The Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum (CCR&M) brings thousands of passengers each year on a journey through the Chehalis River Valley to showcase the beauty and history of the line.
On just its “Polar Express” trains this winter, over 6,000 passengers rode aboard the steam train.
Unfortunately, the river doesn’t seem to care about the organization’s decades of service to the community. Instead, it floods and washes out part of the tracks every few years. When the Chehalis flooded last weekend, it took out parts of the rail line along 5 miles of the CCR&M’s 10 miles of track.
CCR&M President Mike Beehler released a statement to members this week on the damage, noting little is known at this time as the staff enters the disaster funding process with Lewis County Emergency Management. The line is repairable, but the process will take place “one step at a time,” according to the statement.
“The sooner we can prepare the estimate for emergency management,” Beehler told The Chronicle. “We're working on that as we speak. But then there's a lot of other things that are going to have to happen. Getting contractors on board will be another challenge because … we're very specialized. To do rail work is not an everyday thing.”
Because of all these variables, Beehler was not able to guess how long scenic train rides would be out of commission. For now, the Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s day trains will be canceled.
More word from the railroad and museum will come out as assessments and repairs commence.
Cost is another thing the team could not begin to wager without having done a full evaluation of damage.
“This is not an inexpensive situation that we're looking at,” Beehler said.
The majority of damage took place to tracks between the Willapa Hills Trail trailhead and state Route 603, where the trail and the rail line meet in a “V” shape that funnels water into the tracks. Under the line, the ground was weakened to the point of washing out in a few different areas.
With the hopes of preventing damage to the line in future floods, the organization may ask a consulting firm to suggest mitigation strategies. Though, as Beehler pointed out, most possible responses to flooding are beyond the organization’s scope of ability and responsibility.
The parking area near the start of the tracks will also need repairs after taking on a significant amount of water. Neither the business office nor any train cars were damaged in the flood event.
“We can’t control the river. The railroad is a subject to the river, just like anybody else is,” Beehler said.
Decades of steam train rides have made the railroad an “icon” in the community, said CCR&M Marketing Director Mary Kay Nelson. And it took on more major damage in the 2007 and 2009 floods than it did this year. She had no doubt this is simply an obstacle, not the end, for the CCR&M, calling it the “most resilient organization” she’s seen.
“The reason I love this organization is because it does respond. It does step up,” Nelson said. “Otherwise it wouldn't be there in the first place. They took something that was a locomotive sitting in a park 40 years ago. When I was a kid, I saw that sitting in the park, and they brought that back, not even really knowing what the future looked like. They just said, ‘We can do this. We'll restore this locomotive.’”
Future updates on train service will be posted on Facebook at @steamtrainride or the railroad’s website, https://steamtrainride.com/.