Trails & Rails: Hard at Work During the Off Season

Traditionally, fewer people take the train during the colder winter months. The APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago Union Station, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri takes advantage of this “down time” to prepare for the busy upcoming summer season.  And, that’s what is going on right now! While you won’t see any of our volunteer guides on the train doing a program until May 12, 2015, that doesn’t mean things are not happening behind the scenes. In fact, quite the opposite!

One of the major things that happens during the period between January and April each year is the training of new volunteers. In 2015, we will have three new guides in our program; this includes Dave Poole, Roger Dart, and Dave Phillips. All three are from the Chicagoland area; Phillips and Poole have been part of other Trails & Rails programs in the past. Every new Trails & Rails trainee must now go through a minimum of six days of orientation and training before they become a guide and become “signed off” to do an interpretive program without supervision.

The first day of training took place on Tuesday, January 6, 2015 in Grayslake, Illinois. The  trainees spent about three hours going through the program’s Standard Operating Procedures Manual with Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern and experienced volunteers Terry and Joyce Norton.

The second day of training will take place on Saturday, February 14, 2015 at Chicago Union Station. The trainees, along with some  returning volunteers, will be going through a day-long class to learn proper safety protocol when aboard Amtrak trains. This is a requirement for all Trails & Rails volunteers across the country. In fact, if an emergency were to occur on your train, your Trails & Rails guides would immediately step out of their educational role and help passengers to safety. Guides are trained in such aspects as the best ways to evacuate a car, how to assist the conductors in an emergency, and how to assist first responders.  To accomplish this, each returning guide must attend a classroom session every two years. This year’s class will be lead by Safety Coordinator Kerry Denson of Lake Mills, Wisconsin.


Trails & Rails volunteer Kerry Denson also serves as an official Safety Trainer


Safety Trainer Kerry Dneson gives his presentation to Trails & Rails volunteers in April 2014


Amtrak staff provides additional safety training at the classroom in the Chicago Yards


Amtrak staff took Trails & Rails volunteers on a tour of the yards, as part of their safety training

During the month of March, Trails & Rails trainees go on an “observation training trip” between Chicago and La Plata, where they will get to watch an experienced pair of guides perform a full Trails & Rails program to passengers. Trainees are able to better identify the landmarks during this time through the note-taking process, plus, get a feel for how much one should be narrating versus remaining silent and letting passengers take in the information that was just shared with them. This is a two-day training exercise that requires an overnight in La Plata, Missouri at the Depot Inn & Suites.

The last part of training typically occurs in April and involved each trainee going on a “one-on-one performance trip” with the Chicago Coordinator and Assistant Chicago Coordinator between Chicago Union Station and La Plata, Missouri. During this time, the trainee takes the lead in performing all of the duties of the trip, while being evaluated on their performance by the Chicago Coordinator. At the end of this trip, it is determined if the trainee is qualified enough to be signed off to become a full guide, or, if additional training is necessary.

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern explains, “Being based out of such a large city like Chicago, we are really lucky to have a lot of people who want to be part of Trails & Rails on the Southwest Chief. We do a comprehensive training program so that we can get the ‘best of the best’ to be our guides. Sometimes our trainees realize that there is a lot more involved than they first think… and decide they are not a good fit for our program… and that’s fine. We don’t want guides who are doing this to get a free train ride – or think they can talk about railroading the whole time. We are sponsored by the National Park Service first and foremost, and want to tell people about geology, history, and many other things out there. We aren’t on the trains for the enjoyment of just railfans. I tell people – aim your program to that grandma who is taking her first train trip – at the other end of the lounge car. Only about five percent or less should be anything about rail history.”

And yes, not everyone makes it through the training. Of the eight trainees that began the training process in 2014, only four were actually accepted to become guides.


Trails & Rails trainee Robert Dirks during his last training trip in May 2014


Trails & Rails trainees Shelley Weiss and Eugene “Brownie” Ehlers during their training trip in 2014

Of course, working with trainees isn’t the only thing that happens during the “off season”. La Plata Coordinator Bob Cox and Assistant La Plata Coordinator Amy Cox use this time to perform repairs that are needed with the equipment that is used on the train by Trails & Rails volunteers. The two wireless speakers and wireless microphone receive a lot of wear and tear during the summer — they perform over 100 programs and travel more than 30,000 miles. Priority for the 2015 “off season” includes repairing the on/off switch to the wireless microphone.  Money in the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s Trails & Rails Fund will also be used to purchase a back-up speaker and microphone before the start of the Summer 2015 season.

Finally, Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern and Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern spend a significant amount of time during the off-season performing research about the various sites and town between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri. This information is used to  edit the reference manual book that volunteer use. The Taberns put together the original reference manual book when the program began in May 2013. After no significant revisions for 2014, they are planning some significant changes to the 2015 edition. One change will be adding symbols in the reference manual script to assist guides spot landmarks better. For example, squiggly lines when a river crossing is coming up, or a photo symbol when there is something significant that can be seen by passengers on the train. The idea involving symbols was borrowed from the Trails & Rails group that performs programs on the Capitol Limited between Washington, DC and Cumberland, Maryland. Updating the reference manual involves both rides on the train and driving the entire 298-mile route.


Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern visits a pumpkin farm near Princeton, Illinois to do research


Trails & Rails guide Joyce Norton (left) interviews two people in Cherry, Illinois for research


Trails & Rails Chicago Coordinator talked with the farmer who owns the land at Milepost 100 on the route of the Southwest Chief

So, as you can see… while things are quiet on the train when it comes to Trails & Rails over the next couple of months… there is a lot going on behinds the scenes to better YOUR experience in 2015.

If you are interested in learning more about Trails & Rails, or applying to be part of the program, you can contact APRHF President/La Plata Coordinator Bob Cox, or Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern at



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