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Railroad crossings draw citizen concern

Shuttered mill means less activity on local tracks, but railroad still has a presence with one customer on that line


Newberg’s train tracks have had markedly less activity since WestRock closed the longtime Newberg paper mill last fall. Freight cars carrying recycled paper materials as well as creosote-coated railroad ties for burning in the mill’s cogeneration machine have decreased in volume on the main railroad line through town, and have virtually ceased activity on the sidings that travel along Blaine Street to the mill.

While that means less delays in traffic and fewer train horns blaring through neighborhoods, it also has caused some citizens to question whether the tracks will be maintained as they were when rail activity was more frequent.

Local resident Pat Haight queried the City Council earlier this month, looking for some answers particularly on the bumpy railroad crossings on the main north-south thoroughfares crossed by the tracks.

“I’m concerned about our people and the fire department and the police cars having to travel the railroad tracks on Main Street and Meridian Street and College Street, all the way out to Springbrook,” Haight told the council.

She described cars traveling 35 mph down College Street, which is common although it’s faster than the posted speed limit, and said drivers could easily lose control of their cars while going that speed over the railroad crossings.

The crossings Haight was referencing are on the railroad line operated by Portland & Western, which is owned by Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services Inc.

Although activity has lessened on the Newberg tracks since the mill closed, railroad spokesman Michael Williams said there is still an active customer on the line and that there is weekly train service. He said the railroad may also use tracks in the Newberg area to store railcars, and stressed that people should still use caution near the tracks, as usage schedules are subject to change and they could be in use at any time.

As for the condition of the crossings, Williams noted that P&W maintains nearly 2,000 crossings and that “repairs are scheduled in order of priority.”

“The crossings in Newberg have been inspected and their condition is not high priority,” he said. “The crossings will continue to be maintained by the railroad where it is the railroad’s responsibility to do so.”

He added that the tracks that run from the P&W line down to the mill are not owned by P&W. That spur line is maintained and operated by WestRock through a franchise agreement with the city and it is wrapped up with the future plans for the mill property, whatever those turn out to be.

In response to Haight’s concerns, Mayor Bob Andrews reiterated that the city has no part in maintaining the railroad crossings and also said the city does not have a good working relationship with the railroad company. He said communication the city has had with the railroad about crossing conditions has not been productive.

“They are very unresponsive to initial contacts that have been made,” Andrews said at the council meeting. “We think it’s important, but they don’t.”

Freight trains on the Newberg tracks have generally been traveling south to McMinnville and on to Albany before heading north to the Portland area, Andrews said after the meeting, adding that the tracks connecting Newberg to Sherwood haven’t been used in years.

The train trestle on the same rail line in Sherwood was destroyed in a fire in August 2015. P&W recently announced it plans to rebuild the trestle at a substantial cost.