Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

NEIGHBORS >> All aboard Cabot train engineer working for the kids

Leader staff writer

What took hours and hours to construct can quickly make a kid’s day.

And that makes a lot of hard work a lot of fun for Cabot’s Don Robinson.

Robinson, 71, is the engineer of the Grand Kids Express, a homemade 32-foot long train that can carry about 27 small children. Robinson takes the train out to churches and area festivals in a 100-mile radius around Cabot.
“If I can bring a minute of joy to a child’s life, it’s worth it,” Robinson said.

A pastor and retired stonemason, Robinson got the inspiration for the train after seeing a similar one in another state.
In 2003, Robinson set to work in his workshop nestled in the tree-covered hills above Greystone in Cabot.

Robinson designed the train’s engine and boxcars. After first removing the mowing assembly underneath a riding lawn mower, he set a black barrel over the lawn mower engine to make it resemble the boiler of an old-time locomotive.

He attached a wooden cattle guard and a trashcan lid with a brightly painted face to give the train personality. Robinson doesn’t have names for the trains.

He simply calls them the long one and the short one. Many children call the trains “Thomas” after “Thomas the Tank Engine Train,” the popular children’s cartoon.

Underneath, each boxcar has dual sets of tires. Each set of tires has a wooden cover over the hub to make them look more like train wheels.
Each boxcar is specially designed by Robinson to follow the engine closely. This allows the train to safely make tight turns.

There is a pair of camp lanterns on the front, rigged with electric lights. Mounted on the caboose is a third camp lantern with a flashing red-beacon light.

The three boxcars are green, red and yellow, decorated with the names of Robinson’s 18 grandchildren. Wooden cutouts and designs on each boxcar display his woodworking skills.

The 32-foot train is actually Robin-son’s second train. After operating the first train for a while, he improved the design to build the current train, adding a third boxcar for carrying young passengers. The first train is stored in his woodshop as a backup.

Robinson’s wife, Betty, helped paint and decorate the trains and also serves as the train conductor, helping the small passengers board the train. As conductor, Betty makes sure each child has the installed seat belts fastened.

Don Robinson built The Station, a canopy with a railroad crossing sign and fencing to keep the little passengers safe while waiting for their turn on the train.

The engine and three boxcars fit snugly, like puzzle pieces on the 16 foot-trailer he uses to transport the train.

At events such as children’s outreach ministries and vacation Bible school children get to ride for free.

“One day we gave 425 children, seven busloads, rides all day long,” Robinson said.
At festivals, he charges $2 to $3 per ride.

“If a child doesn’t have the money to ride — you can see it on their faces when they walk up — we give them a ride anyway,” Robinson said, adding that the money he makes is used to pay the insurance premiums for the train. Insurance companies consider the train a carnival ride and the Robinsons have to keep a million-dollar policy on it.

Other money the couple makes from the train is invested back into it to pay the cost of the gas, oil and upkeep. At most festivals, the Robinsons have to pay a booth fee to operate his train for the children. The cost of constructing the trains and the money the Robin-sons could make if they sold them doesn’t matter to Don Robinson.

“It’s worth it when I see the children get on the train and smile,” he said.