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Gateway to Oregon's grapevines

A local group hopes to make Sherwood the first stop on a wine tourism train.

Sherwood Assistant City Manager Jim Patterson has a vision for the city: The gateway to Yamhill County's nearby wine country, complete with the first train stop on a tourist line snaking through local vineyards.

It may sound far-fetched, if it wasn't shared by a group of area businesses, state officials, and a growing number of individuals from different political backgrounds who all share the common goal of bringing a tourism train to lower Washington and Yamhill counties. It also doesn't hurt that there's a state-owned tourism train - the cars that ran from Portland to Astoria for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration - currently on the auction block.

'This is something that we've talked about, having a station located right here in old town with a platform. So the idea's been around for a while,' Patterson said. 'The wine industry now has such a well-established infrastructure, it doesn't seem like such a stretch for people anymore.'

Patterson said there was also some interest among state officials in extending the line so passengers could visit Oregon's newest state park, Fort Yamhill. He said the gravel parking area south of the tracks in old town would make an ideal spot for a train platform.

Indeed, the idea of a wine train was discussed in 1998, and George actually sat on a committee considering the prospect, which he deemed too expensive at the time. The senator has admittedly taken an unfriendly attitude toward trains in the past, though one would never guess, given his newfound enthusiasm for a wine train. George even suggested the train could eventually pave the way for a light rail line.

'People say to me, 'What's a conservative Republican doing supporting trains?' ' George said. 'It's simple. Gas used to be 80 cents, now it's four bucks.'

George, along with fellow train enthusiast Jim Morrison, has been developing a network of interested parties throughout the area. He's spoken with individual wineries, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, city officials from Dundee to Sherwood, the governor's office, and a few train enthusiasts. He's working with one who has property near the tracks who said he'd be willing to store the tourism train if a group could put together a winning bid. Another, Don Kirk, is hoping to open a museum along the route.

Kirk is president of the Oregon Railroad and Transportation Museum group, which had been hoping to secure a location in Sweet Home. They've hit a number of roadblocks, and are now looking west of the Willamette River. 'It sounds like a lot better deal over there,' Kirk said.

Despite the potential economic benefits, the wine train faces formidable obstacles. After speaking with Amtrak and other officials, George learned that the track running out of Sherwood might not be as bad as previously thought in terms of its ability to run a small passenger train. It would require speeds around 20 mph at some portions, and could not exceed 30 mph.

But even if work on the track is not extensive, there is currently no place along the line right now to permanently house the train and do repair work if it were running. Several towns would also need to look into building some sort of train platform.

Portland and Western in Salem owns the track. They don't currently don't use the section of track the wine train would use, and they did operate the Lewis and Clark train. Still, the group typically operates freight trains.

Perhaps the biggest cost issue, however, focuses on insurance liability. Most freight carriers, George and Patterson admit, would be reluctant to get involved with a passenger train, even before the recent Oregon Supreme Court ruling striking down insurance caps for state agencies. The ruling essentially struck down any type of shield law that put caps on jury awards.

'We took a hit with that ruling,' George admitted.

Still, he's optimistic. George said he spoke with a representative from the trial lawyers association who suggested some sort of cap for specific use might be agreeable under certain terms.

'You can make a profit off running these trains. Public transportation is subsidized, tourism trains make money,' George said. Though he did mention that a wine tourism train could eventually lead officials to consider light rail in the mid-valley area.

The state senator has put in a call to the governor's office, and hopes it might consider not selling the Lewis and Clark train. In addition to the Yamhill County train, he said there are other old rail corridors like Corvallis to Newport and Medford to Ashland where people are interested in a tourist train. He suggested the train could be provided to each for a limited time for trial runs, and to see if there is a serious demand.

In spite of all the obstacles, Patterson believes conditions are ripe for a wine train, and he believes that with its unique location just before the beginning of the mid-valley wineries, Sherwood could be its starting point.

'Many of those wine companies have built beautiful wine tasting facilities and their properties have now become a destination location, they're encouraging peopled to come to their properties,' he said. 'It's not that we're creating a new idea, we're considering a new mode of transportation to get folks there.'