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Reviving the railroad

Bob Larson hopes to run passengers with a steam locomotive on the Hull Oaks line. The engine would be similar to the Southern Pacific No. 1229 0-6-0 engine on display at Stewart Park in Roseburg. (Mark Ylen/Democrat-Herald)

Not so many years ago, the Bailey Branch moved hundreds of railcars filled with wood products and agricultural commodities between south Benton County and the rest of the world.

That rail link was broken in 2007 when the two railroads responsible for operating the line — the Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, and the Portland & Western, which leased them — embargoed the branch. The track was badly in need of repairs, they told the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, and freight volumes were too low to justify the cost.

This spring the railroads took steps toward making the temporary shutdown permanent when they petitioned the Surface Transportation Board for permission to abandon the 17.86-mile line, which runs from Greenberry south of Corvallis to Monroe, with a spur from Alpine Junction to Dawson.

But now, just when it looked as though the Union Pacific might rip up the tracks and sell them for scrap, there’s fresh hope of restoring rail service to the southern end of Benton County.

Bob Larson, a railroad buff from Roseburg, put the brakes on the abandonment proceedings June 6 when he made his own filing with the Surface Transportation Board. The document, formally known as a notice of intent to file an offer of financial assistance, is essentially an offer to buy Bailey Branch for its liquidation value.

Larson says he wants to resume hauling freight on the rickety old line while gradually replacing worn-out rails and sleepers. Eventually, he said, he wants to put a steam engine on the line and run passenger excursions to the Hull-Oakes Lumber mill in Dawson. Like the locomotive of his dreams, the historic mill is another steam-powered relic of an earlier age.

“I think that’ll be a nice little tourist attraction,” he said.

The Oregon Transportation Department’s Rail Division has scheduled a meeting in Corvallis this week with former Bailey Branch shippers and interested members of the public to gauge the level of interest in resumed rail service.

The big question now seems to be: Can Larson really pull this off?

Bringing back the OP&E

Bob Larson’s professional background primarily was in radio and TV broadcasting, but he also has some credentials as a railroad man.

In the 1970s, he did some marketing work for the Oregon Pacific & Eastern Railway, which ran a passenger excursion train known as the Blue Goose from Cottage Grove to the Bohemia mining district. That’s when he was bitten by the railroad bug — or, as he put it in an interview with the paper, “I got nailed with train fever.”

The OP&E Railway was dissolved in 1994, but Larson revived the line — on paper, anyway — when he formed an Oregon corporation under the name Oregon Pacific & Eastern Railroad.

Larson owns the rights to the old OP&E and Blue Goose markings as well as those of the Longview, Portland & Northern Railway, based in Gardiner, although neither railroad is currently active.

In addition, Larson has a concession to operate a narrow-gauge railroad at Wildlife Safari, a tourist attraction southwest of Roseburg.

Of more immediate importance, though, is this: Larson has his own locomotive.

It’s not a steam engine, but Larson insists it’s a perfectly serviceable little switching engine — a 44-ton General Electric diesel. The lightweight engine could haul only about eight fully loaded cars at a time, he said, but it should be enough to restart freight service on the old line, at least until the tracks are repaired and he can get a bigger one.

He’s hoping to get Hull-Oakes back on board as a customer, a deal that could mean 300 carloads a year of wood chips and rough-cut lumber. He also wants to resume service to the dozen or so farms and other agricultural operations that used to rely on the railroad.

“I don’t care if I have to go 5 miles an hour,” Larson said. “If it takes four hours to get from Corvallis to Hull-Oakes, well, then it takes four hours to get from Corvallis to Hull-Oakes. We’re not in any hurry.”

Making it pay

It’s not out of the question that a private citizen could buy a stretch of railroad and make it pay. Larry Venell’s already doing it.

Venell, whose family farms a wide swath of land between Corvallis and Greenberry, used to be one of the Willamette & Pacific’s biggest customers on the Bailey Branch. He even built his own siding and covered loading facility.

Along with other south Benton shippers, Venell fought the railroad’s efforts to shut down the branch line for years. Last August, three years after the P&W walked away from the Bailey Branch, Venell bought 5.3 miles of track and teamed up with the Albany & Eastern Railroad to repair and operate the line.

In addition to bringing in fertilizer and shipping his own grass seed, wheat and livestock feed to distant markets, Venell has begun hauling freight for some of his neighbors, as well.

“We hit 400 cars this year,” Venell said. “We’re doing quite well — better than expected.”

If Larson were to revive the remaining 17.85 miles of the Bailey Branch, he’d have to work out a business arrangement with Venell to connect his cars with the mainline railroads — and that would be just fine with Venell.

“I think that’s great,” he said. “If he wants to bring us 300 cars a year, that’s wonderful.”

ODOT rail planner Bob Melbo thinks Larson may be overly optimistic about the cost involved to buy and refurbish the Bailey Branch. He also thinks the Roseburg railroad buff may find himself in a bidding war with other would-be purchasers, although none has publicly declared so far.

“I’ve heard some rumors there may be others,” Melbo said. “He actually may have some competition.”

And he’s skeptical of Larson’s long-range plans to run passenger excursions on the line.

“There’s only one railroad in the state that’s making a living as an excursion,” he said, “and that’s the Mount Hood Railroad.”

But he also thinks it’s possible that some of the former Bailey Branch customers could be persuaded to ship by rail again — if the price was right.

And even though Larson’s 44-ton GE locomotive is definitely on the small side, it ought to be big enough for limited shortline freight hauling.

“I think that engine would probably be a good match for that line initially,” Melbo said. “It sounds interesting.”

Thanks for the videos

Before Larson can start shipping freight on the Bailey Branch, however, he has to buy it.

Federal regulations specify that a buyer can purchase a rail line slated for abandonment at its net liquidation price. That’s the value of the branch line’s rails, ties and bridge materials plus the real estate underneath them, minus the cost of dismantling and scrapping the tracks.

Larson calculates the price should come in at somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000. If the Union Pacific comes back with a higher figure, the Surface Transportation Board can step in to arbitrate the matter.

There are also repair costs to consider.

“I know it’s going to be spendy,” Larson said. “It could take, over time, over $1 million to get it back up to speed.”

So does he have that kind of cash?

“Not entirely,” Larson admits.

Bob Hope show

to the rescue?

He’s working to line up financing to swing the initial purchase, and he figures he can pay for repairs in increments with shipping revenues.

But his real ace in the hole is something much more unexpected: Larson claims to have the master tapes to a 1984 Bob Hope USO show, along with the rights to sell up to 1.5 million copies on DVD. The tale of how he came to have the tapes is a complicated one.

Larson served in the Air Force from 1985 to 1989. With his broadcasting background, he was assigned to work with the Armed Forces Network. While Larson was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, it was announced that Bob Hope was coming to entertain the troops, and Larson was asked to produce the show.

According to Larson, the actor and comedian’s entourage for the December 1987 performance consisted of country singer Lee Greenwood, “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden, actress Connie Stevens and Miss USA, Michelle Royer of Texas.

About 20 minutes from the Philippines performance found its way into the next Bob Hope TV special, Larson says, but he has the full 90-minute show on video — and Hope Enterprises granted him the rights to sell copies on DVD.

“It’s a typical Bob Hope USO show,” he said. “There’s a lot of vets out there who would buy a copy of that.”

At, say, 20 bucks a pop, Larson figures the DVD sales could net him quite a nest egg. And what’s a nest egg for if not to make your dreams come true?

“I always said that was my retirement income,” said Larson, who’s 54. “Well, I might as well use it before I retire and buy a railroad.”

Contact Bennett Hall

at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazette

 

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