Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oregon's other rail transit system

Quick question:  Other than Portland and its suburbs, what city in the state of Oregon has rail transit service, or something resembling it?  Amtrak doesn't count, obviously--nor do the various dinner trains to be found around the state.

The answer?

Astoria--the Astoria Riverfront Trolley.  

The Riverfront Trolley is single-vehicle operation which, as the name indicates, operates along a 2.6 mile stretch along the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon.  The trolley itself a 1913-vintage electric trolley (powered by a tow-along diesel generator) known as "Old 300".   The tracks--like many heritage railways--are an abandoned freight line.  And it's probably a stretch to refer to the Trolley as "transit".  It is a heritage railway, it runs infrequently (45 minute round trips, with service only during daylight hours), it isn't ADA compliant in the least, it's staffed by volunteers, and the conductor (the trolley has a separate conductor and motorman) doubles as a tour guide.   But:
  • Rides cost a dollar.  Two dollars gets you a day pass.  Most heritage or excursion railways, geared towards tourists, cost an arm and a leg.  (A single 1-2 zone pass on MAX, for comparison, costs more than $2--unless you're in the Free Rail Zone, at least). 
  • It runs seven days a week during the summer months.
  • The stop spacing (600m between stops) is decidedly transit-like.
  • Unlike most heritage railways, which only offer end-to-end or round-trip service, and are generally not useful as transit--the line has 8 scheduled stops (complete with modern, albeit simple, platforms), and even will accept hails from along the tracks. 
The Trolley gets 30,000 riders per year--a far cry from the 120,000 rides which MAX sees per day.  As it generally doesn't run in the winter months, it isn't a great option for the transit dependent (the Sunset Empire Transportation District, which operates bus service in Clatsop County, is probably a better choice).  But if you want to get around the Astoria waterfront, and don't want to drive, it's one way to go--and with cruise ships calling on Astoria, there are plenty of tourists who don't come with cars.  

(A bit of a disclaimer.  While I have no connection to the Astoria Riverfront Trolley, my godfather was a volunteer for them for several years.)


The line has an interesting history.  The trolley itself, acquired from the San Antonio Museum Association, was originally tasked with hauling passengers in the Alamo City, before being mothballed.  It has undergone several restorations, and at one point ran on the Willamette Shore trolley line (which runs along the Jefferson Branch), and later at the now-defunct Glenwood Trolley Park near Gales Creek.
In 1998, when the Glenwood Trolley Park ceased operations, the trolley was leased by the Astoria Riverfront Trolley Association.  A group of local volunteers then restored the trolley, and the trolley service started operation in 1999.  Two years later, a full-time maintenance facility was built, and in 2005 the ARTA purchased the trolley outright from the San Antonio Museum Association for US$50,000.

The tracks the trolley operates on were part of a line that originally ran between Portland and Seaside.  The line opened in 1898 as the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad, and was purchased by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (a predecessor to the Burlington Northern) in 1911.  Passenger service along the line continued until 1952.  The rail bridge across Young's Bay, and the line south to Seaside, were abandoned some time ago, but the rest of the line still exists.  The tracks the Astoria Trolley operates on have been disconnected from the rest of the branch (which is still an active freight line east of Astoria, operated by the Portland and Western) so the Trolley tracks are FRA-exempt.

Other interesting links:  
  • The trolley association's training manual for volunteers gives lots of interesting technical details on the trolley itself, the route, and its operation.
  • has a page dedicated to the trolley.
Pictures courtesy of the Astoria Riverfront Trolley Association.  

1 comment:

Keep it clean, please