PRESERVING CORRIDOR DRIVES COUNTIES' DECISION TO BUY RAILROAD
After working on the railroad for about two years in an effort to save the corridor, Union and Wallowa county officials are still waiting for the first train to leave the station.
Commissioners Mike Hayward of Wallowa County and Steve McClure of Union county have not been idle, however. The two counties created a railroad authority to make all decisions concerning the operations of the rail line that extends about 62 miles from Elgin to Joseph.
Equally important, under the counties' sales agreement with Idaho Northern & Pacific, the former owner agreed to run freight operations along the Elgin-to-Joseph line for one year until May 2003.
There are no freight shippers on the line now, although in late summer, Wallowa Forest Products agreed to ship lumber from Wallowa by rail. The first train was greeted with fanfare in Wallowa and Elgin, but after only a few runs, the train stopped.
Union Pacific Railroad charged too much for shipping, said the forest products company spokesmen. Negotiations for a more satisfactory fee are taking place, but little progress had been made, according to John Redfield, Wallowa Forest Products manager.
Hayward said late Friday afternoon that negotiations on shipping fees between D.R. Johnson, owner of Wallowa Forest Products, and Union Pacific are progressing.
Short-line freight rail operators must depend on the main-line railroads, such as Union Pacific, for revenue. The main line bills the shipper and pays the short-line railroad a share of the proceeds. Some Oregon short lines also charge the shippers a surcharge.
"You've got to keep your rate competitive with other competition trucks," said Claudia Howells, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation Rail Division. "You've got only so much wiggle room between truck and rail rates."
Freight shipments provide the greatest amount of income for three other publicly owned railroads in Oregon. The Port of Tillamook railroad, for example, earns nearly $2 million annually, most of it from freight.
Idaho Northern also agreed to bring the track system on the Joseph line up to Federal Railroad Administration Class 1 standards allowing a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour and allowing the line to haul passengers as well as freight.
Passenger traffic is vital to the success of the line, McClure said recently.
"I think the tourism piece has great potential," he said. "It's a beautiful ride through the county."
McClure has said on several occasions that the primary reason for maintaining the line is the infrastructure and preserving the rail corridor.
"Look at Heppner," he said. "Heppner is not on any major transportation routes, and look at Boardman. Boardman's on a river, an interstate and a rail line. Look at the difference in the two communities."
Wallowa County is without major transportation routes and the economy there has been in a downward spiral for several years, county officials say.
"The advantage of Union County is that it's on major transportation routes," McClure said. "We have rail, the freeway. Transportation routes are very important.
"If you give up that corridor, you'd never get it back."
Jim Zelenka of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department has said the state also wants to maintain the railroad infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the state agreed to pay the $4.5 million owed to Idaho Northern, and agreed to a contract with the counties that would allow a three-year waiting period before payments begin.
The contract carries with it a statement that the counties must pledge their full faith and credit to the loan.
"That's boiler plate," McClure said. "The attorney general requires it, and we've had it on all our loans. We had it when we borrowed money for the (Airport) industrial park and for the road system at Baum Industrial Park. The state isn't going to foreclose on the counties."
The Union County commissioners have said several times that they will not dip into the general fund, supported by property taxes, to pay for the railroad.
"I'm not going to be laying off sheriff's deputies to buy a railroad," McClure said. "If the state hadn't stepped in, I would never have agreed to the purchase."
McClure's opinion about passenger traffic finds support in a private organization, Friends of the Joseph Line, formed earlier this year to support the railroad.
Friends President Bob Casey of Enterprise said recently that the organization plans to begin operating some sort of excursion train as soon as feasible.
"Idaho Northern has assured us that they would have the rails in passenger travel conditions before we (schedule trips,)" Casey said. "There are several things we have to be sure of: conditions of the line, the insurance, what it would take to serve meals."
The Friends had hoped to run an invitation-only excursion this fall, but Casey said he expects that spring will be the earliest that any passenger train can run.
Along with the sale of the line came several railroad cars and a locomotive. Three of the cars are coaches, and each seats about 50, Casey said. There is no dining car or kitchen car, he said.
"We have a committee traveling to excursion lines in the Northwest to find out what they're doing and what's successful," he said.
Travel by rail from Elgin to Joseph is slow, and at 10 miles per hour, the trip takes about four hours. George Altenburg, who was general roadmaster for Union Pacific, said that at one time, Union Pacific tried to increase the speed to 15 miles per hour, but a derailment followed and the speed was reduced.
Railroad authority member Susan Roberts, mayor of Enterprise, has said that she believes a daylong excursion followed by an overnight stay in Joseph or at Wallowa Lake could prove popular with travelers.
With only a few potential freight shippers and seasonal tourist traffic, the railroad authority is also looking at other revenue opportunities, including storing railroad cars.
Another opportunity could be a railroad school for engineers. Modoc Railroad Academy, a private non-profit organization, now operates one training program in Sacramento, Calif., and has talked to the two counties about the possibility of a school on the Joseph line, but Modoc has asked the counties to "come up with about $250,000," Wallowa County Commissioner Hayward said recently.
Regular operations, whether freight or a school, would require ongoing maintenance, a sometimes costly item. The rails are reported to be in fairly good shape, and the state's Howells said that with "steady" maintenance, costs could be "average."
"The Joseph line was in good shape when INP (Idaho Northern) got it," she said. "In a couple of places it's somewhat challenging in the railroad sense, but there's also a lot of track that's not that demanding."
Howells said that parts of the line are laid with heavy rail.
"It's in a lot better shape than some other short-line railroads."
Vegetation, including noxious weeds, may be something of a problem, however. Through parts of the line, weeds are heavy on each side of the track. Fencing is down in areas where cattle graze, and it will be the railroad authority's responsibility to keep those fences mended.
Retired roadmaster Altenburg said that traditionally along the Joseph line, fence repair has been required every year, and vegetation management is ongoing.
"Who's going to kill those weeds?" he said. "Fences are the railroad's responsibility, and you don't do it for $50 or $60."
Altenburg said he is also concerned about other liability.
"What happens if there's a derailment and the train goes into the river? Who's responsibility will it be?"
The former Union Pacific employee said that road crossings along the Joseph line are in "horrible shape."
"Repairs will cost about $400 a foot, and at crossings with flashing lights, it will be more, maybe $1,000 per foot," he said.
McClure has said that he is not unaware of the maintenance issues, and he said that the railroad authority must investigate and tackle numerous issues. Decisions such as whether the counties will operate the line or lease it to a contractor remain up in the air, but all such decisions are expected to be made by May, when the counties pay off Idaho Northern.