Trains are not running in Wallowa County, but efforts are being made behind the scenes to put the railroad line between Elgin and Joseph back to use. Idaho Northern & Pacific, the shortline operator which sold the 61 miles of track to Union and Wallowa counties and is responsible for running trains on the track until May 31, 2003, has repaired the crossing signal at the S curve along Hwy. 82 between Lostine and Enterprise and is working to repair the Y at the end of the line in Joseph.
Possibly the biggest news on the railroad scene is that the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority is advertising to hire a full time general manager to coordinate efforts on the formerly abandoned track. "Everywhere we turn there is another reason we need a general manager," said Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward who holds one of nine seats on the RR Authority.
Elgin's Mark Stauffer sits both on the RR Authority and on the Friends of the Joseph Branch, the non profit group which has been granted authority to bring excursion trains into the valley. Stauffer said last Friday that 15 applications had already been received and many more were expected before the application deadline hits Dec. 16. Advertisements asking for a general manager with at least 15 years of experience in the railroad business have been placed in railroad trade magazines, the Observer and in this issue of the Chieftain. The salary for the position will depend on the selected individual's qualifications.
Screening applicants before a final decision will be made by the RR Authority is a four person Futures Committee comprised of Stauffer, Steven Adams (who, like Stauffer, is a member of the Friends group as well as the Authority), Myron Kirkpatrick and Ed Berntsen. Berntsen is the owner of the Lewis & Clark Railroad based out of Battleground, Wash.
Hayward hopes to get a general manager hired by the end of December. Stauffer thinks that a mid January date is realistic.
The date for an excursion train into Wallowa County has been pushed back from November until next spring. Friends of the Joseph Branch members, however, are planning a trip to Emmett, Idaho to view the two passenger cars, the one passenger/dining car and the baggage/generator car which were included in the $6.5 million purchase price of the railroad line. The restored cars are of 1950s and 1960s vintage, said Stauffer, and are in pretty good shape.
The running of freight along the railroad line from Wallowa to Elgin is still being negotiated by D. R. Johnson of Wallowa Forest Products, county consultant Gary Hunter of Railroad Industries of Reno, Nev. and Union Pacific. Hayward said that Johnson "wants to see it happen, but we don't know when." Hunter said, "I think it shouldn't be too long. We'll work through it."
Wallowa Forest Products began shipping by rail once the counties purchased the line May 31, but stopped within a matter of weeks.
A properties committee of the Authority has been formed. One goal is to invite all adjacent landowners to a meeting to receive feedback on how to be better neighbors.
Stauffer said that ODOT rail inspector Jim Seifert of Wallowa has inspected the line and given it a high Class 1 rating, with a Class 2 rating well within the realm of possibility. With a Class 1 rating passenger service could travel up to 15 mph, and with a Class 2 rating passenger service could run at a 30 mph pace. Stauffer said that Seifert found the rail, ties and bridges all to be in "excellent condition."
Stauffer and Hayward agree that vegetation control work between Wallowa and Joseph needs to be addressed before any train can traverse the final leg of the journey from Elgin.
It was suggested on earlier negotiations that railroad car storage could generate needed income for the dormant line. Stauffer put out a figure of $1 per day per railroad car. Wallowa County Planning Director Bill Oliver suggested that some $90,000 per year could be realized from rail storage. Hayward cautioned that, because of Wallowa County's distance from main line railroads, the county be careful not to "accept somebody's junk" cars which would be difficult to move.
In addition to May 31, 2003 when the counties will either take over running the railroad or name the entity that does, Hayward marks Dec. 1, 2006, as an important future date. It is on that date that the first payment of about $450,000 for borrowed moneys will be due. The counties are working closely with the Oregon's congressional delegation to secure federal funding before that deadline.