I have a confession to make. Trains fascinate me. From the small model trains my brother and I kept in the back storeroom of Standard Supply Hardware, the old family business, to the Amtrak I board and journey west toward the Redwoods to visit my sister — I've always had a fascination with trains.
Now I've officially indulged in my dream caboose. I bought one, or the group I work for did.
Word spread like a dashing pronghorn that Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo is now operating a train. A common question from curious bystanders: where's the track? Well, there isn't one. We purchased a Wattman mini-express trackless train. It's electric. Able to run 15 hours at a time, the refueling directions are as follows: plug into wall. Simple as that, and, of course, environmentally friendly.
Friends' goal was to acquire the train and start operation before school buses became common sights once more. The Richardson Railroad boarded and started its first safari through Lee Richardson Zoo on Aug. 3, directly following a members-only tour. This offered a whole new view of the zoo. Being new, operations of the Richardson Railroad are still in the test flight stages — or maybe I should say the test boarding stages.
Tickets are sold at the Safari Shoppe. A round-trip safari through Lee Richardson Zoo costs $4 per person, or is half price for members holding family, grandparent or higher level memberships. Initial boarding is in the African Plains of the zoo, located in front of the African elephants. From there, the train departs for a 30-minute journey with a single stop in Wild Asia, where travelers may depart and reboard once the train circles back around — if there are open seats, that is. When we first started trial runs, there were also stops in the Americas and Wetland exhibits. As no one ever departed at these locations, those stops have been cut for the time being. This allows the train to gain more time, meaning there will be more rides available throughout the day.
Scheduled hours of operation are currently 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, weather permitting. Passage is also available by chance 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Experimental hours are still in the works, and when streamlined, operating hours will be posted at the Safari Shoppe.
The Richardson Railroad is guaranteed to provide yet another great fundraising source as Friends continue their mission to aid in zoo improvements. Funds to purchase the train were granted by the Mariah Fund of Dodge City, Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau, Western Kansas Community Foundation and the Ada Ruth Richardson Memorial, in memory of Vernon and Ada Ruth Richardson. Without their support, the Richardson Railroad would be nothing more than a suggestion in Lee Richardson Zoo's strategic plan.
With a delivery from Canada, we also have Southwest Towing to thank for helping us unload the train, one wagon at a time. After unloading we were left with the choice of whether to pile the train into the garage, or take it for a spin through the zoo, even though it was dusk. As the train has headlights, we opted for the test run.
To our amusement, the helicopter offering rides at the Finney County Fair continually followed our course. We could only imagine their curiosity: "Is that a train slithering through the zoo?"
Vivid red, the train is hard to miss, especially among the green foliage of the zoo's lush grounds. Though I had been impressed with the photographs of Wattman's trains, I was still impressed with the quality and attention to detail upon delivery. Featuring wooden floors, a mechanical whistle and the mirage of steam power, the Richardson Railroad truly includes all the bells and whistles. And, let us not fail to mention that we favored Wattman's new option to purchase a handicap-accessible caboose, which we have already made use of.
Perhaps I'm bragging now, but hey, you can't buy a passenger train every day. Sure it may be mini, but it can still seat a mix of 15 to 18 children with accompanying adults or a maximum of 25 single-riding children.
I enjoyed many model train days, but never thought I would get to play the role of conductor myself. Though I will be found more often in the Friends' office, there will be Main Street parades and the occasional weekend when I decide to take the train for a spin myself. On such days, I will tip my hat, punch a ticket and open the carriage doors. Board!
Brian Nelson is the Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo executive director. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.folrz.com to become a Friend of Lee Richardson Zoo.