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La Grande Observer Paper 08/29/14

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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow RIDING THE COUNTIES' RAIL


By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

ALONG THE JOSEPH LINE — A red fox raced beside the rails, moving ahead of the slow-moving vehicles — pickups converted to ride on railroad tracks.

A few miles earlier, the 11 passengers in the two pickups had seen an elk beside the river, and later they watched as a young bald eagle glided across the rails and landed in a tall tree. Kingfishers, blue herons and other water birds on the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers brought comments from the riders.

The passengers are members of the Wallowa-Union Railroad Authority, created by the two counties that recently bought the line between Elgin and Joseph from Idaho Northern and Pacific Railway for $6.5 million.

The wildlife, the mountains and the rivers have given rise to a dream that one day the rails will carry excursion trains filled with people from other places.

Enterprise Mayor Susan Roberts talked during Friday's ride about "endless possibilities" for the line. She envisions numerous types of trips, dinner rides and trips that include overnight stays at Wallowa Lake.

"There's great potential for business along the line," Roberts said during an authority meeting at the end of the line in Joseph.

Before those dreams can become reality, much work needs to be done. The line is being run by Idaho Northern; but come May, the authority must take over.

During the five-hour trip, Idaho Northern track manager Bob Adams explained the number of inspections, the level of maintenance and the need to remove grass and other vegetation that if left overgrown could present a high fire risk.

Along the way, at the several crossings in Wallowa County, the converted trucks slowed and often stopped to yield right of way to pickups and cars. Once a train begins running, the reverse will be true. Vehicles on the roads must yield to trains, and signage must be adequate to warn road traffic. Signalized crossings must be activated, maintained and frequently inspected, Adams said.

Roberts showed the other passengers the poor condition of rail crossings in Enterprise — crossings that she said need to be repaired. In several places along the way, ranchers have strung fences across the tracks, and the new railroad owners must find ways to work with the ranchers, who after nearly eight years of abandoned track, have become accustomed to the fences.

"There's an awful lot of work to consider," said authority member Mark Davidson of La Grande.

"Realistically, we have to contract with an operator to run it. If we negotiate an agreement with the right operator, that will take the burden off the authority."

Union County Commissioner Steve McClure stressed the importance of federal grants, but no money is expected to be given this year. Roberts agreed that federal dollars are necessary.

"It's imperative to get federal dollars; imperative to push as hard as we can the Oregon delegation and anybody else who will listen to get these dollars," she said.

When the line first opened in early August, Wallowa Forest Products began shipping lumber out of Wallowa County by rail, but the lumber mill stopped shipping shortly after it started, saying that the cost was greater than the amount originally quoted. Freight shipments headed out of Northeast Oregon must ride over rails owned by more than one railroad. Wallowa Forest Products said that Union Pacific Railroad prices were higher than quoted.

Members of the authority agreed to try to negotiate among all parties involved in freight shipping to find a cost that could be workable for shippers.

The authority will be meeting on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month to begin organizing to take over the line's operation. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday in Elgin City Hall.

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