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Train rolls down historical tracks

Lewis & Clark Explorer retraces epic journey's final leg

If Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had waited a couple of hundred years, they could have taken the train.

Nearly two centuries after the explorers reached Fort Clatsop, the Lewis & Clark Explorer train will retrace the duo's route between Portland and Astoria. The train, part of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial commemoration, makes its inaugural run Friday, May 23.

Passengers on the 166-seat train will find that the emphasis is on scenery, not speed; the 100-mile route takes four hours.

'The train moves at about 30 miles per hour over most of the distance,' says state rail planner Ed Immel. 'That seems slow, but there's a lot to take in.'

The train travels along the Oregon side of the Columbia River, close to several historical sites that were visited by the famous expedition, as well as through nature preserves and over scenic train trestles.

Many will find the train itself as interesting as the journey.

'The entire train is made up of three rail diesel cars, known in the industry as RDCs,' Immel says. 'The interesting things about the RDCs is that they're self-propelled; each car has two engines underneath, so when the conductor gets to the end of the line, he takes his controls and walks through the car, flips some levers, and he's ready to go the other way.'

Built by Budd Co. in the 1950s, the cars are appointed with reclining chairs and wide picture windows.

'All of the cars came from BC Rail,' Immel says. 'They ran between North Vancouver and Prince George until late October 2002, when the company dropped its passenger service. These trains ground out 900 miles each day, 450 miles each way. They were rebuilt with new engines and transmissions in the 1990s.'

The Portland-Astoria route connects the cities for the first time since 1952.

'The track out to Wauna is in regular service,' Immel says of the preparations made by Oregon Department of Transportation. 'Beyond that, we've done a lot of work on the ties, making sure everything is smooth.'

Immel says Astorians can take credit for the steel-wheeled achievement.

'We had a meeting to discuss transport issues associated with the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial specifically Fort Clatsop and somebody said, 'Why don't we run train here?' The tracks are here, they run right along Lewis and Clark's route, and people won't have to deal with cars. It was really a local effort.'

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