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Originally published Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 9:30 PM

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Spring storm dumps snow on Ore. valley, mountains

An early spring storm dropped more than half a foot of snow on Oregon's southern Willamette Valley on Wednesday while slides and snow in the southern Cascades halted an Amtrak train and briefly trapped several vehicles.

The Associated Press

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An early spring storm dropped more than half a foot of snow on Oregon's southern Willamette Valley on Wednesday while slides and snow in the southern Cascades halted an Amtrak train and briefly trapped several vehicles.

Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle, carrying 246 passengers, hit a tree lying across the tracks in the Cascade Mountains, and a mudslide then derailed the baggage car, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said. No injuries were reported.

A freight train engine brought the passenger rail cars back south to the station in Chemult, about 165 miles southeast of Portland. There, passengers were given sub sandwiches, beverages and chips as they boarded buses Wednesday evening for the trip to Portland.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said Wednesday night that crews were working to clear the rail line.

Regina Fraser and Pat Johnson, co-hosts of the PBS travel show "Grannies on Safari," were among the passengers.

In a phone interview, Fraser described her day in the Cascades Mountains as "quite interesting." With snow outside the train window hitting the 7-foot mark, no phone service and rain falling "harder and harder," passengers were glad to leave the trouble spot.

"We were stuck in the wilderness," she said, but called the passengers' mood "very positive."

Fraser praised Amtrak staff for staying visible and willing to talk, and for making box lunches for passengers.

"They made everyone feel calm," she said.

The train hit the tree at about 11:30 a.m., and the rail cars arrived back in Chemult at 6:30 p.m., Leeds said. The cars were without power and heat for about three hours as they were hauled back from the slide site, she said.

Elsewhere in the southern Cascades, two vehicles were briefly trapped between landslides that, along with deep snow, temporarily shut down traffic on U.S. 20 through Santiam Pass. Crews rescued the travelers after about two hours.

"Everybody's fine," said spokesman Lou Torres of the state Department of Transportation.

Santiam Pass reopened later, with transportation officials warning motorists to be prepared for severe winter driving conditions.

The area hit by the storm ranged from Roseburg in southwest Oregon through southwest Washington and eastward into central and northeast Oregon. But the heaviest impact was in Eugene-Springfield.

The storm had dumped 7 inches of snow at the Eugene airport before precipitation turned to rain in the evening, National Weather Service meteorologist Miles Higa said.

About 20,000 customers in the Eugene area lost power at the peak of the storm as heavy, wet snow brought down trees and power lines, the Register-Guard reported.

"This will probably go down as a pretty notable storm at the turn from winter to spring," weather service hydrologist Andy Bryant said. It will easily be the largest storm around this time of year in Eugene, he said.

Measurements at the airport show March storms dropped snow measuring 7.6 inches in 1951 and 13.7 inches in 1916 - both in the first week of the month. In only a few years have late March snowfalls there totaled more than an inch.

Bryant said there was concern about possible flooding later this week in the Roseburg area and along the Coquille River flowing out of the Coast Range and through Coos County.

Downed power lines shut down highways linking central valley cities with central Oregon for a time. A stretch of U.S. 20 on the valley floor was reopened near Sweet Home after a closure of several hours. The transportation department said Oregon 35 near Mount Hood was reopened after an avalanche left 4 feet of snow on the highway.

Bryant said the storm could leave 2 feet of new snow in the Cascade Range. At midday, Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood reported 19 inches.

The additional snow in the Coast and Cascade ranges could provide a boost for summer water supplies in Oregon. The snowpack was below average in much of the state during the winter, raising concern about water for irrigation, municipal systems and recreation.

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