Excursion steam trains may again chug through Chehalis this summer due to a possible upcoming partnership between Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum (CCRM) and the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad (MRSR).
“The plan, as initially set forth, is to bring the MRSR operation to Chehalis and lease our rail line and surrounding property for their operation,” CCRM President Mary Kay Nelson said in a written statement submitted to the Chehalis City Council ahead of its regular meeting on Monday, where she presented the proposal for approval.
The current plan is to have MRSR operate on CCRM’s track from June to October, according to Nelson.
“We’re all coming into this with a really positive attitude and they’re just excited about getting here,” Nelson said Monday. “The only thing is just getting the mechanics of the move ready.”
CCRM lost its liability insurance coverage in March 2022, forcing CCRM to halt its passenger service until further notice.
The railroad acquired premises-liability insurance about a month later, which has allowed CCRM to hold stationary events on its trains at the depot and to work on the property.
CCRM has since repaired the 1-mile section of track that was damaged in the January 2022 flood and is working on repairs to the historic 916 Baldwin Locomotive Engine No. 15, but has yet to regain the insurance necessary to resume passenger operations.
“As of November, our track is completely restored,” Nelson said at the Chehalis City Council meeting on Monday.
Meanwhile, MRSR has been working to hire staff and repair its tracks between Elbe and Mineral after it suspended all operations in May 2020 partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The nonprofit Western Forest Industries Museum (WFIM), which founded the scenic railroad line in 1980, took over railroad operations from American Heritage Railways in the tail end of 2022 and is working toward a 2025 grand reopening with a new museum and a new train depot in Eatonville, according to reporting by The Courier-Herald.
MRSR contacted CCRM in March to see if CCRM would be interested in allowing them to operate on CCRM’s track, Nelson said.
“They said, ‘You have a track. We have insurance. We have a steam train: How about we bring that operation to Chehalis? Would you be interested?’” Nelson said. “We like to think that we are pretty nimble and thinking that we will try anything to get this … visitor experience back up and running for the City of Chehalis and we jumped at the chance.”
MRSR and CCRM have been researching a possible partnership for the last two months and are still working to figure out all the logistics, but CCRM’s attorney is currently drawing up a contract, according to Nelson.
Once finalized, the contract would have CCRM serve as the “landlord” for the rail line and the train yard, with MRSR running the operation itself with its own trains.
“It is a requirement of their insurance that this operation be conducted as Mt. Rainier (Scenic) Railroad in Chehalis. MRSR will assume all liability associated with the paid excursions,” Nelson said in a written statement.
She elaborated Monday that CCRM will continue maintaining the track and the property, while MRSR will be responsible for everything pertaining to the operations, including hiring staff and bringing the trains.
Aside from CCRM’s outdoor car, which MRSR intends to use over the summer, MRSR will use its own trains for all of the operations, according to Nelson.
CCRM crew members would need to be formally hired and trained by MRSR to work on MRSR’s operations this summer, according to Nelson.
The insurance companies for both railroads have been consulted and see no problems with the proposed partnership, Nelson said Monday.
“So far, I haven’t found anybody who doesn’t think this is a win-win situation, not only for our railroads, but for the public who keeps contacting me and saying, ‘When is the train going to start running again?’ I wish I had an answer. Now I’m at least able to say ‘we’re working on it,” she said.
A significant factor in CCRM’s loss of liability insurance was the railroad’s loss runs, which amounted to $1.064 million over six years largely due to two crashes involving CCRM’s trains, according to previous Chronicle reporting. A lawsuit against CCRM stemming from one of those crashes was still active in Lewis County Superior Court as of Tuesday.
CCRM has since utilized state funding to improve the safety of its tracks and railroad crossings, but the railroad is waiting until the ongoing lawsuit is resolved before reapplying for liability insurance, Nelson previously told The Chronicle.
The agreement the two railroads are currently working on is intended to last one year, according to Nelson.
When asked if MRSR would be interested in coming back for a second year if CCRM isn’t ready to resume its own operations then, Nelson said “we would consider that” if this year’s partnership is successful and both parties are in the same place next year as they are now.
“I think that’s part of the win-win, and I don’t know if Engine 15 is going to be ready (next year),” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Spahr said.
While Spahr expressed concerns about retaining CCRM staff and volunteers should MRSR come in with its own staff, Nelson said volunteers are “inspired” by the upcoming partnership and are “down there doing double duty” on the tracks.
Nelson added MRSR doesn’t have an event crew or depot staff lined up yet, and could very well look to hire existing CCRM staff and volunteers for those positions.
“I personally feel, if we’re properly insured and everything is up to steam, then full-steam ahead,” Spahr said.