Inching along a year after being launched, a state study of improving passenger rail service in the Willamette Valley has reached a new stage: meetings to hear from the public.

ODOT Rail has scheduled open houses in Albany and other points along the existing and potential routes for September. The one for Albany is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, at the Public Library, 2450 14th Ave. S.E.

Others are scheduled in Eugene, Salem, Lake Oswego, Oregon City and Portland.

ODOT says it wants people to speak up “to help identify issues and a range of rail alignment alternatives to be considered.”

There have been several studies of rail service including “high speed rail” between Eugene and Portland over the years. The current one, which dropped the high-speed idea, started in September 2011 when Gov. John Kitzhaber named a committee to run the study. Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa is one of the members.

The study aims to come up with an environmental impact statement that identifies a preferred route by the end of 2015. ODOT says this is required before the federal government will consider awarding Oregon more money to actually improve rail service.

“ODOT is just beginning a study to improve passenger rail service between the Portland urban area and the Eugene-Springfield urban area,” ODOT says in material for the open houses. “The study will help decide on a general passenger rail route and evaluate options for train frequency, trip time and improving on-time performance.”

The current Cascades trains run by Amtrak with state support cover the 125 miles from Eugene to Portland, via Albany and Salem, in two hours and 35 minutes.

The biggest questions facing the study are whether to try to improve service on the existing mainline, owned by the Union Pacific and used mostly by UP freights; to try to adapt the old Oregon Electric line; or to pick an entirely new alignment.

A related question is whether and how, if something other than the mainline is chosen and actually built, trains would still stop at the established stations in Albany and Salem.

Besides scheduling the public meetings, ODOT also invited public comments on these and other issues online at www.OregonPassengerRail.org, from Sept. 6 to 23.

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