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Track out ahead

The long-awaited completion of the $13 million Siskiyou Summit Railroad Revitalization project, stretching 60 miles south of Ashland, is going to take a little bit longer.

For months, the target date for completion has been September or early October, but work will take at least a few more weeks than that, Oregon Department of Transportation and Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad representatives say.

"Construction isn't complete yet," said Kelly Sparkman, ODOT's agency liaison for southwestern Oregon.

An array of track work, tie installation, surfacing and some bridge repairs remain, she said. "But the bridge work is pretty minor, not structural."

The Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad short line working the 296-mile stretch of Union Pacific-owned track between Eugene and Weed, Calif., has kept busy running between the Rogue and Willamette valleys following line repairs in Josephine and Douglas counties. But it may be a couple of months before CORP's GP38 and SD40 locomotives journey south of Ashland.

"As long as we're in the process of construction, we're not ready to nail down a specific date," said Don Seil, CORP's general manager of project development. "It'll be sometime in the last quarter of the year."

CORP has 65 employees, with about 25 percent working in Jackson County. When trains last snaked their way over the Siskiyous in 2008, the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad was owned by RailAmerica, which was snapped up by rival Genesee & Wyoming three years ago for $1.4 billion.

In 2013, CORP accounted for 19 percent of the state's short-line rail miles, and 10.3 percent of Oregon's total rail miles, according to ODOT figures. CORP's 22,764 rail carloads made up 14.8 percent of the state total. CORP's 2013 gross revenue of $17.8 million made it No. 2 to the Portland & Western Railroad, another Genesee & Wyoming unit, which produced revenue of $27.3 million.   

Wood products will be the predominant cargo when operations resume, Seil said, with CORP running two trains of 12 to 14 cars daily. But he's hoping to see more clients take to the rails.

"Our background with Genesee & Wyoming definitely helps us in developing new business," he said.

Beyond the simple resumption of rail activity paralleling the freeway between coastal mountain ranges and the Cascades, shippers will once again have an alternative option, potentially taking trucks off Interstate 5.

"It will mean Southern Oregon shippers who can utilize rail will have an alternative available other than trucking material southbound into California markets," said Mike Montero, who chairs the Rogue Valley Area Commission on Transportation, an ODOT advisory board whose findings are passed on to the Oregon Transportation Commission. "For Oregon manufacturers, such as Boise Cascade, there will be importation options of wood products and other heavy freight from the south, which they haven't had for a number of years."

With little funding to expand the highway system, Montero said, shifting freight to rail from the I-5 corridor figures to reduce truck congestion.

"Whenever we can reroute traffic to an alternative system, it's like we've found new capacity," Montero said. "The second thing it does, by reducing heavy loads on the roads, it extends the life of the highway."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.

The Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad short line runs between Eugene and Weed, Calif., but the Siskiyou Summit Railroad Revitalization project, extending 60 miles south of Ashland, still isn't ready for business. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch