Transit vehicles, especially big commuter trains, can inspire imagination and even a bit of awe. But for some, they become the thing of dreams and wishes. In her latest column, Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx’s well known head of media relations, writes about a young woman who had one wish, set against the most difficult of times.
If given the opportunity to ask for anything – anything in the world – what would be your last big wish?
For one determined young woman, it was to operate a train like the GO trains she often took rides in with her parents. It was always her dream, but now seemed like an impossible feat for someone on her last journey in palliative care.
Born with Down syndrome, Romina Asrani is now 21 years old. The endearing and determined wisp of a young woman saw her wish come true at Union Station this past weekend (May 16) when Metrolinx and Alstom Canada staff worked together to create an incredible, joyful experience that no one will soon forget.
This past year has been filled with sadness and loss for everyone. There is a proverb, however that says sorrow is a requirement for finding moments of true joy. This story may seem terribly huge, but because a young woman believed her dream was possible, it also made us believe it too.
And we felt joyous even for a few minutes because of her.
I was first introduced to Romina Asrani and her family when Sick Kids reached out to tell us about her dream to “drive a big train like her grandfather”.
Hesitant at first because it seemed impossible under the circumstances, but I was willing to try and do what we could and agreed to meet with them by video. The Thornhill parents, Mansour and Soraya, told me about their daughter Romina, who was born with Down syndrome and has suffered with multiple illnesses since she was a little girl. She’s a fighter, Soraya said, but is now in palliative care.
Romina told me about her wish to drive a train some day. They often, at least before she became gravely ill and the pandemic began, took the GO train for trips, and she would take the train in Europe too, she said. Her dad would tell her stories about her grandfather who was a train engineer and his stories always fascinated her.
Well, I fell in love with her immediately of course, so proposed we wait until we were out of lockdown and it was safer. She wouldn’t be able to exactly drive a train, I said, but I would see if our rail team could give her a fun trip, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, they were concerned that waiting wasn’t really an option, so we agreed on a Sunday afternoon with barely three days to plan. The parents also requested a reporter be there so they could have her story documented. Romina cheered as we ended the call saying: “Yes, I am going to drive a train!”
I hung up on our video call wondering: ‘What on earth am I going to do? I cannot disappoint her.’
For readers who don’t know, my little sister Jenny was one of the greatest sources of joy in my life. Like Romina, she was also born with Down syndrome and died the day before our first lockdown in March 2020. Jenny would have kicked my butt if I didn’t fulfill Romina’s dream.
Count Me In
So, I reached out across our organization – to senior leadership in rail, transit safety, operations, stations, and beyond – and told them about Romina’s last wish. I pressed send on the email and waited – within minutes everyone responded with the same message.
‘Count me in.’
And then I sat back and watched our teams create some magic. Metrolinx staff worked with Alstom Canada to plan a special UP Express train and a crew to work personally with Romina. Stations staff ensured we were ready to escort the family around safely with a wheelchair for Romina to carry her oxygen and reduce the amount of walking. Transit safety arranged to be on site with Dougie from the K9 team. Souvenir gifts were planned. And a safety plan was meticulously prepared to ensure we remained COVID-safe and were prepared for any type of emergency.
Staff thought of everything and really reached out across our entire organization to prepare for Romina’s special train.
The day finally arrived. As the family pulled up in front of Union Station, I was taken aback just how frail and tiny Romina was as she approached and glad we thought about bringing a wheelchair.
After I greeted Romina and her parents, transit safety and stations staff met with the family as they arrived, took them to the UP Express station and provided her with special gifts including official transit safety badges, a GO bear and plenty of masks. She loved the UV cleaner in the station and made her parents clean their phones.
Boarding Romina’s Train
Once the regular scheduled train was loaded with customers and left for the airport, with Romina watching from the platform, the station grew quiet and over the loudspeaker came this soothing voice:
“Attention please, we have an extraordinary announcement. Please join me and all our staff at Metrolinx in welcoming Romina and her family to UP Express as our very special guests today. The next train arriving is Romina’s train.”
Romina’s joy was palpable, and she was giddy with excitement as the specially arranged train arrived and the doors opened. As we entered the train, staff and customers in the station spontaneously cheered loudly.
The crew met Romina and toured her through the train, explained their jobs and when they asked her if she wanted to sit in the conductor’s seat in the cab, she turned to me and said: “Really, you are making this happen for me?”
I’m not sure there was a dry eye at this point. Certainly not mine.
The Alstom crew, engineer Tony Borek and conductor Aaron Trude, took her into the cab, let her hold the key, which she held like it was the most precious treasure and then explained all the gadgets. The microphone was a huge hit; they showed her how to use it to make announcements and toot the horn.
Although she wasn’t technically operating the train, the crew made her feel like she was in control as the train moved the very short trip to platform 3 and back.
Once we were back at the station, Romina sat in the opposite end cab and showed off her skills on the microphone.
“I’m so excited,” she said.
While Romina learned the tricks of the trade, Soraya and I chatted like moms do. She told me just how hard the last year has been for her daughter, the loneliness, her worsening breathing and stays in the hospital. Worrying about contracting a potentially deadly virus added to their anxieties.
Soraya spoke with such fondness and gratitude for their amazing Sick Kids family – the same hospital Jenny was treated at for years.
Then the crew presented her with an official honorary locomotive engineer certificate.
“This is the coolest thing, the best thing that has ever happened in my life,” Romina said. “I will never forget it, ever.”
As the family wished, Global News (including Global National) was there to document her journey. When Mansour was asked to speak to the reporter, Romina tugged his sleeve to let him know she had this covered. And then she articulated much better than any of us could what this experience meant to her.
“I could not be happier than I am right this minute,” Romina said. “Thank you all for making my wish come true for me. I love you all. You are my angels.”
When I passed on her thanks to Savio D’Gamma Rose, a manager in the operations centre who helped bring all the details together behind the scenes, his response spoke for all of us: “This was my absolute pleasure. I was lucky to be a part, even in a small way, of bringing some happiness and joy to Romina today.”
Thank you, Romina from all of us.
Interested in another recent column by Anne Marie Aikins? Here’s one below.
Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx senior manager, Media