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Just Ask: Will we see commuter rail from Portland?

Ask us a question about just about anything and we’ll find the answer.

This week’s question is about extending commuter rail to our area.

“A few years ago a developer talked about the possibility of a light rail line coming to Keizer and Salem from Wilsonville. Is this on any agenda or has a timeframe ever been discussed?” – Keith F., via Facebook

Dear Keith,

You’re asking about what is known in industry parlance as commuter rail. The line from Wilsonville to Beaverton is the Westside Express Service (WES) and runs every 30 minutes during rush hour.

Light rail is more like the Tri-Met train system in Portland, with frequent stops. Commuter rail is for slightly longer hauls – and, more importantly, can run on heavy rail tracks, which light rail cannot.

You’ll likely not be surprised to learn the

biggest single obstacle is money. An estimate on running commuter rail from Wilsonville to Salem was around $300 million.

“Show me the money,” was the answer Rail Study Director Betsy Imholt of the Oregon Department of Transportation gave us. “There is no state money to do these projects, so there would have to be some local funding source. … Rail projects are expensive. When we talk about dramatically improving the service between Eugene and Portland, we’re talking billions.”

There’s also the issue of rail lines, and the freight trains that use them. There are two lines that run through the Willamette Valley. There’s the Oregon Electric (OE) line, which runs adjacent to Keizer Station south by the river, and the Union Pacific (UP) line, which extends to the east of Keizer and picks up Amtrak passengers on 12th Street in Salem.

The WES train operates on the OE line. It is the state’s only commuter rail.
Imholt said rail line owners are legally obligated to accept passenger service, a.k.a. Amtrak, but do not have a similar obligation for commuter rail.

“Right now, it’s safe to say the freight carrier is not interested in commuter rail,” Imholt said.

There is, however, movement on the passenger rail front. As part of the federal stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) it poured $8 billion into developing high-speed intercity passenger rail service. According to ODOT, Oregon was awarded $8 million, and more funding could be coming in future years.

The department is offering a survey at through the end of June. Imholt said preliminary goals will likely include increasing daily round trips from two to six, dramatically improving on-time performance and cutting back ride time from 2 hours, 35 minutes to about two hours between Portland and Eugene.

And although the term “high-speed rail” evokes images of Japanese bullet trains, Keizer City Councilor Cathy Clark – a go-to on the council for transportation issues – said those simply won’t work in the U.S. because of where the rail lines are placed.

“It wouldn’t work here, partly because of the rail (placement) and partly because of the distances involved,” she said. “The rails are going through cities, and you can’t go all that fast.”