All aboard? Not for long.
Tim Buzunis, owner/conductor of the Assiniboine Park miniature steam train ride nearing its sixth decade in operation, is almost at his last stop.
He wants to sell it and its track and help keep the long-running locomotive chugging in Winnipeg. But so far, he and realtor Gary Davlut only have had contact with interested buyers in the United States.
Buzunis, 62, has been operating the coal-powered steam train since he took over from his father and bought out an uncle’s family in 1989. He’s been around the train since his dad brought it across the U.S. border in 1964, when he was four.
Now, he told the Free Press, it will soon be time to retire and enjoy his summers.
"I’m getting older, I’ve been doing this all my life — I haven’t experienced going to the lake, I’ve missed a lot of family (events), and time has come. It’s a lot of physical hard work, the train itself takes you about two hours to get going every morning, I’m working in the dead of heat," he said.
"I want to start enjoying my life, I don’t know how much longer I have… It’s time for someone else to take over."
There’s a hitch: he has no family to take over the business and, so far, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, which controls the land under the train’s infrastructure, hasn’t shown interest.
"My first goal is to sell it and keep it in this park," Buzunis said.
"This train has only ran in this park, it’s never ran anywhere else, and that means a lot to me and it means a lot to my dad’s legacy and my uncles’… If this train leaves, I don’t see another train ever coming to Winnipeg."
Davlut, a Winnipeg Realtor, said he’s had little luck getting a hold of anyone at the conservancy, which Buzunis sub-leases the land from.
However, Laura Cabak, conservancy public relations and communications manager, said it didn’t previously know of Buzunis’s intentions.
"While we were aware that the owner of the steam train would eventually want to retire, he has not shared a specific plan or timeline with us to date. Because his plans were unknown, we have not seriously considered taking over operation of the steam train. There are many variables to consider," she said Monday in an email.
"We would be very happy to have the owner continue operating the steam train under a tenancy, as he does now, and continue the tradition started by his family almost 60 years ago."
The coal-burning miniature locomotive is a piece of history, its conductor said.
"Steam trains — if you know anything about the history of Canada and the U.S., that’s really what opened up the west," Buzunis said.
"There was only about 50 of these trains ever made by the manufacturer and of the 50, only about 10 of them (use) coal… This is what they call an authentic coal-burning steam train, because it’s like the real thing."
He estimates there’s only about 30 still running.
However, there’s less interest in the train nowadays, and the park overall, Buzunis said. On the locomotive’s first and second days in operation in July 1964, 10,000 people paid to ride. It ran from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the season, for 25 cents a ride. Now, it’s $3.75, from noon to 6 p.m.
"Back in those days, this park was everything — they used to call it City Park… When I was a kid working, even at this time of the year, this park would’ve been packed with people, the foot bridge you’d have to walk," Buzunis said.
"Families didn’t have a lot, there wasn’t a lot to do at home, so the park was like the place to go to."
He hopes some fresh blood or the conservancy could renew interest.
Davlut notes the asking price is $649,000. A steal, Buzunis said.
"To put this train here today, physically, to level the land, to put in the rails, to put up the tunnel, the station, the storage shed, you’re looking at $1 million, $1.2 million... The train? I don’t know. You can’t buy that type of train today."
Buzunis plans to start running the train for the year soon, weather dependent, and would stay on to help a new owner for a season or two.
"Hopefully, somebody will buy it," he said.
Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.