Trains consistently moving freight over the Siskiyous will give Southern Oregon shippers a viable new option for reaching California markets and their own facilities there, which have been cut off from rail access for the past four years, stakeholders say.
A $7.09 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation Tuesday to Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad for repairs to its 296-mile-long line between Eugene and Weed, Calif., should bring regular train traffic back to the Siskiyou Summit line, between Ashland and Weed, by the end of 2014, according to the Siskiyou Summit Railroad Revitalization grant application.
The rail company plans to add $2.4 million of its own money to restore the 80-mile stretch over Siskiyou Summit, according to a letter in the application to the department of transportation from Dave Arganbright, CORP Vice President.
Some shippers who used the line between Oregon and California in the past have been contacted for future shipping arrangements, said John Bullion, assistant general manager for CORP.
"We don't know how much we'll be shipping. We would hope to have quite a bit though," he said. "Lumber is the majority of our business, or it's a major part of it, as it grows and declines we grow and decline."
Grain, fruit, minerals, fertilizer, propane and other commodities are on the list of other freight CORP hauls to and from the Rogue Valley, Bullion said.
According to its grant application, CORP has transported about 16,700 carloads of cargo over the Siskiyou Summit line in the past two years.
Wood products — including shipments from RFP and the Swanson Group — make up 88 percent of the cargo transported by rail between Dillard, where the train splits for Coos Bay south of Roseburg, and Ashland, according to the railroad's grant application.
Roger Rutan, vice president of marketing for Springfield-based Timber Products, which has two plywood plants in White City, said he is hopeful the rail line's improvements will translate into a cheaper shipping option.
"We've got our softwood mill in Yreka, and the train used to be our main may of getting veneer out of Medford, and further north, over the mountain," he said. "There is still work to be done, but any improvements to that line (Siskiyou Summit ) will allow for more rail traffic, I would think."
The lumber products manufacturer is currently trucking material over the Siskiyous, he said, which is costly and, "in today's market, having a viable shipping option can make the difference of turning a profit."
The railroad company is also banking on receiving a $4.6 million ConnectOregon grant which will be awarded this summer to enlarge four tunnels near Glendale to accommodate new, larger boxcars.
Current boxcars have the capacity of about 31/2; freight semi-truck trailers. The high-capacity cars will be able to handle 20 percent more cargo than the existing cars, and hold about 100 tons each.
The grant CORP recently received is a portion of $500 million distributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Tiger IV transportation grant program.
"Everyone involved has worked really hard for this," said Jeff Griffin, Southwest Oregon regional coordination for the Governor's Solutions Office. "It has a lot of benefits to give shippers in Southern Oregon "… and takes a lot of trucks off the highway."
Work to revamp the line would be completed through Oregon Department of Transportation and private contractors, Griffin said, unable to estimate how may jobs will be created for effort.
"Short term, it'll put folks to work," said Jackson County Commissioner Don Skundrick, who has been on the Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. Board for about 16 years. "This place is never going to be a Tennessee for trains, but reopening the line makes all the sense in the world. "… I don't see any downturn at all."
"In factor of a larger economic picture — the economy is going to turn around," he said. "It is slowly turning around now, and this (reopening the line) will put our area in a prime position to take advantage of a wonderful shipping option as it continues to improve."
The Siskiyou Summit line has been closed to consistent train traffic since May 2008.
The closure came after CORP raised fees for using the line and after and Timber Products Co., and Roseburg Forest Products Co., the line's two largest customers, turned down the increase and began using trucks to ship their wood products.
Skundrick said he has hopes that a passenger service might spawn on the route in the future; likely not anytime soon, but "that'd be awesome."
Ashland had a passenger train connecting north to Portland and south to San Francisco, from 1887 to 1955, said Victoria Law, executive director at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, in more than one way.
"You could go around the county from Ashland by rail," she said. "We're always an advocate for the return of passenger rail "… and it should definitely benefit the region's economy."
The last passenger train left Ashland in the summer of 1955, she noted.
The sound of a whistling train passing the museum, located on A Street adjacent to the tracks, will be soothing, said Law.
"We're real advocates for moving freight by rail, because it's four-times more efficient, producing a lot less pollution, and there is less wear and tear on the freeway," she said. "There really hasn't been any significant rail traffic at all on the line for the past few years "… in the 1950s and 1960s, everything in the valley use to be shipped out by rail."
Karen McClintock, who works as a psychologist in an office on Clear Creek Drive in Ashland, said she's happy the train is coming to town.
McClintock gathered about 90 signatures in late 2010, petitioning the Ashland City Council for a pedestrian crossing over the train tracks to connect the neighborhoods on and below Hersey Street with the Railroad District.
During that time, CORP was storing empty car along the track between Clear Creek Drive and A Street, making it hard for pedestrians to cross the train tracks, which is technically trespassing, and a citable offense.
The issue has been sidelined by the city, because of the costs associated with build the bridge.
"Of course the train is a good idea, I would just like a safe pedestrian crossing for when is returns," McClintock said, who walks to businesses in the Railroad district from her office frequently.
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.