The future of railroad activity in Southern Oregon will be shaped by the same influences that brought it to the Rogue Valley to begin with — economics and topography.
But building and running railroads over mountain passes and canyons to connect small communities is a costly proposition.
This is an era when public funds are hard to come by, even for the most expedient of projects, and railroad company margins and those of shippers are thin, as well.
"We're in the mode of having to make some strategic choices because we don't have enough resources and because we don't control the railroads," says David Lohman, one of five Oregon Transportation Commission members.
Lohman, who is also the city attorney for Ashland, chairs the 18-member Oregon State Rail Plan Steering Committee.
The panel convenes Jan. 17 and will sort through the issues and opportunities facing railroads for the next 18 months before delivering its findings in mid-2014.
"We'll be looking at the assets we have, who those assets serve, and figure out how to prioritize them," Lohman says. "It's not going to be an exercise of what we'd like to do, it will be an exercise of finding the most important things we can do with the limited resources and limited control we have."
While the steering committee won't put together a plan, its work will be turned into a plan.
For Southern Oregon, however, the issue is straightforward: Is there enough demand for railroad companies to invest into developing and maintaining their lines?
"At the moment, there isn't enough traffic," Lohman says. "But it doesn't mean there couldn't be more if service was faster, more regular and easier to get to."
Much of the now-Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad line weaving from the Siskiyous to the Willamette Valley has a 25 mph speed limit — adding time and creating a built-in competitive advantage for trucks.
When he speaks of regular service, Lohman suggests reliability.
"When you put a product on a railcar and are told it will get to Sacramento by such and such date, you want to know it will get there," he says.
Ease of access serves as a catch-all.
"It's easier for main lines to pick up multiple cars," Lohman says. "They're not going to be interested unless they can pick up multiple cars. That may mean having more freight collection points. The idea is to have central points where trucks can pick up freight. We may need a lot more intermodal points."
Recent state and federal grants, along with corporate investment, will mean tunnels to the north and south of the Rogue Valley will be operable. But it doesn't mean shippers will automatically flock to rail.
"The $64,000 question on the part of the railroad is, can they make the line pay for itself once they reopen?" says Bob Melbo, a rail planner with the Oregon Department of Transportation. "They will have to aggressively market themselves so they can get shippers back on rail. There are a lot of trucks on I-5, so if they can successfully capture some of that business now on the highway, they may be able to come up with enough traffic to sustain operation from California to Southern Oregon."
The mountainous terrain continues to come into play.
"The railroad in Southern Oregon was built in the 1880s, and the route really hasn't changed since then," Melbo says. "It was built when earth-moving wasn't done on the same scale as today's transportation projects; they used horse-drawn scrapers and wheelbarrows."
Ultimately, Lohman says, the commitment level by shippers will carry the day — and the industry.
"Terrain is certainly a factor," he says. "Getting the traffic up — where shippers make financial commitments to make use of rail lines — is what makes it work. It's a very big challenge just to maintain the routes we have, and some of them we may not be able to maintain service on."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.