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All Aboard! Baker City, Others Want Amtrak Back

Eastern Oregon is steeped in history.

Photos from Baker City by Ethan Lindsey

The Oregon Trail, the gold rush, the heady days of timber.

Those days seem like ancient history, but some locals want to recapture at least one part of that past.

Advocates want to reopen the Pioneer Route, the passenger train that ran through eastern Oregon and Idaho.

Amtrak is currently studying that proposal. And the Obama Administration has signaled an interest in expanding Amtrak.

We sent Ethan Lindsey to Baker City to listen for train whistles.

Amtrak abandoned the historic Pioneer Route 11 years ago.

The Pioneer train ran from Seattle to Portland and then turned east, stopping in Pendleton and Baker before rolling on to Boise.

And now, many eastern Oregonians want the train to rumble back down the tracks.

Marc Magliari is a spokesman for Amtrak. He also just happened to ride on that final Pioneer train in 1997.

Marc Magliari: “As the train made its way across Oregon, certainly the folks in eastern Oregon were there to see the trains off for the final time were there with signs and banners and they made it very clear they wanted to see service restored and were hoping it was only going to be a temporary reduction in service.”

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Baker City's train tracks are now used solely by freight trains. Locals hope it will eventually be a stop on a restored Amtrak 'Pioneer Line' between Seattle and Salt Lake City.

Nowadays, the closest an Amtrak train comes to Baker is Chemult in Central Oregon.

That doesn’t help bring tourists to Baker’s main street — once the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest.

Barbara Sidway: “We are sitting under the stained glass ceiling, in the Palm Court, which is the biggest stained glass ceiling in the Pacific Northwest. And its just stunning.”

Barbara Sidway is the owner of the Geiser Grand Hotel in downtown Baker.

Once home to the first elevator in Oregon, the hotel was shuttered for decades, until the mid-90s.

Sidway says when she began to restore the hotel, she expected to bring in some travelers by train.

That didn’t happen. But she sees even more rail opportunities today.

Barbara Sidway: “You’re going to ride your bike with your backpack to Union Station, you’re going to get off the train, and you’re going to get on the train. Get off here, and ride your bike to the hotel. It is more consistent with the values of people in Oregon. And it’s a better way to spend your hours.”

Eastern Oregon’s economy is weak, and people continue to move out of  this part of the state.

Which is why, in 1997, Amtrak decided it just couldn’t keep running the Pioneer Route anymore.

And yet, residents in Baker say a restarted train would be a real benefit to the community.

Debi Bainter is the executive director of the Baker County chamber of commerce. She works at the local visitors’ center, along the historic Oregon Trail.

Debi Bainter: “Tourism has become a very important part of the economic commerce of Baker County. Ultimately, I think it will be another way to link a mode of transportation that’s a little historic with the historic town, and we are known very much for the history in our area.”

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The Geiser Grand Hotel is located on the historic main street of the town.

Plus, many travelers say trains must be part of any transportation future.

Trains use less gas and carry more people than cars.

And as Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari notes, fluctuating gas prices have helped sell tickets.

Marc Magliari: “We’ve been very clear that we want to grow this business. We’ve had six straight years of record ridership and ridership growth.”

But even  supporters wonder whether the Pioneer really will ride again.

Amtrak isn’t exactly flush.

In fact, it remains operational only with generous taxpayer money.

Besides that, Amtrak also will need to find a way to make the trains run on time – or at least close to it.

Fred Warner is the chairman of the Baker County Commisison. He grew up here and says he remembers the train falling hours behind schedule.

Fred Warner: “I went with my grand parents when it used to be Union Pacific. It was a great trip.

The U.S. hasn’t invested heavily in rail for generations.

That means in many parts of the country, the railroad tracks can only handle one train at a time.

And freight train operator Union-Pacific owns the tracks in nearly all of Oregon.

Fred Warner: “You can tell how good the economy is doing in the nation by the number of freight trains that go through Baker City.”

In other parts of the state, Amtrak regularly has to slow down and stop to let other trains go by.

Warner says Amtrak would either have to build more tracks or negotiate a better deal with freight shippers.

Still, Warner hopes with enough political will, even that problem could be solved.

Fred Warner: “If it was easy, people would use it now, $4 a gallon gas makes it a real viable option now.”

That’s why Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Earl Blumenauer teamed with Republican Greg Walden.

The bipartisan delegation pushed Amtrak to study what it would take to reopen the Pioneer Route.

Amtrak says it’ll publish the report later this year.

And from there, lawmakers will  decide whether to put the Pioneer Route back on track.

Photos from Baker City

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