Monday, January 17, 2011

End of the Short Track?

Detail of the Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City.

The "Short Track" is the name of a siding within the Blue Heron paper mill complex in Oregon City. It comes off the main switching lead that runs through the center of the mill and makes a 90-degree turn into a covered loading platform in the space of about 100 feet, and then ends near the bank of the Willamette River. It has room for two 50-foot boxcars.

The curve is the equivalent of about a 15 inch radius in HO scale, which is to say, incredibly sharp. It's so sharp that cars must be pulled or pushed around it only one at a time to avoid derailments. The sharpness has also required the services of SW1500 locomotives, which have very short wheel bases. Because of this, Union Pacific has kept three SW1500s in Portland, two of which are regularly assigned to the "Oregon City Switcher," the job that serves the mill every night except Saturday.

A few days ago, I noticed rolls of paper stacked on the Short Track inside the loading dock. At first there were only few, so I thought it might be temporary. However, the stack has continued to grow. To my knowledge, no boxcars have been spotted on the Short Track in 2011. Rumors have been circulating for several months that Union Pacific was pressuring the paper mill to stop using the Short Track and move all of their operations to the Long Track, which enters the mill complex on the other side of the main switching lead. I have yet to hear any confirmation, but it appears those rumors might have been true.

If so, and the Short Track is indeed no longer in use, Union Pacific will be able to stop using its aging SW1500s at any time. They are unique as being some of the last switch engines used on a local freight train that operates over the main line of a Class I railroad. The whole operation in itself is rather unique in the 21st century, as Class I railroads have been moving away from local freight operations for a few decades.

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