Trestle-mania: Zoo lays tracks for new train route

August 18, 2014 - 1:35pm
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Remapped railway will circle a 20-foot-high 'erector set' in the woods

Crews this week will begin laying tracks for the new Oregon Zoo railway, which is just a few months away from reopening after being offline for nearly a year.

Circling a 20-foot-high elevated trestle in the forest north of Elephant Lands, the new ride will take visitors along a route optimized for spectacular views of animals as well as the annual winter ZooLights display, which opens Nov. 28.

"We planned construction very carefully to minimize the impact on visitors," said Heidi Rahn, who oversees all the projects funded by the community-supported 2008 bond measure. "We knew we would have to take the trains out of service for a while as we built the new route, but we kept the schedule tight and have stuck to it."

Rerouting the train was necessary as the zoo began a major transformation last year, breaking ground on both Condors of the Columbia, which opened in May, and the new Elephant Lands habitat — a sweeping expansion of the zoo's Asian elephant habitat that will quadruple the animals' space and dramatically enhance their daily experiences.

The elevated trestle, now complete, took about 25 days to build and presented some challenges due to its forested location. Three different cranes were called into service to lift, tilt and gently maneuver thousands of pounds of steel girders among the lush, leafy thickets.

"The entire trestle was assembled and bolted up like one of those toy erector sets," said project engineer Wayne Starkey. "It's taken lots of planning and logistics. If it were being built in the middle of nowhere, there'd be no problem."

The zoo's 30-inch-gauge railway line evolved out of plans for a children's train when the zoo moved to its current site in the late 1950s. The Old West–inspired Centennial steam locomotive and the sleek, retro-modern Zooliner both date to that time and were featured during Oregon's 1959 centennial celebration.

"Over the years, as new zoo exhibits were developed, views from the train were given limited consideration," Rahn said. "Now we are creating a new train experience with a greater focus on animals."

The new ride will also feature a couple of newly restored and freshly painted trains. In June, the zoo transported the Centennial steamer and the Zooliner to Pacific Power Group's Ridgefield, Wash., headquarters for repairs and refurbishing.