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Help For Short Line Railroads Seen As Boost To Rural Oregon Economy

Liam Moriarty/JPR
A Central Oregon & Pacific train on a test run through Ashland. A 59-mile section of the line between Phoenix, OR and Montague, CA is still shut down for repairs.

It’s no secret that Oregon’s rural areas have lagged behind the state’s urban core in recovering from the recession of 2008. As politicians and business leaders scramble to find ways to resuscitate the sluggish rural economy, a 19th Century transportation technology makes the case that it holds part of the answer.  

So, let’s say you own a small factory, located in the Rogue Valley . You’ve got a few dozen employees, and you make really great widgets. Now, especially if your widgets are large or heavy, getting your products to your customers can be a challenge. Traditionally, the transportation option of choice for rural industry was rail. For many manufactured goods – or for bulk commodities like grain or timber – trains were how they got to market. So wood product companies in southern Oregon got a nasty shock one morning about eight years ago.

Martin Callery: “All of a sudden, with 24 hours notice, RailAmerica CORP informed the shippers on the Coos Bay line that they were embargoing the line and shutting down freight rail service.”

That’s Martin Callery, former Chief Commercial Officer at the Port of Coos Bay. He says when RailAmerica – the company that owned the Coos Bay  Rail Line – decided to cut its losses and shut it down, it put dozens of local businesses in a bind.

Martin Callery: “All of a sudden, all these shippers over here in western Lane, western Douglas and Coos County didn’t have any competitive transportation options.”

It soon got worse. The same railroad ownership also shut down another part of the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad, the line that roughly parallels I-5 between Eugene and Weed, California. Bob Ragon is with the Coos-Siskiyou Shippers Coalition, which represents the businesses that were suddenly left high and dry.

Bob Ragon: “They had to immediately try to scramble to try and find trucking for their products.”

So, was that a big deal?

Bob Ragon:  “Oh, yeah. (chuckles) When you have a product on the ground ready to ship out and all of a sudden it’s not going to go the way you planned … The orders were canceled and you had to order trucks. And of course that put an immediate high demand on trucking, and trucking rates went up.”

Eventually, the Port of Coos Bay bought the Coos Bay Rail Line and put it back into operation. The Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad between Eugene and Weed is operating under a new owner, except for a 59-mile section over the Siskiyous that remains closed for repairs. 

But what happened to those rail lines has been happening across the country. The construction of the interstate highway system in the '50s and '60s boosted the long-haul trucking industry, knocking rail off the top of the freight transportation heap. In the following decades, as many of the large national railroads slid into insolvency, they spun off their unprofitable short lines, often after years of neglect and deferred maintenance.

But Jerry Vest says those short lines are a crucial part of the rail system.

Jerry Vest: “We are the first and last mile for many rail freight hipments.”

Vest is a senior vice president at Genesee and Wyoming, the international company that now owns the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad, or CORP. Vest says rehabilitating small connector railroads like the CORP and putting them back into operation is an important part of boosting rural economies.

Jerry Vest: “Without short lines, these lines would be abandoned. And what that means for the public is that the communities that are, for instance, served in southern Oregon and northern California by the CORP, they wouldn’t have access to the national rail network.”

Now, Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have joined Idaho Republican Mike Crapo to co-sponsor a bill that would renew a short line maintenance tax credit that expired last year. 

Jerry Vest: “And what that does is it gives short lines like the CORP more available cash to reinvest more into the track structure.”

The lawmakers hope that by helping those “first and last mile” railroads rebuild and upgrade, they’ll preserve and maybe even expand business and jobs in the rural communities that grew up along those rail lines when trains were king.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.