New Trails & Rails Trainees Complete Six Days of Training

Even though our Trails & Rails program has been on its annual winter-time hiatus for the past five months now and things appear to be very quiet, trainees and coordinators have been getting ready for the busy Summer 2015 season. One of the major reasons why we are not on the train between late December and early May every year is so that our focus can briefly shift away from presenting programs to passengers to taking care of  various “house keeping” items for the next year, including updating the reference manual, planning outreach events, and training new docents for the next year’s season. Effective January 1, 2015, each new trainee must complete a minimum of six days of training before they are signed off to become a full docent with the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri, which takes a significant amount of time, for both their trainers and the trainees.

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Trails & Rails volunteer Alane Morgan poses for a picture with a newly made junior ranger on the train

One of the questions that we often get from passengers is, “That’s really cool! How do I become a Trails & Rails volunteer?”.  Here’s an inside look into how it works:

Initial contract from someone interested in joining the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO is usually made by an e-mail sent to Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern (robert@rtabern.com). Robert will often first provide each person interested in the program with a two-page FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) Sheet that explains the operations of the program and  details age and ability requirements imposed by Amtrak and the National Park Service. If a prospective trainee is still interested in joining the program after reading through the Trails & Rails FAQ Sheet, they can then contact Robert a second time, who will provide a copy of the formal National Park Service VIP (Volunteer-in-Parks) application form. Trails & Rails is just a very small part of the VIP Program run by the National Park Service, which places volunteers at more than 400 units across the country, with duties ranging from performing our interpretive program on the train, to building trails, or staffing visitor centers alongside actual National Park Service rangers, especially during the busy summer months when staffing is spread thin in some popular parks. Prospective trainees are given a deadline of returning their application by November 1st to be part of the next year’s program.

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The eastbound Southwest Chief arrives in La Plata, MO; passengers are excited they will get a Trails & Rails program

Anyone who sends in an application and meets the age and physical ability requirements are invited for a formal interview every year down at Chicago Union Station, typically during the first week or two of December. The prospective trainee usually gets about 30 to 45 minutes to meet the interview panel, which is made up of the program’s Chicago Coordinator, and the three Assistant Chicago Coordinators (Kandace Tabern, Richard DeMink, and Dick Holt). Each applicant is told more about the Trails & Rails program during their interview and are then given a chance to explain why they are interested in the program, plus explain what about their background makes them the ideal candidate to become a new trainee. The ideal candidate is a good public speaker, interested in some aspect of history/geography/geology, and are interested in national parks and our nation’s natural spaces, just as much as they are about being on the train.

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Trails & Rails Assistant Coordinator Richard DeMink interviews prospective trainee Roger Dart in December 2014

Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern explains, “Understandably, we do have a lot of “railfans” who apply to be part of Trails & Rails. However, we do a very long training and interview process, which “weeds out” those who might be just looking for a “free train ride” and aren’t in it to do a proper interpretive program. While our volunteers do not pay anything for their train fare, meals, and lodging, we emphasize that you have to work for what you get. Trails & Rails is a National Park Service program; not just an Amtrak program. We are not there to point out every grade crossing and do in-depth presentations about railroad history. While we do mention some important railroad highlights on our route between Chicago and La Plata, I am very strict in making sure volunteers talk about railroading only for 5% or less of their presentation to make it successfully out of training.  You have to gear your presentations to the teenager in the lounge car, or the grandma who is taking her first train ride in 50 years. They don’t care about where every branch line goes to that we pass. They do care about seeing an eagle’s nest along the Mississippi River, or why the topography of the land changes between the flat farm fields of Eastern Illinois and the rolling hills of Northeast Missouri. THAT is why we are on the train and presenting a program. We are NPS volunteers; Amtrak just happens to be the vehicle we are doing our presentation on… instead of a walk through the woods or being stationed at a traditional visitor center.”

Some years we have just three new applicants, while other years the numbers have been in the double digits!  How many applicants go on to become actual trainees depends on how many docents submit their resignations during the previous year. For example, at the end of the 2014 season, docents Jim Carr, Craig Wright, and James Walsh submitted their resignation to the Chicago Coordinator. This meant we needed three new applicants for the 2015 season; we chose Roger Dart, Dave Phillips, and Dave Poole.

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Conductor Gerald meets the Trails & Rails 2015 trainees for the first time on their “observation trip” on April 11, 2015

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern explains, “We are lucky to have our crew base for Trails & Rails right here in Chcago. Chicago is a city of just about three million people… the metropolitan Chicago area has nearly ten million… and if you throw in other areas of northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and northwest Indiana where our volunteers reside and commute in from to do the program… you are talking about a huge pool of potential volunteers. We have so many applicants sending in their name that we have formed a “waiting list” to become part of  our Trails & Rails route. In fact, some people have remained on our current “waiting list” since the program started interviewing applicants in December 2012. This is not the case with all Trails & Rails programs.  A handful of Trails & Rails programs based in rural communities in the Great Plains, like North Dakota and Montana, had to shut down operations or reduce the frequency of trips because of the limited number of people wanting to become volunteers. I am glad, as the Coordinator of our Trails & Rails program, that we don’t have those issues here. I’d much rather have too many applicants than not enough to cover the two programs we run every week, all summer long.”

The fact that there is a “waiting list” should not discourage anyone from applying to be part of the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO. Often times brand new applicants are taken over those who have been on the “waiting list” for years; it just depends on one’s ability, enthusiasm, prior experience, and personality. By the end of December every year, applicants are informed whether they will be placed on the “waiting list” for consideration in future years, or have been accepted to become a trainee for the following season.

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Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern works with two trainees on their “observation trip” in April 2015

The first day of training typically takes place in early January every year; this year it occurred on Tuesday, January 6, 2015.  This is an informal day that is meant to welcome the new trainee to the program… and yes… typically involves some ymmy baked goods!  This day lasts about three hours and has traditionally taken place at the home a Coordinator, Assistant Coordinator, or long-time volunteer; this year Terry & Joyce Norton of Grayslake, Illinois opened up their doors for the initial training day. Trainees are given the program’s 39-page Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) manual and each item and topic is brought up for discussion. The trainees get a great sense of what is expected from them after this day. Trainees are also provided tips from experienced volunteers and are given a chance to ask questions.

The second day of training typically takes place sometime in February at Union Station in Chicago. This is a formal classroom-style training day and covers various topics, with a special emphasis on safety and interpretation. Trails & Rails guides are not just volunteers, they are trained and expected to assist Amtrak crew members in the event of an emergency. To be prepared for any scenario, new trainees go through extensive safety instruction from Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern and Chicago Safety Coordinator Kerry Denson. Kerry Denson is a retired Brigadier General from the National Guard, who served in active combat, is a Purple Heart recipient, and was responsible for the safety and security of thousands of American troops; this makes him the perfect one to teach our annual class, as he cares about the well-being and safety of our volunteers while they are on the train performing their programs. Returning volunteers must go through Kerry’s safety presentations every two years as a “refresher”.  The class runs for about four hours during the morning and early afternoon. The late afternoon is usually taken up with a special activity for volunteers. In 2014, those attending got to go on a “shop tour” in the Amtrak Yards and in 2015 a special walking tour of Union Station was provided by two Amtrak employees.

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Safety Coordinator Kerry Denson is responsible for safety training for our group

Once a trainee completes their orientation and safety training dates, the on-board training period begins; it entails portions of four days spent on board the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO learning what it takes to be a Trails & Rails guide. On-board training takes place between early March and early April every year, depending on the schedule of the trainees, trainers, and the hotel which is used in La Plata, MO. The third and fourth day of training is an overnight round-trip on the Southwest Chief and is considered an “observation trip”. During this trip, all trainees and two trainers travel together; the trainers perform a complete Trails & Rails program, while the trainees observe and take notes about what is said and the various landmarks. The trainees do not narrate or interact with passengers on this initial trip, as this is their first and only chance to see the program in action as an observer.

The final phase of training for a new Trails & Rails trainee in our program is an “evaluation trip”; this marks their fifth and sixth day of training. This typically takes place between early April and early May, once again, depending on the schedule of the trainee, trainer, and the hotel that is utilized in La Plata, MO.  An “evaluation trip” is done with one trainee going on a one-on-one trip with one trainer on an overnight trip between Chicago and La Plata, MO. During this trip, the trainee is expected to take the lead on all aspects of the trip, including gathering the equipment in Chicago, setting up the equipment on the train, performing the majority of the narration, and being responsible for most of the interaction with the passengers. While the trainee does their program, the trainer will sit at the opposite end of the lounge car and evaluate the trainee with a four page evaluation form that covers everything from the trainee wearing proper attire to their ability to recognize most of the major landmarks, plus the tone and pace of their speaking.

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Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern is busy on April 19, 2015, doing evaluations for two new trainees

If a trainee passes their “evaluation trip” with a score of 75 or better, they are signed to become a full Trails & Rails volunteer and will get their uniform and ID card. They will still be placed with experienced volunteers for the remainder of their first year in the program. If a trainee does not preform up to their trainer’s standards, they will receive additional training sessions, or could face removal from the program. Historically, only about half of trainees have been signed off to become full volunteers after the normal training phase of the program. For example, in 2014, of the eight trainees who entered the program, four became signed off, two resigned before the end of the training process, and two others were removed from the program before being signed off to become a full volunteer.

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One of the evaluation forms that are used by trainers on the “evaluation trip” to grade docents before they are signed off

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern explains, “We take training very seriously in our group. Kandace and I probably spend around ten hours every week doing something for Trails & Rails… that is over 500 hours in a year. We want our program between Chicago and La Plata, MO to be one of the best in the country. We have enough volunteers who apply – that we won’t simply accept second best. Our program runs about five hours in length – we want passengers who participate to thoroughly enjoy every minute of us being on board.”

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Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern (pictured above) is responsible for the day-to-day of the operations of the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri.  Tabern is based out of Wadsworth, Illinois.

The Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief was created on December 3, 2012 and began full operations on May 18, 2013. Many of the volunteers who participate were also in the Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Minnesota between 2005 and 2010; that program was terminated in Fall 2010 by the then-Superintendent of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Trainee Dave Poole takes the lead during his “evaluation trip” on April 19, 2015, inlcuding the junior ranger program

Trails & Rails will operate for a third year on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO, starting May 12, 2015 and will run through September 30, 2015. The program will operate most Tuesdays and Thursdays between Chicago and La Plata, MO, and most Wednesdays and Fridays between La Plata, MO and Chicago. Passengers wishing to ensure they will have a Trails & Rails program on their train are encouraged to contact Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern at robert@rtabern.com. Sometimes trips do get cancelled for staffing or other reasons.  Trails & Rails is a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak… our group is also sponsored locally by Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Parks & Tourism Sciences… and by the non-profit American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation in La Plata, Missouri.

 

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