Loop through Washington Park closed since 2013 for lack of repairs
Portland’s much loved “zoo train” has been confined to quarters since 2013, no longer making its meandering 30-minute trip through the urban forest between the International Rose Test Garden and Oregon Zoo.
Service on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway’s full loop was initially interrupted by zoo construction projects, but then “the zoo discovered in 2014 that some of the wooden retaining walls and supporting structures along the route were at the end of their lifespans,” according to Ernest Hayes, a media representative for Metro, which operates the zoo.
The rail system’s distinctive half-scale trains have been making the 2-mile loop since it opened in 1958. They now run only within the zoo, a six-minute hiccup that system station master Dana Carstensen says is a huge disappointment to many riders who fondly recall the full monty.
Carstensen, 33, though a temporary employee, has been on duty since before the cutback. “I’ve helped thousands of people ride the train,” he said. “I see their joy as they bring their kids and grandkids and then their disappointment to find it’s only a six-minute ride.
“It’s really frustrating” for railway workers, he said, who can only repeat promises given them by their supervisors that repairs are coming. They also give guidance on registering their complaints.
“We’ve given out hundreds of comment cards,” he said, noting that he has never heard what has become of those comments.
Carstensen learned only by reading the Washington Park Master Plan adopted in March that Metro is considering removing the tracks outside the zoo and replacing them with a pedestrian path. That’s when he decided to take his concerns to the public.
He launched a petition drive to restore the full route that now has 17,500 signatures. He spoke at several Metro public hearings and KOIN 6 News did a segment on his campaign. He hopes to start a GoFundMe campaign to help raise the $3 million he believes may be needed to shore up the tracks.
At first he heard it might take $1 million, but the target keeps rising. Hayes said $3-$5 million is the best current estimate, though a more thorough study is needed.
In 2015, Metro put the cost of repairing the tracks at $1,364,741, not including stabilizing the ground.
“Given the escalating costs of construction, we must assume these estimates significantly underestimate the price for this project in today’s market,” wrote Marcia Sinclair, a strategic communications specialist at the Oregon Zoo.
“The situation was exacerbated in 2015 by a landslide near the Rose Garden station,” Hayes said. “The train route work entails replacing retaining walls and track support structures as well as stabilizing slopes. Portland City Council directed PP&R staff to continue to evaluate the use of the railroad outside the zoo.”
Sinclair described the 2015 event as “more of a slump from the steep hill cut than a landslide.”
Carstensen said he walks the entire length of the tracks regularly and he can’t detect where the slump or slide is.
He has a theory on why projected costs keep rising:
“It’s interesting how they keep throwing out cost estimates that get higher and higher as more people sign my petition, but they admit they haven’t truly determined the cost needed.”
He also finds it hypocritical that “they can’t find money to fix the full route at $1 million-$3 million” while Metro is considering replacing the tracks with a pedestrian path at a cost of $10 million.
Arlen Sheldrake, an Arlington Heights resident and rail history buff, said, “These studies can be spun a lot of ways depending on your goal.”
Sheldrake, who volunteers 40 hours a week at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center, said the creosote timbers in the retaining wall aren’t permanent, a reality that should have been factored into routine maintenance schedules.
Dale Birkholz of the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation knows the history of the Washington Park Railway, which was built for the 1959 Oregon Centennial. The project captured the public’s imagination. Local newspapers featured photos of work crews, local manufacturers and public officials proud to be part of history.
A 16,000-word manuscript by former Oregonian executive Edward M. Miller in 1998 entitled “Miles of Smiles” has never been published, though Alfred Mullett of the rail foundation is striving to rectify that omission.
Miller wrote that half of the funds to build the railway were donated, “obtained by a bootstrap operation in which nearly 225,000 individuals and firms contributed labor, materials, cash or purchased zoo railroad ‘stock’ carrying ride coupons.”
Southern Pacific engineers plotted the route. Track crews from Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway laid the tracks. Two Northwest Portland companies played major roles. Northwest Marine Iron works built the frames and trucks of the running gear and the H. Hirschberger Co., which recently moved from that plant at Northwest 17th and Northrup streets, built the bodies for the rolling stock.
The original trains were the futuristic Zooliner and the steam-powered Oregon, modeled after an 1875 American Standard locomotive. Later, a third, patterned after the Orient Express, was added.
“This was a big deal,” Birkholz said of the railway system he learned about through his work as a photojournalist at KOIN.
“We received a tip that the zoo was thinking about retiring the steam engine Oregon,” he said. “We did a story about it for the evening news, and almost immediately the zoo did an about-face and did the repairs necessary to put the steamer back into service.”
Birkholz believes Metro and the zoo need a reminder of the railway’s importance to the people of Oregon.
Local officials and citizen activists share the assumption that public opinion could readily be marshaled in defense of the train.
“We all know there is community enthusiasm for bringing the line back,” wrote Sinclair.
Comments like those of Pamela Parrish Wilken, one of the signers of Carstensen’s Change.org petition, reflect the passion:
“This train route was a highlight of my childhood and a staple of my train-loving son’s existence,” Wilken wrote. “Parking in Washington Park and taking the train into the zoo was a thrilling guilty pleasure that made us feel we had entered another world through a magic portal. Waiting all winter for the extended route to reopen in spring brought as much anticipation and joy as Christmas. Sending letters to Santa from the Zoo Train Depot special mailbox was another major event.
“We must treasure the poetry that life affords us. Chugging along under the canopy of trees glowing with dappled sunlight, breathing the forest fragrance, and feeling its coolness cozied in a zoo train seat with your delighted child—life doesn’t get much better than that,” she added.
Joe Angel, an Arlington Heights resident and neighborhood activist, served on the original board of Explore Washington Park, a nonprofit managing transportation inside the park. It operates a free shuttle bus system to move visitors between the park’s attractions, the largest of which is the Oregon Zoo.
While Angel thinks a pedestrian way through the forest has appeal, he said the 10-member board was told that Metro intended to discontinue the full rail route and it was never given the opportunity to evaluate its restoration.
“I think there is very positive public sentiment for the train,” Angel told the Examiner.
A train ride providing views of Mount Hood and stopping at several destinations would give tourists a memorable experience, “something to talk about,” he said.
On the other hand, “A circle around the zoo doesn’t do a damn thing for me,” he said.
The railway could also function as the backbone of the intra-park shuttle system, hauling 100 passengers at a time compared to the 24-seat shuttle buses.
Kathy Goeddel, who is the Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association’s current representative on the Explore Washington Park board, agreed that the organization has not considered the train as a part of the shuttle system.
Heather McCarey, executive director of Explore Washington Park, said the zoo and five other park venues represented on the board have a long-term contract dedicating $550,000 a year to the present shuttle system. Any contribution to rail line repairs would need additional revenues.
Metro, city share role
Metro itself is showing no signs of stepping up.
“While Metro has responsibility for the rail line and trains,” wrote spokesperson Hayes, “and would need to determine the feasibility of making the necessary repairs, both Metro and the city are committed to investigating all possibilities on the future of the line.”
Nor is there a sense of urgency at Portland Parks & Recreation:
“Repairing the train line is the responsibility of Metro. For these reasons and our other shared interests in Washington Park, the city and Metro are working closely on future changes to the park.
“The city of Portland is committed to working with Metro for what’s next regarding the rail line. This endeavor is more complicated than most people would think at first glance, but all parties recognize the rail line’s significance and beloved history.”
Carstensen said the public is eager to do its part if given the chance.
To help underwrite the construction of Elephant Lands, zoo visitors were given the option of adding a $1 donation with the touch of a button as they purchased tickets. He asked that the same be done to fix the railroad. He was denied.
“I’ve offered to fundraise during the city of Portland testimony on the master plan, and Don Moore, the zoo director, was sitting right there. No one reached out to me,” he said.
Carstensen is working with Ellen Miyo Ino-Klaastad, a temporary ticket booth worker at the zoo who also raises money for progressive causes through Forward Support.
Ino-Klaastad believes raising $5 million in donations large and small to repair and maintain the track is doable. For four years she has offered to organize such a campaign, meeting with most of the Metro council members along the way.
“All of them told me they didn’t doubt” the money could be generated.
Still, the answer has always been no.
Joe Angel said the problem has been the complex web of competing goals and interests of the various players and jurisdictions. Metro and the zoo cannot speak for the city’s interests in the complete railway system, and the city doesn’t want to underwrite a system it does not control.
Will that ever change?
“Portland Parks and zoo leadership will meet in early November to begin exploration of feasibility and possibilities,” Sinclair said.