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With hundreds of stored rail cars gone, Wallowa Union Railroad tracks are clear from Elgin to Joseph. CHUCK ANDERSON photo
The recent downtown in the economy has turned out to be a timely boon for the publicly owned Wallowa Union Railroad, which stretches from Elgin to Joseph through wildly scenic portions of Union and Wallowa counties.While some lost homes, businesses and jobs, WURR unpredictably has emerged free of debt, with 63 miles of clear track and a newly refurbished passenger car for its Eagle Cap Excursion Train.
In 2009, the railroad was losing money on its Eagle Cap train, had precious little freight revenue and faced a massive debt to the Oregon Economic Community and Development Department, which had lent $2.3a million in 2002, enabling the counties to purchase the 63-mile rail line from Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad.
When the economy turned sour, companies nationwide had less freight to ship, so the sprawling Union Pacific Railroad found itself with thousands of unneeded rail cars and nowhere to store them. UP sought shortline railroads with spare track space.
Fortuitously, one was WURR, which leased UP the 30 miles of track from Joseph to Minam for storage of see-through centerbeam flat cars used to carry lumber, plywood, particle board and other building products.
Although scenery still could be viewed through the cars, the long strings of mustard yellow centerbeams — covering the rails through Joseph, Enterprise, Wallowa and the ranches in between — generated loud protests from those Wallowa County residents living near the rails. At the peak, there were 1,908 cars, according to Mark Davidson, the Union County commissioner who manages the railroad.
The UP contract rescued the railroad, which was going to find it difficult to repay the loan in timely fashion. UP’s $59,400 monthly lease payments plus a $75 switching fee for each time a car moved in or out now have erased the debt and built up a cash surplus.
As the economy rebounds, UP has recalled its cars, the last moving out in June. Even though the contract is ending five months early, WURR is out of the woods financially, with more than $200,000 in cash and a recent $1 million state grant to build a depot at its Elgin rail yard with parking and bicycle and bus facilities.
During the past two years, railroad directors have worked to have their passenger trains break even. It has cost about $2,000 for a single run of the excursion train with two locomotives, one at each end, two passenger cars and a former baggage car now fitted with a generator and gift shop counter.
Earlier, the train was also fitted with three self-propelled rail diesel cars used as passenger cars, not used for their ability to run independent of the train.
The railroad has idled the “RDCs” and is working to sell them for financial reasons. Any time each is used, even as a passenger car, federal regulations require it to undergo a locomotive inspection every 92 days. The inspection costs at least $2,000, depending on what the inspector finds,
The $2,000-per-run figure doesn’t include the railroad’s indirect fixed costs such as insurance, track maintenance, weed control, public crossing maintenance, the locomotive inspections and any work required following other Federal Railroad Administration inspections.
To control costs, the popular Veterans Day and Santa trains were suspended for lack of sponsors. Winter fishing trains from the Minam Motel are no longer run. To minimize the railroad’s subsidy, the summer schedule of the Eagle Cap train was pared from 30 runs to 11.
But now, elimination of the debt, the stored rail cars’ disappearance and work by Friends of the Joseph Branch volunteers is expected to allow for expansion of passenger service as the only apparent reliable source of regular revenue.
Although the railroad board has made no firm decisions, Mike Hayward, board co-chairman and chairman of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, envisions additional runs of the Eagle Cap train, which now can accommodate 160 passengers, thanks to the addition this month of a third passenger car.
The table car, built in 1954 by the Budd Co. for the Cotton Belt Railroad, was refurbished by volunteers from the Friends of the Joseph Branch support group, which numbers about 70 members, according to Friends volunteer coordinator Shirley Kirk of Elgin.
The Friends’ next project is to paint the train’s exterior to match the railroad’s blue-and-yellow locomotives.
Friends’ volunteers also serve as car hosts, conductors, engineers and work in other capacities. Kirk said new members are always welcome; for information, go to www.eaglecaptrain.com, click on “About,” then “Friends.”
The Eagle Cap train rumbles leisurely between Elgin and a point known as Kimmel on the Wallowa River, then reverses direction for the three-and-a-half-hour trip.
Nearly all of the route is inaccessible by road, which is why the scenery and wildlife attract rail passengers, Hayward said.
Hayward, also chairman of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, anticipates additional runs on that route plus trains in Wallowa Valley, where the first excursion trains were tried when the counties took over the railroad in 2003.
“We figured that most of the tourists were in Joseph and at the lake, so that’s where we ran the train,” Hayward recalled. “It turned out that they weren’t interested since most of the route parallels the roads. They could see the scenery from their cars.”
The Elgin-to-Kimmel run has been successful. This summer and last, trains were full or nearly so. “Eventually, we would like to run 25 or so trains if we can fill them with riders,” Hayward said. It might take two years or so to get to that point, he said.
But Hayward said he has his eye on special trains, such as a dinner train or, taking a page from the hugely popular Napa County Wine Train, a wine or beer train from Joseph to perhaps Wallowa.