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Siskiyou rail line opens for business

Can you hear that lonesome whistle blowing? You just might in coming days or in the weeks and months to follow. The Siskiyou rail line that connects Ashland and Weed, Calif., closed for seven years, officially opened Monday and should see its first traffic by mid-week.

Trains are expected to run twice a day, one southbound and one northbound. It will carry freight, so the timing and frequency depends on how much product needs to be shipped when, say Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad officials. There is no fixed schedule. 

The refurbishing of rail, ties, bridges and tunnels on the Siskiyou was paid in part by a $7.2 million dollar TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant from the U. S. Department of Transportation and a like amount from regional rail and timber interests, says Bob Ragon, administrator of the Coos-Siskiyou Coalition in Roseburg. 

Since each rail car carries as much as three semi-trucks, it’s much cheaper to use trains, consumes less fossil fuel, is better for the environment, and causes less wear and repair for freeways, says Art Anderson, area manager for the Rogue Valley for Oregon Department of Transportation, which oversaw the grant application and administered it. 

“CORP is planning 10 or 12 rail cars a day,” says Anderson. “That’s two trains in and outbound, so that displaces 30 semis from I-5, right out the door. That’s fairly significant, and we’re just beginning.” 

The Siskiyou Line, the steepest and most challenging part of north-south transportation for coastal states of the west, does not stop in Ashland. It opens the way for the main shippers on the line, Timber Products Company and Roseburg Forest Products, to transport timber north from Weed, says Ragon, to be turned into veneer or plywood at their plants in Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg and Springfield — then shipped back south to markets. 

“This takes a whole bunch of trucks off the freeway system. Trucks are an expensive way to transport,” says Ragon, “and it’s expensive to maintain the freeway. This is more environmentally friendly and you use less fuel for trains.” 

The line is a significant step forward for economic development in the region, notes Anderson — and the grant was a stroke of luck on a short deadline, made possible by retaining a consultant on the East Coast who was experienced in TIGER grants. The Jackson County commissioners agreed to put in $10,000 for the project. 

The main Southern Pacific rail line ran through the Rogue Valley until 1927, when SP built the flatter and straighter line from Eugene to Weed through Klamath Falls. That is now run by Union Pacific. CORP operates between Eugene and Weed via Medford and Ashland. It took over from SP in 1994. 

The refurbished Siskiyou Line will create eight new railroad jobs, in track maintenance, mechanics and train operations, says Carla Groleau of Genessee & Wyoming Railroad, which bought CORP in 2012. It will go through Ashland, which has nine railroad crossings, at about 20 mph, she adds.

Ashland has not had trains since 2008, so drivers may not be on full alert at crossings, says Claudia Howells, state coordinator of Oregon Operation Lifesaver. She cautions that some Ashland crossings don’t have gates, lights or bells, so drivers need to slow down, listen for train horns from both directions and remember that just because a train has passed from one direction doesn’t mean another one isn’t approaching from the opposite way on a parallel track. 

Tests show the human brain underestimates the speed of vehicles coming directly toward the observer, so pedestrians and drivers need to remember that – and to respect that railroad tracks are not trails, but rather private property, which can win you a misdemeanor citation for trespassing. 

Most Ashlanders in a recent Facebook survey welcomed the horn, rumble and romance of the train, while a few objected to it near their home. Locals often mention a desire for light rail service from Ashland to Portland and legislators, through many decades have tried to get something going, with no results. Rick Shankle of ODOT rail said Monday there have been no discussions during the Siskiyou Project for such passenger service.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.