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What happened to the Forest Park zoo train? It's still in Massachusetts

What happened to the Forest Park zoo train? It’s still in Massachusetts

SPRINGFIELD — Without fanfare, a popular train at the Zoo in Forest Park departed Springfield last year after being sold. It is now undergoing repairs at its new home at Southwick’s Zoo in central Massachusetts.

Peter Brewer, president of Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, said he is glad to have the MassMutual Express train, purchased for $30,000 from the private, nonprofit Forest Park Zoological Society. The train was a popular attraction last fall at its new location and is slated to return this fall, Brewer said.

While the train needed a lot of repairs, “I think it’s a fair deal,” Brewer said.

MassMutual Financial Group donated the train to the Forest Park zoo 16 years ago after buying it for $190,000. The timing of the gift coincided with the company’s 150th anniversary and was a way for MassMutual to give an enduring donation to the city, then-CEO Robert O’Connell said.

In 2001, then-Forest Park Zoological Society President Robert Gladden called the train “the gift that keeps on giving,” adding that it would help provide a positive zoo experience for thousands of children.

The train was manufactured by Severn-Lamb USA Inc., a United Kingdom-based company in Westwood, New Jersey, and features rubber wheels and a 4-cylinder engine.

Southwick’s Zoo also makes use of a rented train, but that train is not available in the fall, Brewer said. The Springfield train should fill that gap, he said.

“It worked good last year, (but we) had some issues with it,” Brewer said.

The train is popular at Southwick’s Zoo as passengers can see the North American exhibit that includes elk and wild turkeys, he said.

Patrick J. Sullivan, Springfield’s director of parks, buildings and recreation management, said he learned about the train sale about five months after the fact. He said his department still hears from zoo visitors asking about the whereabouts of donated train. The zoo is operated by the Forest Park Zoological Society.

“During the past year, we have received numerous phone calls of why did the train stop being offered,” Sullivan said. “It was another reason to visit the zoo — great for the younger families. We feel it’s unfortunate and it was our understanding it made money to offset zoo expenses.”

There had been a train at Forest Park since at least the 1970s.

The MassMutual Express train arrived new in 2001, replacing an old train that was having maintenance issues, officials said at the time. The new train could carry 75 passengers, was painted blue and white to match MassMutual‘s “blue chip” logo, and had a brass-bell sound system.

Nathan Bazinet, who is listed as interim director and a board member of the Zoo in Forest Park, declined to answer questions about the train.

Officials at MassMutual also declined to comment about the sale of the train.

Forest Park Zoological Society board member Evan Plotkin, who acknowledged that he has not participated in board activity in some time, said he is aware that the train encountered maintenance and mechanical problems in the past and was in need of repairs “quite a bit.”

In Springfield, the train picked up passengers at the zoo entrance, circled the upper park, and then dropped the passengers off at the zoo. The train was not powerful enough to climb the hills in the lower park, Sullivan said.

There was a ticket fee charged for the train rides, but the amount generated annually was not available from the Zoological Society.

The Zoological Society has a 25-year lease at Forest Park, renting the zoo for $1 a year. As a private, nonprofit organization, it operates separately from the park system, but the city funds a full-time employee and major public utilities, city officials said.

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