Facebook Page
An Inside Look Into Outside the Rails (Part 1 of 2)

An Inside Look Into Outside The Rails (Part 1 of 2)

The Story Behind our Railroad Route Guides

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: January 29, 2016

Since 2011, we have written several railroad route guide books; some of which are pictured here aboard Amtrak's Great Dome
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Over the past several years, we have written several railroad route guidebooks that detail what passengers see outside their window while traveling on various Amtrak routes.  We have more than a half dozen titles now that are part of our “Outside the Rails” rail route guide series. Several readers of our posts here on TrainWeb have contacted us and requested we write about our experiences researching, writing, and publishing these books. So, we felt for our January and February 2016 TrainWeb articles, this would be the perfect timing – especially with two new books coming out very soon. Part one (our January 2016 article that you are reading now) will focus on the beginning of our route guide business and part two (which will come out next month) will focus on the expansion of our business and what we have accomplished more recently.

Robert first became interested in railroad route guide books when he took Amtrak's California Zephyr from Chicago to Truckee, California in December 2005. One of his sleeping car attendants had a copy of a railroad route guidebook written by Dr. Eva Hoffman available for travelers in that sleeping car to read through. This route guide book series for the California Zephyr written by Eva Hoffman is called “Flashing Yellow Guidebooks”. It comes in a series of three books – one was from Chicago to Denver, one was from Denver to Salt Lake City, and the third was from Salt Lake City to Emeryville.  Eva Hoffman lives in Colorado and really enjoys taking train trips and discovering what is along the route. Robert learned so much from reading Eva’s books – it really enhanced the trips knowing what he was seeing outside the window. Despite his enjoyment of Eva’s books, Robert never really thought he would end up writing a series of route guide books of his own at the time… 10 years ago now.

Eva Hoffman's "Flashing Yellow Guidebooks" provided an inspiration for our "Outside the Rails" rail route guide series
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A few years later, in May 2007, Robert became involved in the Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder between Chicago and St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota. For those of you who have never heard of Trails & Rails, it is a partnership program between the National Park Service and Amtrak that places volunteer docents aboard the train to provide interpretive programs. Trails & Rails has programs on about 20 different train routes… you may have seen the docents in green shirts before in the lounge car. The Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder between Chicago and the Twin Cities was expanding for the 2007 season – going from four days per week to a seven day per week. Thus, additional docents were needed.  Robert was quickly accepted into the program when then-Chicago Coordinator James Carr noted his love for both visiting national parks and riding the train.  Robert quickly rose in the ranks of Trails & Rails docents and by the following season, he volunteered to help re-write the reference manual that was being used by volunteers on the route through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  The original reference manual was written when the program began on the Empire Builder in 2005, however it had many flaws and incorrect stories in it.  Trails & Rails leadership assigned every docent a 20-mile stretch of the route to research and write about. Since some people were more into the concept than others, you would have certain areas of the route with a lot of good information – and other areas with incorrect or incomplete information. This did not make for a smooth-flowing manual or presentation.

Robert Tabern swears in a new Junior Ranger during his first Trails & Rails trip on the Empire Builder in June 2007
(Photo by Alane Morgan)

Robert and several other Trails & Rails guides decided to take it upon themselves to re-write a more in-depth reference manual about the route between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, with Robert taking the lead in the project. To accomplish this task, Robert and other docents would spend almost every weekend between October 2008 and January 2009 driving certain portions of the route from Chicago to the Twin Cities. This might sound like an easy task, but can be a little challenging with the train going on a diagonal and roads going straight east-west or north-south. There was a lot of snaking back and forth on gravel roads through Central Wisconsin. The end result though was a 200-page reference manual that included a lot of great information about the route.  This book was used for the entire 2009 season of Trails & Rails on the Empire Builder between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Robert Tabern (left) and John Kelly (right) serve as Trails & Rails volunteers and railroad book authors;
pictured here in September 2007, this photo was used in the March 2008 edition of Trains Magazine
(Photo by Linda Shult)

Between the 2009 and 2010 Trails & Rails seasons, Robert’s friendship grew with fellow Trails & Rails docent John Kelly (pictured above). John lives in Madison, Wisconsin and has written more than a dozen railroad books through the publisher IcronGraphics. He was impressed with the reference manual that Robert had overseen, and suggested it be turned into a book that could be sold, possibly to raise money for Trails & Rails. Robert was honored at John’s suggestion, but didn’t take it seriously until several passengers on the Empire Builder asked where they could purchase a copy of Robert’s notes. During the Spring of 2010, Robert began the process of turning his reference manual notes for Trails & Rails into a professional book that people would want to purchase for their own use when docents were not on the train. Robert also began working with two National Park Service rangers at the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area in St. Paul who oversaw the Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder. The initial proposal called for the book to be sold at the national park visitor center in St. Paul, with a portion of the profits before going to the park or for use with our Trails & Rails program between Chicago and the Twin Cities.  The goal was to have it ready and in the visitor center book shop by Christmas 2010.

The selling of "Outside the Rails" rail route guidebooks was discussed with National Park Service officials at this Trails & Rails staff meeting that was held in Columbus, Wisconsin in Fall 2009; pictured are (left to right): Craig Hansen (NPS), John Kelly (Author/Friend) , Joan Guilfoyle (NPS), Robert Tabern (Author), Jim Miculka (NPS), and Ann Sarnecki (NPS)
(Photo by Richard Holt)

The plans for Robert’s rail route guide book came to a screeching halt in September 2010 when the National Park Service announced that it was no longer going to sponsor the Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder between Chicago and Minnesota. The final run took place on September 20, 2010. The new park Superintendent at Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, Paul Labovitz, decided that he could save money by having St. Paul-based volunteers be docents on the Empire Builder and go to Milwaukee and back in a single day.  This would save about $7,000 to $8,000 in hotel rooms over the course of the year that Chicago-based docents got during their layover in the Twin Cities. The only portion of the route that would not have docents would be between Milwaukee and Chicago, which didn’t seem like much of a concern for the National Park Service, who wanted docents to focus more on the Mississippi River than anything else. Since Robert would no longer be serving as a docent on the route or for Trails & Rails, he put his route guide book project on hold and decided how he wanted to proceed – especially without the deal now of his route guide being carried in the book store at the national park in St. Paul.

The end of the Chicago-based Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder in September 2010 displaced 60 volunteers and left the fate of Robert's first railroad route guidebook up in the air
(Photo Courtesy: Kerry Denson)

After a few months, Robert decided to proceed and self-publish the book. He got advice on how to “go about it” solo from several friends and fellow author John Kelly. John mentioned two of the most important things about publishing a book were the title and cover.  After struggling to come up with a catchy title for his book, Robert kept getting the advice from John that you have to think “outside of the box” for a creative title. Well, Robert thought, why think outside of the box when you can think outside of the rails!  And so, “Outside the Rails” was born… and has been the name of our rail route guide company ever since. This name was fitting, since the book detailing everything you see outside the rails. Sure, there is some railroad history thrown in our books for rail fans – but the main appeal of our books is that the average passengers who isn’t a rail fan will also find enjoyment in them – learning about the human history, geology, and natural features seen from the windows of the Empire Builder.  Now, for the cover!  Robert decided to use a photo of himself taken in front of an Amtrak engine. A lot of people ask if the photo on the cover of his first book is photo shopped – or where on the route of the Empire Builder that was taken. Well, no, it is not photo shopped in anyway, believe it or not. And, no, it’s not along the route of the Empire Builder. This photo was taken in October 2007 outside of Galena, Illinois. Robert was a car host for the last charter train to Galena, Illinois that the Chicago-based 20th Century Railroad Club was doing.  While passengers enjoyed several hours shopping in Galena, Robert and the rest of the 20th Century Railroad Club crew laid over with the train on the Canadian National siding.  One interesting note about the cover – do you notice that the train is made up of both Superliner and single level equipment – and on the end – there is a dome car?  Well, this special 20th Century Railroad Club charter almost didn’t happen. It was supposed to be made up entirely of single-level Amfleet and Horizon cars, but there were some issues with the Talgo equipment in the Pacific Northwest and Amtrak had to ship many of its cars promised to the 20th Century charter out to Portland and Seattle to cover its regular service. For a while, it looked like the charter might of had to be cancelled. With just a week or so to go, Amtrak was able to scramble together enough single-level and Superliner equipment to make it “a go” from Chicago to Galena. You will notice the train has some Superliners up front, with a Transition Sleeper (used by crews and thrown on by Amtrak so that there would be a connection between the double-decker cars and the single-level cars), and several single-level coaches. As an apology for almost having to cancel the charter, Amtrak threw on its last remaining dome car “Ocean View” on the rear – you can just barely see it in the cover photo.

This photo, taken in October 2007 of Robert at the head end of an Amtrak charter to Galena, Illinois, ended up being the cover of the first "Outside the Rails" rail route guide book; notice the minor photoshopping - including matching shades on the engine?
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

The end result was this - the cover of "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Paul, MN"
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

Sale #1 - A Dream Turned Reality
Robert (right) poses with a gentleman from England who bought the first copy of his book
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

After almost three years of hard work and research – and Robert almost deciding to cancel the project when the National Park Service backed out – the first edition of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Paul, MN” was published on March 1, 2011.  To help promote the book, Robert got a booth signing copies at the 29th Chicagoland Railroadiana Show at the College of Du Page in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He did remarkably well – selling several hundred dollars worth of books in one afternoon. A lot of the people who bought the book remarked that while there were other route guide books out before for the Empire Builder, no other book had covered the route between Chicago and the Twin Cities in such great detail as this book. Additional book signings were held at the Illinois Railway Museum in Summer and Fall 2011.

A promotional picture that was used at Robert's first book signing for "Outside the Rails" in April 2011
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

Another promotional picture that was used at Robert's first book signing for "Outside the Rails" in April 2011
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

Thanks in part to the success of the Chicago to St. Paul, MN railroad route guide, Robert formed partnerships in 2011 to research and write route guide books for both the Friends of the 261 and the Iowa Interstate Railroad. Since time was limited before the special excursions both of these groups were putting on, it was determined that the custom-made guides would be in the range of 50-100 pages, much smaller than the Empire Builder guide that Robert had put his efforts into.  The results were custom-made books for the Iowa Interstate excursions that occurred during TrainFest 2011 between Rock Island, Illinois and Homestead Wye, Iowa -- and the Friends of the 261 Fall Colors Excursion between Minneapolis Junction, Minnesota and Boylston, Wisconsin.

These two limited edition custom-made editions of "Outside the Rails" followed in July 2011 and October 2011; both are now out-of-print
(Copyright 2016 - "Outside the Rails")

Also during the Summer of 2011, the first edition of the book sold out and Robert released a Second Edition that contained some updates and corrections.  Robert continued his research of the Empire Builder route between March 2011 and January 2012 and released the Third Edition of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Paul, MN” on March 1, 2012. The Third Edition of the book contained 300 pages of information – this was 100 additional pages over the First and Second Editions.  The Third Edition of the Chicago to St. Paul, MN book remains in print and available for $35.00; the most direct way to purchase it is by going to our website at

Even though Robert had a fun time writing and publishing his  railroad route guide, he initially decided to hang up his hat and not write anymore books. Robert felt like he needed a break from the four years that he spent research and writing about the train route.  But, this was not meant to be!  Robert was bitten by the ‘author bug’ and would soon take to writing about various other routes including between Chicago and Galesburg, IL/La Plata, MO, Quincy, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, MO.

Coming up in next month’s continued “An Inside Look Into Outside the Rails”, we will discuss how Kandace became involved in the business, how more route guides were created, and how “Outside the Rails” ended up forming a partnership with the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) in La Plata… our agreement that formed a Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chiefbetween Chicago and La Plata, MO for two-and-a-half seasons... its eventual downfall and transition to APRHF Rail Rangers... as well as a marketing agreement with Dr. Eva Hoffman and her “Flashing Yellow Guidebooks” series that inspired our efforts from the beginning.

By the way, our newest route guides are coming out very soon!  Our Chicago to St. Louis book will be released on Monday, February 1, 2016, and our Chicago to Milwaukee book will be released on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. For more information about these books or any of our others, or to make a purchase, please visit We currently are offering a 20% off sale on all "Outside the Rails" books now through February 7, 2016!


Outside the Rails Books | Outside the Rails on Facebook | NPS Trails & Rails Website

20th Century Railroad Club (Chicago, IL) | Friends of the 261 (Minneapolis, MN) Illinois Railway Museum


Top of this page
| APRHF Rail Rangers Website | APRHF Rail Rangers on Facebook | Robert Tabern on Facebooks

Outside the Rails Route Guides on Facebook
| Purchase Copies of Outside the Rails Route Guides

 Silver Rails Country | American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) | | Other Rail Travelogues |