An old railcar makes a rare appearanceODOT rail staffer hops aboard for a unique view

First published 24 April 2024

An old railcar makes a rare appearance

By Shelley M. Snow

Earlier this year, Oregon State Rail Planner Bob Melbo took a ride on the Redwood Empire, a 101-year-old railcar making a rare appearance as a privately owned piece of history. It was attached to the end of the Amtrak Coast Starlight in Los Angeles to make its way north, and Melbo had the chance to hop on board – so he did!

“Generally, when a privately owned passenger car moves on an Amtrak train, someone familiar with the car’s mechanics will ride in the car, so I asked a friend of mine to find out if the rider would like some company between Eugene and Portland,” Melbo explained. “Riding in a car like that, looking out from the back of the train with an unobstructed view, is the ideal way to keep up with changes occurring on the railroad over passage of time.”

That track – from Eugene to Portland – is where Oregon operate the state’s portion of the Amtrak Cascades passenger train, so Melbo took in the view with a particular eye on details one wouldn’t normally get, for example, looking out of a side window.

“I have been associated with this route, in one way or another, for 52 years, so this was a great opportunity to update my familiarity with it.”

Details, details, details

Moving something as old as the Redwood Empire takes a lot of coordination.

“Railroads are adept at mass production transportation involving normal everyday freight cars, but anything out of the ordinary, such as this century-old passenger car, can become problematic unless there’s a script to follow,” Melbo said.

For example, you don’t want a passenger car to be the first car of a 10,000-ton freight train because the pulling strain might be more than the car was designed to withstand. And you don’t want the car to be excessively switched around in yards, either, because it’s like a big (old) motor home, and it’s not designed for multiple heavy coupling shocks and frequent movement. That’s how the Redwood Empire came to be on the end of the train.

It was heading to Usk, Washington to be repainted in the two-tone green of the former Northern Pacific Railway. From Seattle, the car will move in freight service over BNSF Railway to Sandpoint, Idaho, where there’s a connection with the short line Pend Oreille Valley Railroad – which will take it into Usk.

The railcar was built in 1923 by the Pullman Company for Santa Fe Railway executive use. The car (Santa Fe No. 33) was one of a 10-car order (cars Nos. 30-39), and it was assigned to Santa Fe’s general manager, headquartered in L.A. One other car from this order, No. 35, is privately owned by a Wyoming resident and is currently kept on the Albany & Eastern Railroad in Lebanon, according to Melbo.

Railroads shape the country

The ATSF mark seen in the photos here refers to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Often referred to as the Santa Fe or AT&SF, it was one of the larger railroads in the United States. The railroad was chartered in Kansas in February 1859 as the Atchison and Topeka Railroad Company and was built to mirror the Santa Fe Trail, a popular 19th-century trading route that ran from Independence, Mo. to Santa Fe, N.M.

In 1863, it was renamed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, and the company is credited with helping develop much of the country’s southwest areas, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. After several ownership and organizational changes, the Santa Fe Railroad came to an end in 1994 when it merged with northwestern giant Burlington Northern to form the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad, now known simply as BNSF.

The Sante Fe Railroad growth and decline is representative of dozens – if not hundreds – of stories about railroad companies, both publicly and privately funded, that shaped the U.S. Southern Pacific Railroad was another giant in the industry, and that is the company that sent Melbo to Oregon years ago – and part of why he keeps up-to-date on that Eugene-Portland route.

“I was transferred to Oregon in February, 1972 by SP as the manager of operations for the Eugene-Portland mainline (and east valley branch lines) and ended up staying in the Willamette Valley for the remainder of my railroad career in operational management,” he said. “That affiliation has carried over to my job at ODOT, continuing my interest in keeping up with this segment of rail line.”