Port of Coos Bay assures rail service

COOS BAY — Even though trains aren't yet running along the Coos Bay Rail Link, one South Coast business is already taking advantage of their expected return.

American Bridge Manufacturing is bidding on projects it wouldn't have considered when the line was out of service, said Fred Jacquot, the company's Reedsport plant manager. That's because the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay has assured the company's managers if they land a job that requires rail the port will find a way to bring trains to them.

"When we had full rail service, we had opportunities to compete on projects all across the western U.S., up into Chicago and Detroit," Jacquot said. "Once the rail line shut off, we lost access to that market."

The company had some projects under way for those areas when the line was embargoed in 2007. It completed them by shipping products at least part-way by truck. But the added costs of trucking out steel components, and trucking in raw materials, forced the company to limit its focus to Pacific Northwest projects.

Jacquot said the prospect of renewed rail service hasn't yet brought new projects for American Bridge. The struggling economy isn't helping matters.

"Now there is more competition for the work," he said.

Potential customers also may be worried about whether the port will deliver on its promise to temporarily reopen service. That's why Jacquot was happy to hear other shippers on the South Coast offering to truck their materials to the American Bridge site near Reedsport to provide a more constant demand for rail cars.

"With the wood product service, it would be something like a train a week," he said. "That would make it more attractive to a potential interim operator."

The idea came from Jason Smith of Southport Forest Products, which has been trucking goods to Junction City, where they are loaded onto rail cars. Although his company might not see much savings from having temporary service in Reedsport, Smith said he offered the idea in part to help American Bridge. "This would be a way to possibly streamline the system," he said.

The port has identified two prospective operators that could offer temporary service, said spokesman Martin Callery. Before that can happen, the port is in discussions with state and federal railroad regulators to make sure the line between Eugene and Reedsport can safely handle traffic.

Four tunnels have been upgraded, but some problem spots still may need repairs, including the Siuslaw River bridge near Florence. The port has about $1 million in state funds it could use to make repairs identified by regulators.

Callery has said temporary service as far as Reedsport could return as early as late summer. The port is shooting to have trains running all the way to Coquille by next spring.

The railroad's return to the South Coast won't necessarily hurt local trucking companies, because many of the trucks have come from out of town. Jacquot relies on Portland trucks to bring in oversized plates of steel, because companies in Eugene and Junction City couldn't handle them, he said.

Southport's goods go to a Junction City "reloading" site to be loaded onto trains, relying on trucks owned by the reloader. Smith expects those companies will be fine even when rail service returns to the South Coast.

"There is always work out there for them," he said.

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