Trails & Rails Winter Season Begins November 11

The Trails & Rails program on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Chicago Union Station, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri will kick off its Winter 2014 season on Tuesday, November 11, 2014. The American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) continues to be a key sponsor of this group. Between November 11 and December 31, 2014, volunteers will once again be presenting interpretive programs in the upper level of the Sightseer Lounge car to inform passengers about the history, geology, geography, and other topics of interest across northern Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri.

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Trails & Rails volunteer Bruce Schrimpf greets passengers on the train with his smile (Photo Courtesy: Carl Morrison)

Passengers will be able to listen to the programs and interact with volunteers on the westbound Southwest Chief (Train #3) between Chicago and La Plata, MO on Tuesdays and Thursdays… and on the eastbound Southwest Chief (Train #4) between La Plata, MO and Chicago on Wednesdays and Fridays. (NOTE: Volunteers will likely NOT be on the train December 25-26; other trips may be cancelled without notice due to weather and/or other operational issues). Programs are presented at no additional cost for both coach and sleeping car passengers on the train; seating in the Sightseer Lounge car, as always, is available on a first come, first serve basis.


Assistant Chicago Coordinator Dick Holt tells passengers about Plano, Illinois  (Courtesy: Carl Morrison)

The American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF), the National Park Service (NPS), Amtrak, Texas A&M University, and the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, Missouri formed a unique agreement on December 3, 2012 that established the first Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief in the Midwest. The first interpretive program took place on May 18, 2013, and since then, more than 40,000 passengers have participated in over 200 programs presented by Trails & Rails volunteers. The program operates on the Southwest Chief featuring both a summer season (from mid-May to mid-September) and a winter season (from mid-November to late December). The goal is to be aboard when passenger totals are at their highest, typically summer months and between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.


Volunteers John McClelland and Craig Wright look for landmarks

For the past six weeks, Trails & Rails volunteers have not been on the train due to the usual fall break period that is built into the program’s yearly schedule, but it has been anything but quiet for certain members of the group. Bob Murray of Evergreen Park, Illinois, and Joe Kuczynski of Wheaton, Illinois, officially completed the volunteer training process during October 2014; trainees are required to participate in a classroom-style safety and orientation training day, a minimum of one training trip to Galesburg, Illinois, and a minimum of one training trip to La Plata, Missouri.


Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern concentrates while she evaluates trainee Joe Kuczynski on a training trip aboard the Southwest Chief, October 2014

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, October 1, 2014, most of the volunteers gathered at the Two Brothers Roundhouse Restaurant & Brewery in Aurora, Illinois for the group’s annual dinner and awards banquet. Certificates of appreciation were handed out to volunteers; they were signed by National Park Service and Texas A&M University representatives James Miculka and Susan Scott, as well as Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern and La Plata Coordinator Bob Cox. Volunteers also got a tour of the former 1850’s CB&Q Roundhouse from the restaurant’s general manager.


Many of the Trails & Rails guides on the Southwest Chief gathered for the group’s annual dinner on October 1, 2014 in Aurora, Illinois

Also in October 2014, a few volunteers took a field trip together to Cherry, Illinois, a small community located 90 miles southwest of Chicago, that was the site of one of the deadliest mining disasters in United States history. The remaining slag hills from the mine, which was in operation from 1905 to the mid-1930s, can be seen from the route of the Southwest Chief, and is one of the significant stories that guides tell passengers. Trails & Rails guides got a tour of the property from the grandsons of Joseph Bartoli, the man who bought the mine from the Milwaukee Road railroad around 1930.


Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern poses for a picture at the slag hills that mark the site of the Cherry Hill Mine, one of the deadliest mine disasters in American history


Trails & Rails volunteer Joyce Norton (left) takes a tour of the Cherry Hill Mine site

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern and Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern have also been extremely busy during October 2014 gathering needed stories and historical information to perform a significant revision to the group’s reference manual ahead of the upcoming Summer 2015 season. Over the past few weeks, the Taberns have driven the entire 298-mile train route between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri, stopping off at various historical societies and local organizations along the way. Their journeys have taken then between Aurora and Princeton (October 1), Princeton and Fort Madison (October 15), Fort Madison and La Plata (October 22), plus downtown Chicago and Aurora (November 5). According to the Taberns, the hardest part of the research was finding a road that paralleled the tracks as much as possible; west of Mendota, most of the roads are gravel or dirt and do not really directly follow the tracks.


Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern gets a crash course in pumpkins during a visit to a pumpkin patch located along the tracks in Princeton, Illinois; this recently discovered site will be incorporated into the 2015 edition of the reference manual for guides

While the official deadline to apply to be part of the 2015 season for Trails & Rails on the Southwest Chief has now passed, the program’s management team will be hosting an open house event to recruit new applicants for potential future openings. Anyone who has an interest in being part of the program is encouraged to stop by Chicago Union Station on Tuesday, December 9, 2014 between Noon and 1:00 p.m. This “meet and greet” event will take place in the Union Gallery Room, located in the far southwest corner of the Great Hall.  An RSVP to is encouraged, but is not required. This is an informal event and will serve as a chance to ask whatever questions you have about the program.

We look forward to seeing you aboard during the winter months… we hope we can brighten your holiday travel plans between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri.


Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern (left) and Coordinator Robert Tabern (right) finally end their 298-mile drive of the Trails & Rails route to La Plata, Missouri


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