Preparations Underway for 2014 Trails & Rails

Even though the upcoming summer season of the APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program between Chicago, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri doesn’t officially start up for more than ten weeks on the Southwest Chief, preparations are definitely underway!

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First, the dates. You will be able to experience programs presented by Trails & Rails volunteers on Train #3 (the westbound Southwest Chief) between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri every TUESDAY and THURSDAY between mid-May and Mid-September.  Likewise, you will be able to catch Trails & Rails volunteers on Train #4 (the eastbound Southwest Chief) between La Plata, Missouri and Chicago every WEDNESDAY and FRIDAY, during the same time period. There are also plans for an abbreviated winter season of Trails & Rails in November and December 2014, with dates still TBD.

In case you haven’t caught the buzz, Trails & Rails is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service that was formally established 14 years ago. The organization places volunteer rangers aboard various regional and long distance Amtrak trains across the country. For no extra cost than their regular coach or sleeping car ticket, passengers who visit the lounge car get to hear about the natural and historical features of the lands in which the train is passing through.  After various assignments going to St. Louis, Minnesota, and Michigan, a group of Chicago-based Trails & Rails volunteers was assigned to do trips out to La Plata, Missouri in May 2013. By the end of the year, more than 50 programs were presented on this route. Besides being managed by Amtrak and the National Park Service, the program between Chicago and La Plata, MO is co-sponsored by the non-profit group, American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF), and Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation Parks and Tourism Sciences.

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Believe it or not, preparations for the upcoming Summer 2014 season actually got underway before the Winter 2013 was even over. In early December 2013, the program’s Chicago Coordinator (Robert Tabern) and three Assistant Coordinators (Richard DeMink, Dick Holt, and Kandace Tabern) spent the day in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago, Illinois, interviewing new volunteers who sent in applications during the course of 2013. With the addition of a brief winter season to the mix, it was decided to increase the group’s size from 25 to 30 volunteers. With two docents submitting their resignation, it meant that program administrators had to select a total of seven new faces for 2014.  (In the coming months… we’ll blog about our new volunteers… so you’ll get the chance to know more about them!!)

January 2014 and February 2014 were spent working to revise the reference manual that guides use on the train.  Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern explains, “There really aren’t going to be major changes. We had a good base manual for our first season in 2013… however, I’d like to add maybe 20 or 25 pages of new material that our docents have come across over the last year. There are some really cool new stories out there to share with passengers that we didn’t even know about until recently!!  There are things to take out too — like the old CB&Q railroad station in Aurora that was torn down after flooding last spring… and a horse farm in Meriden, Illinois, we’d sometimes point out, that’s been sold off. No horses there anymore.”

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern, and his wife and Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern, have already made one “research trip” on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri to work on the new reference manual. They have two more trips planned in the coming weeks. Kandace Tabern says, “I am glad Amtrak and the National Park Service let us take these research trips to work on the reference manual in the off-season. We sit there and basically look out the window for new things to talk about. We love adding stories and adding to our knowledge base… and coming up with different stories every year for passengers. So if you rode last year, come ride again… new stuff to share!”

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The Taberns have also bought an electronic tablet for their own use and are planning to ditch their old paper reference manual when the new season hits the tracks in May 2014. Several other volunteers are also planning to follow suit. The Taberns got the idea from Trails & Rails volunteers who use iPads during their trips through the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

During the brief layover in La Plata, MO on their first training trip in January 2014, Robert and Kandace spend time meeting with APRHF’s President and Vice-President (Bob and Amy Cox) to discuss the standard operation procedures for the 2014 season. Both Bob and Amy are very excited to continue to support Trails & Rails in 2014. Bob also serves as the La Plata Coordinator for Trails & Rails.  Robert and Kandace also spent time discussing 2014 hotel arrangements with Depot Inn & Suites Manager Maria Snodgrass.

Several training sessions are also in the works  for both new and returning Trails & Rails volunteers. In mid-March 2014, a educational training session will be held in Morton Grove, Illinois (north burbs of Chicago) for volunteers to learn more about farming, geology, and making visual props for use on the train. Presenters of this session include Terry & Joyce Norton and Bob Burkhart.  In early April 2014, the group will gather with volunteers from the sister Trails & Rails program in Indiana for the annual safety training day. In late April and early May 2014, the program’s seven new volunteers will do one-on-one “training trips” to Galesburg, Illinois with one of the program administrators to better learn protocol and sites along the route.

Robert Tabern explains, “I really want our Trails & Rails group to be one of the best and most active programs in the country. I felt like we had a lot to prove going into our 2013 season. We had a non-profit group, APRHF, believing in us so much… that they donated hotel rooms for all our volunteers in La Plata at the Depot Inn & Suites… and we had the trust of the National Park Service to essentially manage our own Trails & Rails program. We are one of the few Trails & Rails programs not overseen directly by a particular National Park Service unit. Most Coordinators are paid rangers… we’re just volunteers with a love for what we do and the joy passengers get from our group. I really hope we exceeded and will continue to exceed the expectations of both APRHF and NPS.”

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When it came to volunteer hours in 2013, the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata  topped all of the other programs in the country that did not run daily.  Several members have already donated over 100 hours of volunteer team for 2014… despite being more than two months from actually being on the train.

Stay tuned to the APRHF website for more pictures of our “training trips” and other training sessions this spring!