Ask Abraham Tolbert—a lifelong train enthusiast and perhaps Hermann Park’s most lovable miniature train conductor ever—what it is he finds so appealing about locomotives, and he’ll struggle to put his lifelong hobby into words. Even so, he understands why you’re asking. He’s not exactly normal and, well, he knows it.
For example: he looks forward to being caught in his car at railroad crossings. On planes, he always requests the window seats so he can look for trains below. He has spent thousands of dollars erecting a massive model train layout and keeps pictures of his creation on his iPhone so he can show them to anyone, anywhere. He is a grown man who loves trains the same way a little kid might, breaking into a wide grin each time they come up in conversation, which, not surprisingly, is quite often.
“Trains are just, you know, just so cool, man!” said a laughing Tolbert, 64, tracing his train obsession to the day his dad brought a model train home from work when he was 5 or 6 years old. “I’ve had the train bug for about 60 years now, and I don’t think it’s going away.”
Tolbert, who grew up in Detroit and moved to Houston in the early ’80s, has been manning the train at Hermann Park for the last three years. Over the last decade he’s also worked as a pastor for a small congregation that gathers in his former residence on the southeast side, which he converted into a space for the two things he holds most dear in this world: the gospel and locomotives. “I’ve got my pulpit in one room and my model train layout, which takes up two entire rooms, on the other side of the building,” said Tolbert. “I can stay in there for hours and hours and not even notice.”
The model trains allow Tolbert to play, tinker, and express his creativity, but when it comes to driving the real-life miniature train in Hermann Park, he’s all business. “It’s not all just flat ground and straight lines,” said Tolbert, who has glimpsed every type of wildlife Hermann Park has to offer, from bald eagles to nutrias. “You have to be aware of curves ahead and people, kids running across the track, cars.”
Which may explain how the train—manned by another conductor, we hasten to point out—collided with a car in January, injuring no one, but giving park-goers a scare. In recent years the train, moving at the speed of a fast jog, has also derailed and struck people wandering along one of the two-mile track’s blind curves. “This is a serious job,” Tolbert said.
Young children flock to the graying grandfather with the big smile and the conductor’s cap, an expert calmer of babies who has a way of striking up conversations and connecting with passengers, especially if they’re riding alone. His enthusiasm begins when he high-fives kids at the ticket line and continues when he yells “all aboard” in multiple languages as the train departs Kinder Station. On a recent morning he even tracked down an old man’s yarmulke after it blew off in the middle of a train ride. “I try to give them as much of a train experience as I can,” he says. “I love people and I love trains, so this is a perfect fit.”
He’s made thousands of loops during his tenure, but insists that the 20-minute ride never grows old. “I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing,” he says. “I even think about being on the train on my day off, too.”