UPDATE, 1.3.20 8:00pm – Children’s Health Dallas has reversed its plans and now says the trains will stay.

“We are humbled by the heartfelt response we’ve received about our beloved Trainscape. We have decided to incorporate the trains within the lobby of Children’s Medical Center Dallas.” – Children’s Health spokesperson (Friday)

The last few days word has come out that Children’s Health Dallas has decided to get rid of the big “Trainscape” display that so many patients, families and visitors have enjoyed for the last 30 years. 

According to Children’s own statement, what they want to do as the hospital “evolves” what it does is “meet the needs of the growing number of patients and families (it) serves”. Children’s says the change will allow it to “transform the space into an expanded courtyard, state-of-art playground area suitable for all abilities, an indoor kids area that will be open 24/7, along with with a full service Starbucks.” 

Some background: for three years I helped host a radio broadcast marathon during the Holiday Season that raised more than $3 million dollars for Children’s. I was one of the first Grand Marshals of the Children’s Holiday Parade, back when it was called the Adolphus Children’s Christmas Parade. The CEO is a personal friend, and I have several letters from him thanking me for my efforts. And I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t say loudly that dumping the beloved model trains is a big mistake. 

Up until this week, I thought the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of was the idea running around the Fort Worth Stockyards that maybe they should get rid of the Stockyards Rodeo. Yeah, let’s get rid of one of the main reasons hundreds of thousands of tourists started to come see your part of town in the first place. It’s a business decision, and I have a feeling Children’s decision is too. 

Trainscape occupies around 5500 square feet. Business says square footage either makes you money or costs you money, and apparently Children’s business minds think that matters more than what a few model trains can do. They’re wrong.

As a kid I spent a great deal of time in hospitals. First, don’t blame Starbucks. Many times my parents spent weeks living at the hospital – and when your child is hurting and you’re terrified, any kind of creature comfort is appreciated. I’ve had kids in the hospital too, and if you’ve ever had hospital coffee, you’d want a Starbucks too. Besides, I like Starbucks – and this is not their fault.

It is, however, a complete lack of understanding. There’s actual science out there about why kids like trains. Studies show trains stimulate spatial cognizance – essentially jump-starting the imagination. Children with better spatial abilities actually do better in school and on tests – to say nothing about what it does for day-dreaming. As those trains travel their magical little landscapes, kids think about where they might be going – and what wonder might be at their destinations. There’s a reason Mister Rogers used one in his neighborhood. They take kids out of themselves to what could be – and if you’re in a wheelchair hooked up to tubes and needles, imagining being anywhere else matters. It’s healing. I should think Children’s would have read the research.  

I’ve long said that the problem is never a lack of opportunity. It’s a lack of imagination, and that’s what we have here. Imagine if instead of dumping the trains for a Starbucks, Children’s had announced they were building the only Starbucks in the world with a model train. Do you suppose this completely unnecessary PR disaster would have played better then? 

No one is saying that an all-ability play area or a courtyard wouldn’t be great things – they are. But for a sick child, engaging the mind is every bit as vital as engaging the body. That’s why the trains are so loved. But these days, business degrees often seem to come at the expense of a heart – and in this case, clearly in place of a brain. 

The fact is that getting a Starbucks anywhere is not a quick process, so this was in the works long before Children’s fumbled the rollout. Tell people that donations are down and you need extra revenue and they’ll listen. Tell them it might keep an extra air ambulance on stand-by and they’ll agree. Tell them you’re building even better ways to heal sick kids and they’ll show up with gloves and a hammer. But tell them “progress” will mean losing something that helps in ways a ledger can’t quantify, and they won’t call that progress. They’ll call you out. 

I’ve worked in a business that increasingly became beholden to the bottom line at the expense of creativity and vision, and chances are you have too. A revenue stream is not worth losing the spirit that made you what you are. You sacrifice the latter and eventually you will lose the former. It may be too late to save the trains. I hope not, but they’ve already planned special day for Homer Bedloe to cancel the Cannonball. The infuriating part is that with just a little imagination, Children’s could keep Trainscape and evolve – whatever the misuse of that verb implies – but seeing through the eyes of a child doesn’t seem to be how they saw things here. And if you stay on that track, eventually you lose all the things that got you where you wanted to go.

Jody Dean


Why do children love trains?
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