Medford got its start as a railroad town and trains continue to roll through the Rogue Valley as a vital part of the transportation network.
"Railroading has been around a long time," said Steve Hefley, general manager of Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad. "It's a big industry and important to commerce here."
Roseburg-based Central Oregon & Pacific, now a subsidiary of RailAmerica, has served the Rogue Valley since 1995 on the old Southern Pacific tracks.
It runs at least three dozen trains a week through the Medford yard on the northwest edge of town, mostly hauling wood products, cement, fertilizer, feed and propane, Hefley said.
But don't plan to set your watch by the old 507 southbound.
"In our operating plan, scheduled times are windows rather than set times," Hefley explained.
And there are plenty of variables — from weather conditions to mechanical difficulties — that can affect exactly when a train gets rolling.
Every Monday through Friday, Central Oregon & Pacific sends a train northbound from Medford to Glendale, usually departing between 10 and 10:30 a.m., Hefley said.
In Glendale, the Medford-based crew with engine meets a train that has just come south from Roseburg and swaps cars. The northbound cars continue on their journey with the Roseburg crew and the Medford gang heads back south with its new load. The southbound train usually arrives back in Medford around 8 p.m.
Every Monday through Friday evening, a southbound train leaves Medford headed to California. It leaves sometime between 9 p.m. and midnight, usually around 11 p.m.
It arrives in Hornbrook, Calif., in the early morning hours to meet a northbound train from Weed. The two trains switch cars and the crews each head homeward with their new loads. The Medford train is back in the yard here by 8 a.m.
Every weekday afternoon, the railroad runs a train from the Medford yard to the White City industrial area, Hefley said.
The train leaves the Medford yard around 4 p.m., drops off cars and collects freight from customers along the rail terminal, and returns to the yard between 11 p.m. and midnight.
On weekdays, a "yard switcher" works in Medford between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., tooling back and forth across town collecting train cars and assembling them into the outbound trains, Hefley said.
A train runs from Medford to Grants Pass at least three days a week, whenever it has a full load. The days it runs vary from week to week, but the train usually leaves Medford around 3 p.m. When needed, often late in the week, it continues all the way to Merlin. It's usually back in the yard here by 11 p.m.
Larry Tuttle, a railroad aficionado and building contractor from Wimer, has watched trains since he was a kid.
"My dad would take me out to watch trains as a tyke, kind of a father-son bonding thing," he said.
Now he has a model train roughly based on the Rogue Valley route and maintains a Web site, www.alpharail.net, packed with railroad details, including information about Central Oregon & Pacific's schedule, locomotives and signals, as well as anecdotes from traveling with the crews. He also operates steam engines on excursion trains.
"I'm not content to just stand on the side," Tuttle said. "I'm a participatory rail fan."
He notes that Central Oregon & Pacific's schedule has more delays later in the week. Trains were slightly more frequent a few years ago when the housing market was booming.
He also keeps track of what types of cars carry what freight. The big gray hopper cars usually carry cement to White City and the reddish-orange hoppers have sand in them. Logs, lumber and veneer are all transported on open flats, visible to all. Propane moves in distinctive tank cars.
The longest trains passing though Medford have 45 cars, Hefley said. That's the maximum number Central Oregon & Pacific's locomotives can haul up the steep grade over the Siskiyou Pass. A lone locomotive or one with just one or two cars can be seen in town as trains are assembled.
Whatever the schedule, though, the clatter of steel wheels against the rails and the lonesome whistle of a train will remain.