Nurturing the childlike wonder of transit – When you’re small, meeting a GO Transit train conductor, even virtually, can be like bumping into Superman or Wonder Woman

As the head of media relations for Metrolinx, Anne Marie Aikins is used to being in the press and speaking to thousands of people at once. But it’s intimate moments helping kids learn about transit – something she’s often asked to do – that often resonate loudly for her. In this column, she tells us how small people can make the biggest impact in her busy world – including an American youngster with a bowl full of popcorn.

As much as the latest electronic toy.

Perhaps more – sometimes – than actual caped crusaders.

Kids, big and small, are often fascinated with trains.

Metrolinx staff try to accommodate many of the little ones’ love by giving them brief tours or they are encouraged to visit stations with their parents (UP Express at Union Station is a favourite train spotting place) and watch as the big green trains go by.

Everyone should be so lucky to find someone that looks at you the way a child looks at a train.

Anne Marie Aikins

Our crews and station staff are always more than willing to help realize little dreams as long as it can be done safely. And I am only too happy to oblige providing a quick tour because I know little train fans grow up to be big transit enthusiasts. Nurture them young.

With very little effort I get to relish a few minutes of unadulterated joy in the eyes of a child. Everyone should be so lucky to find someone that looks at you the way a child looks at a train.

Image of a young boy in a GO sweater.
Hunter in 2017 in his GO gear. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

Over the years, I’ve developed wonderful friendships with a number of families as a result. I’ve watched a few young rail fans grow up and expand their transportation fascinations — planes, trains and automobiles – like my pal Hunter Martin who has been visiting with his family for a number of years especially on his birthday.

On my off days, I love to bring my grandsons for train rides too.

A child stands before a conductor on a train.
Bryson, Anne Marie’s grandson, takes a tour on an UP train in Feb 2020 and meets the engineer. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

But this pandemic has made tours a challenge, if not impossible at times for little train fans. They’ve hunkered down with their families since March staying home to keep themselves and everyone safe. We have missed their personal visits, their enthusiastic looks of awe and wonder as they watch the trains go by.

One little guy, Thijs Ryan just wanted it so badly we decided to recently FaceTime with him on a train and it was almost as satisfying – for both of us – as the real thing.

A local reporter got us in touch with his mom, Shawna, because the six year old was stuck at home, like so many others, and he happens to be in love with trains.

The journalist told me:  “COVID has made it hard for Thijs to get his fix of trains and he has been yearning to know more about what goes on behind the scenes.”

What about a virtual tour, she suggested? It’s an irresistible spin on a pitch I’ve heard many times before. I was intrigued so spoke with his mom.

“We’ve taken Amtrak all over the place and currently go drive around the parking lot at the CN terminal,” Shawna said from their home in Illinois.

“He’s started to really want to go in the building and with COVID, especially in the U.S., that’s not happening for awhile. Last summer we could go places like Chicago and he loved watching their commuter trains come in and out.

“I really appreciate this and am just so touched that it might be a possibility.”

So we booked a time that fit for both time zones and I made arrangements with the rail team to ensure the crew would be aware I was coming. I made sure Thijs was ok with us all wearing masks – a requirement at Metrolinx while on duty.

No one in the terminal at Union Station seemed to mind me walking around with my phone on a selfie stick – to ensure I kept a safe distance from my colleagues – talking away to Thijs and Shawna while he munched on popcorn like he was at the movies. We watched GO trains come and go through the platform window at the station and counted the coaches on each – some were 12, others six – and chatted about the locomotives versus the diesel multiple units (DMUs) used on the UP Express train.

A child eats popcorn while on a virtual meeting
Thijs on his virtual tour – with his popcorn. (Anne Marie Aikins image)

As the UP train arrived we visited briefly with the crew and saw the tiny space where they sit and all the controls. We walked with the two engineers as they made their way to the other end of the train to reverse back to the airport making sure we didn’t distract them from their duties. He loved the look of the train as we watched people carry their luggage off and head home wondering where they had all come from.

And finally we visited the end of the station where you can look way up to see the impressive CN Tower. Popcorn was done. Another little boy’s train fix was satisfied for the moment and a teary eyed mother couldn’t express her gratitude more.   

Truth be told, I was the grateful one. I left the station feeling a little lighter and thankful for having a job that indulges me these fun moments, especially during these turbulent times.  

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx, senior manager of media.