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All aboard the Willamette Shore Trolley!
City staff and dignitaries joined members of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce last week for the inaugural run of the Willamette Shore Trolley's summer operating season, celebrating both the renovation of the trolley line's ticket depot and the return of the full-length, Lake Oswego-to-Portland trolley run following years of partial operation.
On Thursday morning, the assembled group of operators and riders commemorated both milestones at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in downtown Lake Oswego. City Councilor Jackie Manz joined Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation member Bill Failing and Chamber CEO Keith Dickerson to cut the ribbon, eliciting cheers from onlookers and the dozen volunteer trolley operators who lined up in front of the station on State Street.
"The restoration is great," said Kristine Boyer, a Chamber member and co-owner of the nearby Academy of Modern Martial Arts. "It's a fantastic thing for Lake Oswego to have."
The onlookers then clambered into one of the line's two trolleys to make the trip north along the Willamette River and back. Several longtime trolley operators — known as "motormen" — rode along, including Kevin Reilly, Neil Berlin, David Harold, Gage Geist and Dave Rowe, known to his fellow operators as "Trolley Dave."
"Our formal opening for the season is this Saturday," Rowe reminded the crowd, urging everyone to come back for future rides.
The trolley traveled at a modest pace, slowing down or stopping at several pedestrian and driveway crossings along the riverfront and giving riders a chance to appreciate the sunny river views and several of the corridor's notable features, including the quarter-mile-long Elk Rock tunnel, multiple trestle bridges and one of the last remaining "wig wag" trolley crossing signals in the world where the line crosses Riverwood Road.
Thursday's trip marked the first time since 2010 that a trolley has carried passengers north of the Sellwood Bridge. Construction crews working on the new bridge had to temporarily remove the track through the work site, so in recent years the trolley has had to turn back at Powers Marine Park. But the rails were replaced late last year after the bridge was completed.
"We are now on brand new track," motorman Berlin proudly announced as the trolley passed under the bridge.
The ride wasn't able to go all the way to the South Waterfront station at the end of the line, because the northern half of the route is still being cleaned and repaired following six years of inactivity. That work is almost finished, but ODOT still needs to make a final inspection before the trolleys can once again roll through.
"The tracks are (re)connected, but there's three ties we have to replace," Rowe explained, "and it needs a little brushing."
But that inspection should happen in a matter of days, the operators say, and they expect that the line will be able to operate at its full length throughout the trolley's summer service season. For the first round of riders last week, the trip to the Sellwood Bridge appeared to be plenty of fun on its own.
"I think it's awesome," said rider GaSandra Carlson. "An enjoyable, beautiful ride with the scenery."
According to records from the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society (OERHS), the Lake Oswego ticket depot was originally built in 1958, replacing a structure that had stood since 1901 and served the Red Electric commuter trains that ran on the corridor between downtown Portland and Lake Oswego from 1914 to 1929.
Former owner Union Pacific abandoned the line in 1983, and OERHS volunteers began operating vintage trolleys along the corridor in 1987. The depot has served as the Lake Oswego station for the trolley since 1995, when the line was expended south to its current endpoint.
Last year, the City made several upgrades to the exterior of the station, including a new paint job, a paved parking lot and a plaza area outside. That work was followed up this year with a fresh coat of paint on the inside, giving the ticket counter and gift shop a bold red-and-white color scheme to match the exterior.
Willamette Shore Trolley service was halted in 2010 due to mechanical problems, but resumed in 2014 using two vintage cars acquired from Trimet. The pair of trolleys — numbered 513 and 514 — are part of a set of four that were originally constructed in 1991 by the Iowa-based Gomaco Trolley Company for Trimet to operate on the MAX tracks in downtown Portland as a tourist attraction.
All four were replicas of the 10 J.G. Brill Company 500-series cars that once ran on Portland's Council Crest line (hence their 511-514 numbering scheme), although they incorporated modern technology and safety systems.
Trimet retired the cars in 2013, and two of them went back to Gomaco for refurbishment before being shipped to St Louis. The other two were moved to the trolley barn in Lake Oswego, where OERHS volunteers have spent the past few years performing similar repair work to prepare them for use on the Willamette Shore line.
Repairs on trolley 514 were finished first, and it's been running a shortened route on the southern half of the line since 2014. Trolley 513 has remained in the barn, undergoing a careful restoration and refurbishment process at the hands of a few OERHS volunteers.
Rowe serves as the maintenance superintendent and took the lead in refurbishing both trolleys, adding new paint, lighting and other electrical components, and he says his work on 513 is nearly finished.
"It's almost painted, and I still have some more brass to polish," he says.
The repaired tracks under the Sellwood Bridge feature a new passing track, which operators hope will allow the two trolleys to make simultaneous runs on the single-track line.
A quest for power
What trolley 513 really needs, Rowe says, is a power source.
When they were running in Portland, the replica trolleys relied on the MAX's overhead electrical wires to power their motors. But the wiring on the Willamette Shore Line was removed more than 80 years ago, so the trolleys need an alternative power supply.
Trolley 514 uses a tow cart with a diesel generator, but there's only one available. The operators have been searching for a second generator to power 513, but Rowe says they're also exploring another option: battery power, which would make the trolley fully electric once again.
"That's the idea," he says. "Carbon neutral and environmentally friendly."
Rowe says the group thinks the trolley could potentially be powered by a 100-kilowatt-hour battery, which is about same capacity found in a top-of-the-line Tesla car. Once ODOT signs off on the northern track, motorman Reilly says the group will be able to get a more accurate estimate by using an amperage meter to measure the total power used by the trolley during a full run.
The process would be challenging, because the modern trolleys were built to match the original designs from the early 1900s and incorporate mechanical parts from older decommissioned trolleys, so any battery would have to be custom-built to fit inside the small amount of unused space underneath the cars.
There's also the question of cost — a charging station would need to be added to the trolley barn, and Rowe says the battery itself could cost as much as $200,000. The trolley line, like OERHS overall, is funded entirely by donations and the operators are volunteers, so the group would either need to raise the necessary funds or find a supplier willing to donate a battery.
But Rowe and the others say they think it's feasible from a technical standpoint, and if the concept works for 513, Rowe says the group would look at adding battery power to 514 as well.
IF YOU GO
What: Willamette Shore Trolley's summer operating season
When: May 27-Sept. 4. (Saturdays and Sundays only through June 25; Friday rides will be added to the schedule starting July 7)
Departures: 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.; a 4 p.m. departure joins the schedule on July 1.
Fares: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for children ages 3-12 and free for kids 2 and under through June 25, when service ends at Powers Marine Park; round-trip fares double starting July 1, when service runs from Lake Oswego to Bancroft Street in Southwest Portland.
More information: www.oregontrolley.com.