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COP-RR's future not all dark

The municipally-owned railroad is expected to lose about $21,000 in the next three months, but there is possibly a ray of sunshine after the first of the year

   Diesel engines and cars are sitting motionless for most of the time since Ochoco Lumber Company closed down, but that may not be the case long if certain, unspecified proposals take place.
   Looking ahead at the next three months, the City of Prineville Railroad is expected to lose about $21,000. It is quite possible, however, that the municipally owned rail line may be running in the black within the next six to eight months.
   COP-RR manager Jerry Price and John Shelk, owner of Ochoco Lumber Co. and a member of the railroad advisory committee met with the city council this week. While nothing specific was talked about, both men indicated a belief in the rail line's future.
   At the request of the council, Price had prepared projections for the next three months. The result, considering normal and anticipated income and expenses, shows an income of about $33,000 for each month. Expenses during that time would average about $45,000 to $50,000 per month.
   Operations have been reduced to the bare-bones minimum, Price explained. "In the past," Price said, "we had full crews working Monday through Friday with the dinner train operation over and above that. As of the first of October, we changed that schedule to Wednesday through Sunday and included the dinner train."
   There are several possible opportunities for new customers, Price informed the council. "Some have a good chance of happening, some are pretty weak. Some are out several months from happening and others are three or four, even six months away."
   John Shelk was slightly more optimistic. "We at Ochoco Lumber," Shelk explained, "have been undertaking a number of initiatives that, if they come to fruition, would result in 135 to 170 revenue-producing carloads per month." It would take about 140 carloads a month, he explained, to bring the railroad back to a break-even point.
   Although Shelk didn't mention any specifics, he said he had been in discussion with Congressman Gordon Smith about the federal forest policy. "Smith's message is to have patience. It)s going to happen, but it's not coming quickly," Shelk said. In answer to a question, he said he expects a six to eight month turn around.
   Apparently what Shelk is basing his optimism on is a major change in the federal view of harvesting timber on federal lands. There are at least a million board feet of dead or dying timber in the forests. Prior to 1993, Shelk explained, "we could get the blow down or dying trees in a small area without an the fear of any environmental impact. The Clinton administration did away with that. Turning around the entire environmental process known as Categorical Exclusion will probably take six months. That is just one example of what can happen." What he had mentioned earlier, about discussions at Ochoco Lumber, he added, "is exclusive of that."
   Another possibility for the improving the railroad's future is a proposal being worked on at American Pine Products. Shelk said he has been talking with officials at that plant, to become "a marketing hub for the local timber industry. That may or may not come to pass," he advised.
   The railroad needs constant review, Shelk told the council members, of where the railroad is. "There'll come a point, Shelk said, "certainly in eight months, to tell you here's what will keep the railroad going - or say guys, we're going to dismantle and shut down."
   Price suggested that the city look into the hiring of an economic development expert. "Certainly with what has happened in the past few months, there are people who would like to be where Prineville is today. The railroad is a great asset."
   Price said he isn't thinking about the chamber of commerce or the Central Oregon Economic Development in his suggestion. "We really need some big-hitter. A big-time player who can work outside the central Oregon area."
   No action was taken on Price's suggestion, and while Price and the advisory committee will keep the city and the council informed of things on a regular basis, the next formal discussion on the future of the City of Prineville Railroad isn't scheduled for six months.