunnels.

But when the county couldn't secure state financing, negotiations with the academy abruptly ended, McCauley said.

"It would have been nice for the Modoc folks to let us know what they were doing," McCauley said of Modoc's abrupt move.

Miller, president of the Northwest Railroad Institute, said he had his own conversations with Modoc. They asked him for $750,000 to help move the academy forward.

"I looked at them and said, 'Why is that something I'd want to do?'" Miller said.

He said he offered to buy the company outright, but Modoc balked at the proposal.

Now, without Modoc in the mix, the Northwest Railroad Institute expects to bring 20 to 25 full-time students to Vancouver. Tuition for the program will be $14,000.

But questions remain. Currently, the railroad institute has not reached a deal to use a spur of the Portland-Vancouver Junction Railroad near Battle Ground for its training.

Negotiations between the institute and the railroad are continuing, Miller said, adding that he's confident a deal will be hashed out by the time the students reach the part of instruction when they're operating engines.

"It won't have to be finalized by the summer," Miller said. "The unit of instruction for use of railroad track wouldn't happen until December."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.