A community tradition for 36 years, the Medford Railroad Park has seen the number of train-riding visitors increase exponentially while donations for the steam-powered train rides and other attractions remain at the levels of early 1990s.
The train park volunteers aren’t sounding the alarm just yet, track superintendent Tony Johnson said, but without some increase in community support, the park’s chances for surviving at current service levels and hours of operation are slim.
The group is faced with a variety of issues, ranging from decreased parking due to development next door, nearby homeless camps and an aging volunteer base largely made up of retirees. Despite that, Johnson said, donations and additional volunteers could help the park survive beyond another year or two.
Donations to ride the trains haven't increased since Johnson got involved with the Berrydale Avenue attraction in the mid-1990s, at around a quarter per ride. But the current average number of riders in an hour equals what the park used to accommodate in an entire day.
“In a sense, we’re a victim of our own success. When I joined the club after I retired, the parking lot might get full and we were giving rides to 250 to 500 people a day,” Johnson said.
“We now can do that in an hour and we use up all our parking and overflow. Our best day in recent memory was three years ago and we gave rides of 3,611 people in four hours — 903 people an hour on average, with 11 trains going at our peak.”
The city-owned park, which is provided under a no-cost lease to the Southern Oregon Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, was built over a former sewage treatment plant. It's now home to four railroad-related clubs, ranging from a historic society to a garden railroad attraction and to the big draw, the steam-powered passenger movers.
At a time when activities at other recreational venues in the region have a per-person fee of several dollars per ride or activity, train rides at the park are essentially free, though suggested donations and birthday party rentals provide the park, and all four clubs, with a source of revenue.
While Johnson marveled at the aging volunteer base, he’s heard of no other railroad parks that compare to the local venue.
He chuckled after telling a story of a club from a larger city boasting of 1,100 passengers in one day.
“We do that in two hours, easy!” he said.
While the park is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Sundays of April through October, Johnson said some volunteers work on the park almost daily.
Friday morning, Johnson and groundskeeper Elvin Sinfield, a volunteer since 2003, surveyed a section of the 49-acre parcel for a butterfly garden they hope to see installed before winter. Meanwhile, Johnson figured he had just spent more than $300 on track screws.
Johnson teased Sinfield, “You had dark hair when you started and I still had hair.”
Sinfield said his ongoing project list at the railroad park, and the enjoyment it brings to visitors, keeps him going.
He’s hopeful the countless community members who line up for rides twice a month will offer some support.
“For some reason, you can’t seem to get it across to the public, with signs or any kind of verbal communication, that it takes a little money to keep this park open,” he said.
“We get a lot done on a tight budget but it can’t just be free. They spend money to do other stuff but they forget to put a dollar in our donation jar. Even if they put 50 cents in the jar, it would be more than we’re getting now.”
Johnson concurred, noting the club, in recent years, had to erect a handful of signs urging visitors to donate in order to help with operational expenses.
The alternative, he noted, was closure of the Thomas the Train attraction.
“I think most people want to see us stay open and maybe they would help if they realized how bad it was,” Johnson said, noting that additional volunteers and donations were equally crucial.
Faced with a worst-case scenario, Johnson said, the park could reduce the ride dates and number of available trains.
“We’ve been free of charge since we opened up 36 years ago. I don’t think anyone means to take advantage so we just have to educate people about the fact that we’re dependent almost solely on their donations.”
He added, “We’re not going to close tomorrow, but it’s down the track a little ways and it’s what we’re facing if things don’t change.”
For more information on the railroad park, see http://soc-nrhs.org/medfordrrpark.htm, or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/pages/Railroad-Park/121013497953053.
— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.