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Prineville Railway gets chugging thanks to ODOT grant

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Monday, January 01, 2007

PRINEVILLE — The old children’s fable The Little Engine That Could is the made-to-order analogy for the City of Prineville Railway thanks in part to a $2 million grant from ConnectOregon, a lottery-funded Oregon Department of Transportation program that invests in transportation infrastructure.

The railway, the oldest continuously operated municipal shortline railroad in the United States, will use the money to continue development of a 37-acre freight depot located at a former Prineville lumber mill. It’s a fitting location for a railroad that in its 1970s heyday hauled 10,000 cars of freight, most of it lumber from Prineville’s lucrative mills. As the mills played out, so did the railway, hauling just 87 cars in 2004.

Dale Keller, the railway’s business development manager, credits Rob Corbett, Prineville’s city manager, with recognizing the potential in reviving — and reinventing — the 89-year-old city-owned railroad. That potential included increasing the amount of freight hauled (up to 500 cars in 2006) and offering the ability to unload, transfer and warehouse freight for Central Oregon industries.

The railway’s two mandates are to get the railroad on its feet and create family-wage jobs. “You create that, and the business comes. And it is coming,” says Keller.

The railway connects with both the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern railroads, a unique transportation advantage that translates into savings for companies like LP Engineered Wood in Hines. LP used to truck materials and products to and from Boise, Idaho, but now uses the Prineville freight depot to store materials and to ship products all over North America.

The rails have significantly reduced LP’s transportation costs. “It’s actually an integral part of our shipping operation,” says Jim Campbell, LP plant manager.

The railway negotiated a land trade for the depot site and has made some improvements already, including a heavy-equipment ramp. When it’s completed in about four years (city officials hope to win additional ConnectOregon grants), the depot will handle conventional freight and heavy equipment, operate a warehouse system, and transfer liquids. The first phase will construct an additional rail spur and warehouse, and rebuild an existing structure.

If Prineville can become the next commerce hub for the growing Central Oregon region, the railway might just chug its way into another 89 years.

— Sharon Vail

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