Ridership down in second year; train will be back next yearDespite a drop in ridership this year, the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train will return for the 2005 season. But after that the train's future remains unclear.

Final figures show that the train carried 14,030 passengers this season, down from 17,890 in its inaugural run last year, a 21-percent drop.

The excursion train, which carries passengers between Portland and Astoria from May to September, was inaugurated last year to capture some of the growing numbers of visitors expected for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

Local officials and representatives of the Oregon Department of Transportation, including the agency's director Bruce Warner, recently met to discuss the Explorer Train's future. Beyond a commitment to operate the train next year, there were no definite decisions about the fate of the service past the 2005 season, according to state Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who attended the meeting.

ODOT, which runs the train through its rail division, has long said it would honor its original commitment to support the service for three years, but remains unwilling to remain involved after the third season next year unless another partner comes on board to take over.

"Everybody concerned with this is committed to running it for a third season," said ODOT spokesman Mac McGowan.

Various factors were cited in the drop in ridership. McGowan said marketing for the train this year got off to a slow start. Johnson said this year the train didn't benefit from the media attention, including a New York Times write-up, that it garnered last year as a brand-new attraction.

Surveys of passengers during that first season found that newspaper articles were the most common way people found out about the train, followed by word of mouth.

The train lost an entire weekend early this month when a mishap involving a freight train closed the railroad bridge at Clatskanie. But that didn't affect the overall ridership that much because most passengers who held tickets for those four canceled days were able to ride the train on one of the following two weekends, McGowan said.

The uncertainty over the train's future may help ridership next year, if people think the service might not continue past 2005, Johnson said.

What the drop in ridership means financially hasn't been determined since the various partners kept their own set of books on the operation, Johnson said. A consolidated financial report is being compiled now.

Johnson was instrumental in making the train a reality, helping secure $442,000 in state funding to purchase the three self-propelled diesel "Budd" passenger cars from British Columbia. The federal government provided another $2 million for improvements to the tracks. But the service, which charges riders $29 each way, was expected to cover its own expenses.

The service was nearly de-railed before it even began, when Amtrak, which originally signed on to run the train, backed out at the last minute just before train's inaugural run in May 2003. Organizers scrambled to find a replacement for the federal agency and brought in Pacific and Western Railroad as the operator. The private company ran the train this year and plans to be back in 2005.

Despite this year's drop in ridership, there's still enthusiasm among the various partners in maintaining the Explorer Train, Johnson said, adding that there's talk of seeking more federal funds to further improve the tracks along the route.

"This has opened people's eyes to the possibilities of rail," she said.

No major changes in the service are planned for next year. At the agency meeting organizers won an agreement from Pacific and Western to provide more personnel for maintenance and repair, Johnson said.

Comments from riders this year were overwhelming positive, not just about the trip itself but also the reception they received in Astoria, McGowan said.