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Light rail

Hundreds help keep annual Holiday Express train on track


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Holiday Express locomotive, the SP&S 700, departs Oaks Station at Oaks Amusement Park during a late afternoon ride.It’s like the best train set ever.

The annual Holiday Express rides are underway again, thanks to the efforts of hundreds of volunteer train buffs. Their work keeps the historic city-owned Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 steam locomotive running. Thousands of people are expected to take the short ride from Oaks Park to the Ross Island Bridge along the Willamette River during the next two weekends.

“There’s something special about steam locomotives. They always bring out crowds,” says Charles Harrison, president of the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association, the nonprofit organization that maintains the SP&S 700.

On a brisk Wednesday afternoon in late November, Harrison and about a dozen other volunteers gathered at the Enginehouse and Oregon Rail Heritage Center near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Southeast Portland. They had come to fire up the SP&S 700 ahead of its first Holiday Express run. Heating the 20,000 gallons of water in the boiler takes nearly two days of constant adjustments. Heat comes from burning heavy crude oil.

“She can be cranky until all the temperatures are right,” says Harrison, a Portland psychologist and longtime train fan who began volunteering about 16 years ago.

Lubrication pumps and other parts also must be checked and double-checked before the 440-ton locomotive is hooked up to the six railcars that will carry the riders — five passenger cars and a baggage car, all from the 1930s and ‘50s. They are owned by the nonprofit Northwest chapter of the National Historic Railroad Association and stored on sidings outside the center.

The train left for its first weekend of rides on the morning of Friday, Nov. 29. It made trips along the Willamette River to the Ross Island Bridge and back all that day, Saturday and Sunday. Passengers included Aaron and Julie Christian and their two sons, Eban, 7, and Connor, 4, who showed up Sunday morning.

“It’s an early Christmas gift for the boys. They’ve never been on train before,” Julie explained.

Eban and Connor were clearly excited by everything involved in the trip, from the hot chocolate in the large tent where passengers wait before boarding the train to the steam pouring out of the waiting locomotive. And that’s before learning Santa Claus was along for the ride.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Volunteers clean the SP&S 700 before its first ride as the Portland Streetcar crosses to OMSI in the background.

All aboard for rides

Other rides also are available at Oaks Park. They are in “speeders,” the nickname for small self-propelled employee maintenance vehicles that used to be operated by the railroads. Several are ferrying passengers to the Ross Island Bridge and back as part of the weekend activities. They are owned by members of the North American Railcar Operators Associations, who bought them after the industry phased them out. Some of the boxy vehicles are enclosed while others are open on the sides.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Michelle Houck is beside herself as she takes a video on her cell phone of the SP&S 700, departing the Oregon Rail Heritage Center for its first ride on Nov. 29.After the Holiday Express rides end, the SP&S 700 and railcars will travel to Vancouver on Saturday, Dec. 21. Then they will return to the center, which also houses two other historic steam locomotives owned by the city. One is the Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197, which was built in 1905. The other is the Southern Pacific 4449, which was built in 1941. A streamliner, it gained national prominence as the Centennial Train that crossed the country in 1976.

Around 50,000 people have taken the Holiday Express rides, which began in 2005. Normally, the SP&S 700 and SP 4449 pull the railcars on different weekends. But the SP 4449 is partly disassembled for its required 15-year inspection at this time, so the SP&S 700 is doing all the work.

“I like the SP 4449, but the SP&S 700 looks like what people think of when they hear the term, ‘steam locomotive,’ ”

Harrison says.

Harrison and the other volunteers decorated the locomotive and railcars with lights and garlands for the Holiday Express rides, which also feature a special appearance by Santa. Other volunteers are staffing ticket and concession booths in Oaks Park, and assisting passengers into and out of the railcars.

The rides continue from Friday, Dec. 6 through Sunday, Dec. 8, and then again from Friday, Dec. 13, through Sunday, Dec. 15.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - SP&S 700 engineer Jim Abney looks at the end of the Holiday Express train during a ride from the Oaks Station at Oaks Amusement Park.

Nonprofits keep trains running

The Enginehouse and Oregon Rail Heritage Center is one of Portland’s best-kept secrets. It was built by the nonprofit Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation for $5.4 million, including a city loan of just under $1 million. The foundation was formed to find a permanent home for the three locomotives, which were donated to the city in 1958.

“The Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation deserves a lot of credit for pulling it off,” Harrison says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Looking through the Enginehouse and Oregon Rail Heritage Center as volunteers clean the SP&S 700 before its first Holiday Express ride. The locomotives do not cost Portland taxpayers anything. All three are maintained by separate nonprofit organizations. The SP&S 700 is maintained by the Pacific Railroad Preservation Association. The SP 4449 is maintained by the Friends of the SP 4449. And the OR&N 197 is maintained by the Friends of the OR&N 197.

Before the center opened in September 2012, the locomotives spent many years housed in a large wooden roundhouse in the Brooklyn Yards in Southeast Portland. They had to be moved when the Union Pacific Railroad decided to reconfigure the yards, however.

Finding an appropriate location along a functioning rail line took time, but the planning and work is paying off. Not only is the center a striking building and well-designed facility for maintaining the locomotives, it should soon be attracting a large and steady stream of visitors.

The center is on Southeast Water Avenue near Caruthers Street along the Highway 99E viaduct. The entrance is just north of what will be a new transit mall on the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line. Thousands of MAX and TriMet bus passengers will pass it every day. The eastside Portland Streetcar bridge to OMSI already crosses over it. That’s the kind of exposure money just can’t buy.

The center is not yet complete, however. Plans call for the second floor to be finished as a display area and balcony for viewing the trains. And the large turntable from the old roundhouse where the locomotives were originally based still needs to be installed.