Every day at 3 p.m., Amtrak Southwest Chief departs the south concourse at Chicago Union Station. For the first 1.5 miles out of the station, the train travels due south, then makes a sweeping right turn under Canal Street and heads out through Chicago’s western suburbs. Soon, an announcement is made over the train’s public address system,” Good afternoon, on behalf of Amtrak and the National Park Service, welcome aboard the Southwest Chief.” On May 18th that greeting will be the start of the latest Trails and Rails partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak, providing rail passengers with educational opportunities that foster an appreciation of a selected region’s natural and cultural heritage. Gaining support for another Trails and Rails program was not easy. Co-sponsor of the new program is Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences. The new program on the Southwest Chief became a reality when the railroad-themed Depot Inn and Suites in La Plata agreed to provide lodging for the volunteer guides. Although the Southwest Chief currently has one Trails & Rails program operating between La Junta, CO and Albuquerque, NM, this second Trails and Rails segment was developed in cooperation with the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation. Bob Cox is the current president and La Plata Coordinator for this new program.
The Chicago-La Plata Trails and Rails program will operate four days per week for the 2013 season, May 18th through Sept 22nd. Guides will ride westbound on train #3 Thursdays and Saturdays and eastbound from La Plata on train #4 Fridays ans Sundays. In March the new Trails and Rails group met in Chicago along with the guides from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park, who volunteer on the Trails and Rails program aboard Amtrak’s Wolverines. Susan Scott, instructor and internship coordinator at Texas A&M, and Anne McGinnis from Amtrak conducted the joint training session. The morning session included Amtrak’s mandatory safety course covering various types of emergencies that might occur while on Amtrak trains. That was followed by Susan Scott’s Interpretation Training Module, teaching guides how to facilitate the connection between the interests of the passenger and the significance of the landscape and history outside the window. McGinnis led the afternoon training, explaining the National Park Services Volunteer in the Park’s Program. Volunteers and Parks Service personnel are part of the National Park Service Mission, which aims to preserve “unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.” Robert and Kandace Tabern, Chicago coordinators for the La Plata group, made concluding remarks. Most of the Chicago Trails and Rails members have previous experience as guides aboard the Empire Builder from 2005 to 2010 between Chicago and Winona,MN before that programs sponsorship was changed to a Trails &Rails group in St. Paul in 2010. The Taberns researched and wrote Outside the Rails, the route guide used by the Trails and Rails guides between Chicago and La Plata. The script covers all the highlights of both general history and railroad history including information on Galesburg, home of Carl Sandburg the American Poet, to information on the mighty Mississippi River at Ft. Madison, Iowa. And yes, there are plenty of facts for the railfans onboard including a short history of the suburban depots between Chicago Union Station and Naperville, including Berwyn, Riverside,Brookfield, and Highlands. Guides also discuss history of the Santa Fe including the BSNF merger. The National Park Service currently operates 22 Trails and Rails programs on various Amtrak trains across the nation with almost 700 volunteers. For more information on Trails and Rails, visit amtrak.com or www.nps.gov. For more information on the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation, visit www.aprhf.org.