Bill Zavin was 13 years old in 1958 when when his grandfather and uncle, as part of Northwest Marine Iron Works, built the Oregon Zooliner train. He said he’s probably ridden the train more than 40 or 50 times throughout his life. He’s 75 now.
“I have this little personal affiliation because of my uncle and my grandfather, but really to me, it’s part of Portland. It’s like going to the Rose Garden,” Zavin said. “It’s just something that is a part of what’s Portland.”
That train ran a 40-minute, 2-mile-long round trip between the Oregon Zoo and the International Rose Test Garden in Portland’s Washington Park for more than half a century until 2013, when its route was cut short due to landslides.
Restoring the Washington Park and Zoo Railway's long route isn’t completely off the table, though it would take time, money and community support.
Jeff Honeyman is a train engineer with the zoo. His team found the unstable ground during routine maintenance.
“We discovered a steel pipe that had rusted out. It had led to some rot.” Honeyman said. “We didn’t know how bad the rot was until we went down and replaced the pipe. As soon as we pulled the pipe out, we just started watching the hillside go away.”
Now the train runs a 6-minute trip that only goes through zoo grounds, not Washington Park. And it may have to stay that way for a while, despite some objections.
Choo-Choose A Plan
Any planning around the zoo train’s route through Washington Park is complicated. That’s because there are two agencies involved.
Metro is the Portland metro area’s directly elected regional government. It’s in charge of the zoo and the zoo train, but it’s technically leasing that land from the city.
The city, specifically Portland Parks and Recreation, is in charge of Washington Park, even though Metro’s railway runs through it.
If the zoo train’s full route to Washington Park was restored, Metro would be the one footing the bill.
“This is going to be millions of dollars,” said Scott Cruickshank, general manager of visitor venues with Metro. “This isn’t just a matter of repairing a broken piece of track. There’s water run-off issues, stormwater issues. There’s slide materials on parts of the tracks.”
The city has another potential plan. Portland Parks and Recreation's Washington Park Master Plan suggests building a paved pedestrian path in the train corridor, either beside the tracks or completely replacing them.
And that’s not exactly an affordable alternative.
In the latter option in that plan, Portland Parks and Recreation estimates removing the train tracks and creating the pedestrian trail in its place could cost more than $10 million. That would include things like the trail itself, trail amenities, benches, retaining walls and everything else that goes into such a project.
Emily Roth, senior planner with Portland Parks and Recreation, said both the city and Metro recognize the enthusiasm around restoring the rail line, but that people have also expressed a desire for a trail.
“In Portland Parks and Recreation’s extensive community engagement process around the revised master plan, the public clearly stated they would value having a paved, ADA accessible trail where the tracks are located,” said Roth. “Metro and the city continue to explore all possibilities, and no decisions have been made nor funding identified for any possibility.”
Metro also doesn’t have the funds secured to repair the tracks to restore the full train route. Cruickshank said it would require some sort of partnership to help cover the massive cost of that project.
“It’s going to need extensive engineering studies,” he said. “It’s going to need, obviously, funding for the work itself, which the zoo does not have in its financial forecast, so I would say that if this did take some shape, it would likely be in the form of a public-private partnership.”
Community Offers A Hand
The Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway, which was recently approved to become a nonprofit, is pushing for the restoration of the train’s original route.
The group's president, Dana Carstensen, says he cares about the zoo railway because of the community's passion for it.
“There are few things as inspirational as grandparents and parents bringing their children to experience something they experienced as children,” he said.
Carstensen started a petition last year to show public support for the restoration of the railway. It now has more than 35,000 signatures.
Before its nonprofit status, Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway had been brainstorming ways to come up with money for the track repairs. One idea the group suggested to Metro was that zoo employees could ask patrons for donations for the train when they pay admission.
“Multiple times that was asked. Multiple times that was shot down, so unfortunately, that has gone nowhere,” he said.
But Carstensen isn’t discouraged.
“I’ve already had businesses reach out to me. I’ve had connections to wealthy donors,” Carstensen said. “We have a list of over a thousand emails, tens of thousands of phone numbers and addresses. We will start a major fundraising campaign and we really do aim to have a multimillion dollar target.”
Now, as a nonprofit, Carstensen said Friends of Washington Park and Zoo Railway can set up a bank account and a PayPal account for donations. He said he eventually plans on creating a GoFundMe campaign.
An Uncertain Timeline
As both Portland Parks and Recreation and Metro have expressed, any future plans for the zoo train’s original route through Washington Park are still very up in the air.
“The zoo is working through a 2008 community-supported $125 million bond to renovate several areas of the zoo’s campus for animal habitat,” Cruickshank said. “And currently we’re in the last three phases of that project.”
Cruickshank said because of those renovations Metro won’t be able to put any attention on the railway for at least the next few years.
“Our team’s pretty well focused on that right now,” he said. “So any work we’d do on the train is sitting behind those projects based on capacity, funds, etcetera.”
As someone who has a lot of history with the train, due to his family’s connection, Zavin just hopes the zoo train be around for a long time, whether it’s the original route or a shorter one.
“I certainly hope there are ways to preserve the zoo train,” Zavin said. “Sentimentally I just don’t want to see it go, not only because my uncle built it, but because a lot of people had a lot of fun on this railway, and I don’t know what you’d replace it with. There won’t be another one.”