September 21, 2017

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Low attendance threatens park's beloved steam train

THE Assiniboine Park steam train, a Winnipeg institution for nearly half a century, is in jeopardy of chugging out of town for good.

According to Tim Buzunis, the train's owner and conductor, ridership of the beloved locomotive has been down as much as 50 per cent since last season.

And Buzunis is steamed at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, saying its decision to close the east gate to the public is to blame for the downturn.

Buzunis says that decision is "killing my business," as potential customers entering the park no longer drive past the miniature train.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/7/2012 (1896 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Assiniboine Park steam train, a Winnipeg institution for nearly half a century, is in jeopardy of chugging out of town for good.

According to Tim Buzunis, the train's owner and conductor, ridership of the beloved locomotive has been down as much as 50 per cent since last season.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The Assiniboine Park steam train's owner/operator Tim Buzunis says he may be forced to relocate.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Assiniboine Park steam train's owner/operator Tim Buzunis says he may be forced to relocate.

And Buzunis is steamed at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, saying its decision to close the east gate to the public is to blame for the downturn.

Buzunis says that decision is "killing my business," as potential customers entering the park no longer drive past the miniature train.

"It was located where it was so that people would see the train when driving to the zoo. My father knew from the manufacturer that you had to have an anchor tenant to draw to your train. That was the zoo. Now that people are not driving by us, I've lost that crowd," said Buzunis.

Buzunis says most disheartening is he was never officially informed of the decision.

"It's so disrespectful. We pay the conservancy the rent and we've been in this park for 48 years. You'd think this would be a courtesy, informing us of a change that will affect our business. Never once have they come to us."

According to an April 4 press release from the conservancy, the east gate was closed to traffic in order to avoid construction areas for the Journey to Churchill exhibit. The main entrance to the zoo is now the south gate located off Roblin Boulevard, and the east gate is exclusively used for large groups and educational groups.

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy could not be reached for comment.

Although there is a sign advertising the train at the nearby Nature Playground, Buzunis maintains that it isn't enough.

"Kids are very visual. They aren't going to read signs. It's the kids who see the train, who push the parents to ride the train. Without seeing it from entering to go to the zoo, they don't know about it," said Buzunis. "The conservancy claims they're going to start doing stuff to advertise, maybe more signs, but I don't see that happening." Buzunis said on a sunny day this week, he sat for almost four hours without a single customer.

"I know the heat has something to do with it. But last year the climate was basically the same and I was still getting at least a couple hundred people," he said.

Buzunis's father bought the train in Pennsylvania and moved it to Winnipeg in 1964. Buzunis took over operation in 1988. It is the only coal-burning steel train in a city park in Canada.

Buzunis says he'll be forced to move the train out of town if business doesn't turn around. He is considering a location in the United States with a climate that will allow the train to run year-round.

"I do have that option, although it will cost me about $200,000. I will do it, but I don't want to threaten people with it. But if it keeps going like this, I have no other choice," he said.

Jeff Didham, 47, takes his six-year-old daughter Madison to the park every Aug. 4 to recreate a favourite photo of her riding the train.

Didham has visited the train since he was a boy.

But on a recent family visit to his cherished childhood choo-choo, Didham noticed the attendance issue.

"It's iconic. It's a place where I've seen smiles for years. When we pull into the station on that train, people clap. One thing that I have to say is that the zoo is doing such an amazing job at improving and progressing. But that doesn't mean they should take something so iconic and something so good and crowd-pleasing and just sweep it under the rug and forget about it," said Didham.

katherine.dow@freepress.mb.ca

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