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About Sickkids
About SickKids

December 22, 2015

The man behind the train: Volunteer delivers joy to SickKids year round

By Alexandra Flack

Keith Martel was sitting at a table, tinkering away at the miniature train in front of him when he looked up and saw a visually-impaired child and his mother walking towards him. The mother asked Keith if he would mind explaining to her son what he was doing. With permission, Keith took the boy’s hands and guided them over each part of the locomotive, explaining how it works.

“I still get goosebumps thinking about it today because the boy was just so happy,” explains Keith. “Experiences like these mean so much to me; it really makes what I do at SickKids worth it.”

For almost a decade Keith has been the man behind the SickKids train. He generously dedicates his time to ensuring that the train is always in working order.

The SickKids train is a miniature locomotive on an elevated track that travels along a loop 175 feet long. Located in the busy Tim Hortons food court, it’s popular among children who like to watch it travel along the tracks. It even has a button positioned at a child’s level, a few feet off the ground, so that they can push it themselves to make the train move.

Keith with train
Keith checks on the front locomotive to make sure the train is in working order.

Those familiar with the train have probably seen children run eagerly towards the button, which is typically followed by pointing and excitement as they watch the train depart from the tunnel above them. For some kids, checking out the train is a part of their daily routine. For others, it’s a fun surprise, something new and exciting to pique their interest. In the complex realm of health care, the train is a momentary pause, a simple pleasure that brings a smile to a sick child’s face.

But the SickKids train faces a lot of wear and tear. In just one year’s time the miniature engine travels a distance equivalent to travelling from Toronto to Regina. Like a regular train, it needs track and equipment maintenance to ensure that it runs smoothly.

Keith is the sole volunteer dedicated to looking after the train; without him the train might not run. You can find him with his ladder and a toolbox, tinkering with the system to make sure it’s in perfect condition.

In 2006, the SickKids train derailed, the system was shut down and the train disappeared for months because there was no one at SickKids with the expertise to fix it. A group called the Canadian Association of Railway Modelers (CARM), which Keith is a part of, heard about the train and took it upon themselves to fix it. They sent in volunteers, including Keith, to fix the system and get the train running again.

Once complete, members of CARM decided there should be a volunteer dedicated to maintaining the train and Keith was unanimously selected since he lives closest to the hospital. Although Keith fell into this position unintentionally, as a hobbyist with a passion for all things railway, he didn’t mind at all. It didn’t take long for Keith’s passion for locomotives to extend to a passion for SickKids after seeing how happy the train could make patients.

“To be able to put a smile on a child’s face, even just briefly, can help brighten what might be a tough day,” explains Keith. “Sometimes the little things can make a difference. For young kids, the train is instant gratification, when they go to push the button you can see their faces light up.”

Keith comes to SickKids once a week to check on the train and make sure that its working properly. He has established a timed loop for the train; it must complete the loop in between one and a half and two minutes to ensure it doesn’t derail. If it’s ever running too fast or too slow, Keith fixes it. He also comes in for more complex maintenance every six to eight weeks.

On top of system repairs, Keith goes above and beyond to make the train as interesting as possible for the kids through themed displays. Attached to the main locomotive is a cart that carries a display, which Keith hand crafts himself. Just last week he switched the homemade dinosaur display to a holiday one, complete with frost and miniature snowmen.

The train is a sure hit with young kids and it tracks many kilometers day after day. Over the next few years the train tracks will likely need major maintenance, but patients at SickKids can count on Keith to keep it running.