California Forum

Let’s take the train – all the way to the Sacramento Zoo

Rob Turner says the fastest and most fun way to celebrate our extraordinary transportation legacy is to extend Old Sacramento’s excursion train an extra half-mile to the Sacramento Zoo. The concept, championed by the zoo’s late executive director Mary Healy, is a truly inspired one.
Rob Turner says the fastest and most fun way to celebrate our extraordinary transportation legacy is to extend Old Sacramento’s excursion train an extra half-mile to the Sacramento Zoo. The concept, championed by the zoo’s late executive director Mary Healy, is a truly inspired one. Sacramento Bee file

Though still in its infancy, Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement has already boosted civic pride, ignited interest in our city as a tourist destination and fomented a well-deserved appreciation of the farms and farmers that surround us. And, naturally, the reason this movement has taken root so quickly is that it’s steeped in authenticity. It’s part of who we already are as a region.

As we continue to craft our identity as a city, it should also lead us to consider other overlooked aspects of our civic DNA. And certainly one of the genetic markers that helped define our region is so patently obvious that it’s frankly embarrassing that we haven’t exploited it more. I’m speaking, of course, of our place as a world train capital.

From our city’s role as the nexus of the transcontinental railroad to the 100-plus years that the downtown railyard served as a national railcar manufacturing and maintenance facility to our current status as having the eighth busiest Amtrak depot in America, our city’s veins run thick with the grease of untold railcars.

So it’s all the more perplexing that perhaps the cheapest, easiest, fastest and most fun way to celebrate our extraordinary transportation legacy – a proposal to extend Old Sacramento’s excursion train an extra half-mile to the Sacramento Zoo – was derailed last year by one of Sacramento’s less charming defining legacies: NIMBYism (which we’ll get to in a minute).

The zoo train concept, championed by the zoo’s late executive director Mary Healy, who passed away unexpectedly in August after nearly 15 years at the helm of the zoo, is a truly inspired one.

The California State Railroad Museum currently runs its excursion train 3 miles along the Sacramento River, where it stops and heads back; it’s the same route used during the annual Polar Express rides.

Mary’s vision, a partnership with the railroad museum and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, was placed in the Old Sacramento general plan that serves as a visioning guide for the district.

The basic idea was to extend the excursion ride by another half-mile, over Interstate 5 on tracks that have existed for over a century, to the back of the zoo near Sutterville Road. The plan would involve building a new passenger station and likely a new rear entrance for the zoo as well.

Almost exactly a year ago, I had lunch with Mary in Old Sacramento and watched her eyes light up as she enthused about the benefits of such a venture. She spoke about how if we couldn’t have one of the biggest zoos in the country, we better make sure that we have one of the best. And a key part of that plan was the zoo train.

But as state park officials geared up to vote on approving the general plan last year, some residents from Land Park and South Land Park showed up at meetings with concerns that they had not been consulted on the project’s potential impacts. They were worried about noise, privacy, safety and other issues. On the surface, that sounds fair enough.

The problem is that the South Land Park residents won’t actually be affected by a zoo train. It wouldn’t even pass through their neighborhood. In fact, on the extremely short extension to the zoo, there are very few homes whose backyards lie near the tracks – perhaps 20 or so in Land Park.

The concern of the South Land Park residents was that the state parks’ general plan also contemplated the possibility of eventually extending the train past the zoo, through South Land Park and on toward the Delta town of Hood – a rail line that trains traversed for generations until the early ’80s or so.

As a result of the outcry from the vocal South Land Park residents, the project was stalled until state parks officials shelved the Hood portion of the plan. Then, with the death of the project’s biggest champion, the zoo train came to a screeching halt.

But now is the time to get this train back on track.

An attraction like this won’t simply connect two of our greatest civic amenities; it will become a civic amenity of its own. It will give locals and tourists the chance to experience train travel the way it was intended – enjoying the journey while traveling to someplace special.

In one fell swoop, it will create an experience that is fun, educational, historic, scenic and environmentally friendly – keeping cars off I-5 and alleviating the parking situation near the zoo – all while potentially boosting attendance for the zoo and Old Sacramento.

Think about it. We already have a century-old track that’s not being used. We already have beautiful historic trains that almost reach the zoo. And now we have the opportunity to connect two of our region’s most popular destinations in a way that is true to our heritage and unique among American cities.

Yes, there are still questions to be answered, and yes, it will take years and money to make it a reality. Which is all the more reason to get started today. As Sacramento has repeatedly learned the hard way, it’s critical to take advantage of economic upturns before they go up in smoke.

It’s a little-known fact that Walt Disney based the design of two iconic locomotives for the Disneyland railroad on one that was built right here in Sacramento (he borrowed the idea for the Main Street Electrical Parade from us, too). In a nod to the railroading luminaries C.K. Holliday and E.P. Ripley, Disney named the two locally inspired locomotives after them.

So it’s only fitting that we take a cue from Uncle Walt by realizing Mary’s zoo train dream and naming it the Mary Healy. There’s no better way to celebrate our civic identity than with a project that harkens back to our past in a way that is true and authentic, and honors our earliest pioneers right alongside our newest ones, like Mary. All aboard, Sacramento.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article can be read at www.sactownmag.com.

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