Valley passenger train possibilities spur forum

ASHLAND — With last month's announcement of a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to renovate the rail line between Medford and Weed, Calif., for freight trains, a few Southern Oregonians are hoping passenger trains won't be far behind.

"I'm really intrigued that the Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad got this grant," said Victoria Law, director of Ashland's Historic Railroad Museum. "If they get the line ready for freight, does that mean we might have some room for Amtrak trains? Maybe this is the time to have that discussion."

Law took her idea to Amy Drake, curator of special projects for the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"She suggested a community forum," Drake said, "about passenger service and its history in the valley and the potential of bringing it back."

"I have 500 signatures on a petition," Law said, "to bring passenger railroads back. I talk to a lot of people who say, 'I would love to go visit my family, either in Portland or San Francisco, and not have to drive there.' "

She said government agencies have told her that the Rogue Valley doesn't have a large enough population to support passenger rail, but she disagrees. "Oregon Shakespeare Festival sells about 400,000 tickets, and maybe 200,000 of those are visitors," she said, "and many come from Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. They would love to just get on a train. And then, when they got here, we wouldn't have issues with parking and things like that."

"Most of the people who come do most of their touring by walking," she said.

Law said most people don't realize that valley residents used to be able to catch a train any day of the week.

"We once had up to 10 passenger trains a day going through Ashland," she said. "We had passenger rail service until August 1955."

Trouble began in 1927, when the Southern Pacific Railroad began routing most of its passenger trains between Eugene and California through Klamath Falls. Until 1952, except for a few breaks in service, particularly during the early part of World War II, passenger trains continued to run through Ashland and cross the Siskiyou Mountains, going to and from California.

Then, in February 1952, claiming a nearly $400,000 annual loss, the Southern Pacific ended passenger service over the Siskiyou line. Three years later, the remaining passenger service between Ashland and Portland was canceled.

"I was already pretty hopeful about the possibility of passenger service a few months ago," Law said, "because when the federal government looked at Southern Oregon, we were kind of in the most need of transportation service. So I knew we were pretty high up for getting funds from the government."

"We're really just trying to pull people together to discuss how passenger service could benefit or harm the valley," Drake said, "and people's experiences with passenger service in other places, and if increased rail traffic would even be safe, or be safe again, in this area."

She said participants will also be asked to contribute input about what should go into one of the society's traveling exhibits, this one emphasizing railroads. The exhibit will be part of its "History: Made by You" program, in which photographs and artifacts from the SOHS collection are sealed in large Plexiglas containers and rotated throughout various locations in the valley.

"We would like a broad cross-section of the public to attend," Law said, "both those in favor of passenger rail and even those who are not."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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