The Wallowa Union Railroad Authority (WURA) is ready to hire its first general manager. According to search committee chairman Stephen Adams, top candidate Mike Bagwell from rural Hurley, Miss., met all nine board members last week and is ready to commit to WURA as soon as the railroad authority next meets and formally extends a contract. That meeting was scheduled after deadline Wednesday (last night). Adams said that everyone was impressed with the 51-year-old Bagwell and the offer of a contract is a mere formality.
Bagwell has expressed an interest in beginning his new position Feb. 15.
With a 20-year history with short line railroads, Bagwell toured the 62 miles of railroad track between Elgin and Joseph by high rail last Wednesday and said the condition of the track "was a pleasant surprise." Listed as a Class I rail line, he offered the opinion that the rail is not far away from being upgraded to Class II status. A Class I federally rated track authorizes top speeds of 15 mph for passenger service and 10 mph for freight. Class II tracks raise those maximum levels to 30 mph for passenger service and 25 mph for freight.
Adams said that rehabilitation loans are available to upgrade the track from Class I to Class II status.
Last Thursday Bagwell met with a number of persons from Wallowa County. Early Thursday morning he visited with a group of nine business leaders from the community led by Wallowa County Business Facilitator Myron Kirkpatrick. They met at the Bronze Antler Bed & Breakfast in Joseph and expressed hopes that a working freight rail line might attract new businesses to the county.
Later in the morning he met with 20 members of the Friends of the Joseph Branch group at the Plush West Restaurant in Enterprise. Their focus of interest centered on a passenger tourist train to come into the valley.
For an hour in the afternoon Bagwell was available to the general public in the court room of the Wallowa County Courthouse. In the evening he met with Wallowa County's WURA board members, and on Friday had an equally busy schedule in Union County.
Though not listing them in any priority order, Bagwell told the Chieftain that his initial efforts when employed by WURA will be to cultivate relationships with customers and potential customers of freight service, continue to work with Idaho Northern & Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads and work with adjoining landowners on matters of right-of-way, weed and fencing issues.
It was suggested to the man from Mississippi during his Wallowa County visit that an operating rail line might be the key to re-opening the Joseph Timber Company sawmill in Joseph. He was also told that differences between Idaho Northern and Wallowa Forest Products had been ironed out and that the Wallowa sawmill was scheduled this week to again use the railroad to transport finished lumber out of the county.
Wallowa Forest Products is the only freight customer the rail line has had since Wallowa and Union Counties purchased the 62 miles of track effective May 31, 2002. That service lasted less than two weeks.
Bagwell, who was accompanied on his high rail trip with executives Neil Cox and Bob Adams of Idaho Northern and Pacific, said that Idaho Northern personnel are now at work addressing rail and vegetation issues.