Recent capacity has been close to full despite a slow start to the seasonRidership on the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train is lagging behind last year's numbers. But organizers are hoping for a late-season surge to boost the final tally.

With about three weeks left in the 2004 season, 11,812 people have taken the Portland-to-Astoria passenger train, versus 14,302 up to the same date last year, a 17-percent drop.

The decline doesn't threaten the train's return next year, but it could jeopardize its long-term prospects, according to Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Mac McGowan.

"It's kind of disappointing," he said, adding that ODOT officials haven't pinpointed what caused the drop-off in ridership.

The train, which began service last year, carries passengers between Linnton, north of Portland, and Astoria four days a week. The 2004 season began in late May and wraps up Sept. 20.

ODOT, which operates the train, has committed to a three-year run.

"Beyond that we're not sure," McGowan said. "If it had shown a marked increase (this year), there would have been a greater chance of carrying over from 2005 to a permanent service. It will probably depend on whether we have a private-sector partner on board."

MORE INFO.The Lewis and Clark Explorer Train operates Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It leaves Linnton station at 7:50 a.m. and arrives in Astoria at 11:40 a.m., starts the return trip at 4:45 p.m. and arrives back at Linnton at 8:50.

Tickets are $29 one way and $58 round-trip, with discounts for children 2-15 and seniors 62 and over. Tickets can be purchased through the Amtrak web site,

(www.amtrak.com) or by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL, or through local travel agencies that handle Amtrak tickets.State Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she's organizing a meeting between all the Explorer Train partners to go over funding, ridership and other issues.

Johnson, who was instrumental in making the train a reality, noted that this year's season had a slow start, compounded by some mechanical problems that put one of the three train cars in the shop for repairs for a few days. But numbers have been picking up as the summer has progressed, she said, and organizers hope that by the end of the season, rider numbers will be close to last year's total.

"I see it as it goes past my office (in Scappoose), and on Sunday it was stuffed," she said.

During its inaugural season last year the train benefited from some high-profile media coverage, including a feature in The New York Times, that noticeably boosted ridership, Johnson said.

"For the second season people said 'that's great, so tell me something new,'" she said. "It's difficult to get the same level of earned media buzz."

Promotional resources have always been scarce, and this year ODOT's Rail Division did not have access to funds it used to promote the train last year. Local train boosters stepped up with contributions and consultant Susan Trabucco was hired to help market the train.

Overall, ridership was close to 83 percent of capacity last year, with the number growing in the second half of the season. If demand had remained strong or increased this year, ODOT may have considered expanding the season in 2005, McGowan said. With this summer's weaker numbers, there's likely to be no change in next year's schedule.

ODOT's Rail Division, which contracts with Portland and Western Railroad to operate the Explorer Train, has provided equipment for the service and donated the time of some employees, but the service relies almost entirely on ticket revenue to cover operational expenses. Despite the drop in rider numbers, the train may still break even this year, McGowan said. But ODOT will likely need to have a private partner come on board to take over some of the duties if the service is to continue past 2005, he said.

"As a labor of love it works, but as a profit-making business it doesn't," he said.

Local tourist-watchers noticed the Explorer Train got off to a slow start when the service began in May, but for the last few weeks the train has been close to full every day, according to John Compere, associate director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Last week at the Sunday Market, when the train came in, all of a sudden the food court was full," he said. "We can tell when the train has arrived."

Merchants notice when train passengers are in town, and not just from the stickers that greeters hand out to them as they disembark, Compere said.

"Of all the people who come in as a group, it's the train passengers they notice the most buying from," he said.

Feedback from riders remains positive as well, McGowan said, both about the train ride itself and Astoria.

"We hear a lot of people say 'we just got back, it was wonderful, we enjoyed it,'" he said.

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