Worn-out cars and work on the Sellwood Bridge have prevented runs from Lake Oswego to South Waterfront since 2010.
Residents and train enthusiasts celebrated the return of the Willamette Shore Trolley three years ago, when Lake Oswego acquired a pair of vintage trolley cars from TriMet. Service had been suspended since 2010, after the city's two original trolleys broke down.
But one of the new trolleys is still being refurbished, and while the other has been operating since 2013, it's only been traveling as far as Powers Marine Park before heading back to Lake Oswego. Neither trolley has traveled all the way to the line's north end at the Bancroft Street station.
Now, that's about to change.
If all goes according to plan, trolley operator David Harold says, one trolley — and maybe both — could be making the run to Portland's South Waterfront by Memorial Day, in time for the summer operating season.
"We've been down quite a while," Harold says, "so we're really excited about getting back to (the full) run."
Harold is one of several volunteers from the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society who maintain and operate the trolleys. They've been working on the new cars since their arrival in 2013. But by that time, work had already begun on the new Sellwood Bridge — work that required ripping out the section of track that passes under the bridge's western end.
Work on the new bridge is nearly complete, and crews have spent the past two months finishing up one of the final tasks: reinstalling the train track and connecting it to the northern portion of the line. According to Multnomah County spokesman Mike Pullen, the reinstallation was scheduled to be completed in late December, assuming no weather-related delays. After that, officials can begin testing and checking the dormant northern half of the line.
"We've made no runs north of (the bridge) for almost six years," says Harold. "So as soon as they say the track's done, we have to then go over the whole north end of the line, brush it, check the status of the track, do any repairs. Then we have to get it blessed by two or three entities. They have to run an official test ride and send some inspectors out."
Harold says the trolley operators have been helping to test the new track under the bridge. Most of the original track's rails and ties were saved and reused, but the track bed underneath was rebuilt from scratch with improved drainage and stabilization of the surrounding slope.
"They've completely replaced the track bed and readjusted the rails," says Lake Oswego Redevelopment Director Brandt Williams. "I think they reused most of the rails that were there, but they put them back in a new, stronger alignment so the track panel works much better for the trolley. And we added a passing track right underneath the bridge."
That brief section of double track will allow trolleys to pass each other while traveling in opposite directions on the single line. According to Harold, the switches at each end of the siding track are spring-loaded, which should allow them to operate automatically by directing northbound trolleys onto the eastern track and southbound trolleys onto the western track.
"We've run two trolleys before, (using) a siding near Carolina Street," says Harold. "But that was almost at the end of the line, so it wasn't a real convenient thing. We asked (Multnomah County), 'As long as you're putting the tracks back, could we just do a few more things?' They actually did it for us."
'Another positive factor'
The former freight line between Portland and Lake Oswego was abandoned by Union Pacific in 1984, but a consortium of local agencies — TriMet, Metro, Multnomah and Clackamas counties, the cities of Lake Oswego and Portland, and later ODOT — stepped in to purchase the line and maintain it for future transit use. The original heritage trolley began operating in 1987.
The trolleys rely on attached diesel generators to supply power for their electric motors — and Harold says a new generator is one of the components the second trolley still needs before it can start running. The rail line at one time had overhead wires to power electric passenger trains, but they were removed after the commuter train service ended in 1929.
The trolley operation ensures that the consortium can keep control of the line, but it's considered more of an historical tourist feature than a practical transit use. The closest the corridor has come to seeing larger-scale transit development was the proposed Foothills streetcar project, which was shelved in 2012 after a majority of the Lake Oswego City Council opposed it.
Several residents — among them City Councilor Jeff Gudman — have long advocated for the development of a bike path in the corridor that would either replace or parallel the track. Gudman says TriMet has to complete an analysis of some of the finer points of right of way ownership before the City can explore the bike path idea.
The corridor's right of way was originally procured specifically for the rail line, and consortium officials are concerned that some of the private property easements that make up the right of way might be conditional on the rail use, meaning a bike path could possibly violate the original terms and cause portions of the corridor to revert to the owners of the surrounding property.
"We are waiting for the update from TriMet on a legal review of all the properties where the consortium doesn't own the right of way outright," says Gudman. "We need to identify how many properties, where they are and exactly what the nature of the ownership is."
Gudman says he was excited to hear that the city of West Linn submitted an application this year for State Transportation Improvement Program funding for a future upgrade to Highway 43 that would include separated bike lanes. Gudman says he hopes a potential bike path along the trolley corridor could connect to the upgraded Highway 43 and eventually create a single dedicated bike path along the entire Highway 43 corridor.
"That's just another positive factor that's come in," says Gudman. "It gives us the ability to have that connection all the way from South Waterfront to Oregon City. I'm hoping that by the time I leave office in two years, we'll be much further along and can start working on having the funding tied down for the actual work itself."
But in the immediate future, the line will continue to operate the same way it has for almost 30 years. Harold says volunteers are hard at work restoring the second trolley, and the group hopes to have both up and running by this summer.
"Right now, if nobody shows up for a run, maybe we don't run — there's no point," he says. "But once we have the full length open again, we'll run even empty, because there might be somebody down there that wants to come back. So it's going to be a busy season."