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How our Trails & Rails Program Began


How our Trails & Rails Program Began

from the Chicago Coordinator on the Southwest Chief®

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Written: December 15, 2014

Robert and Kandace Tabern, pictured here, manage a group of 32 Trails & Rails volunteers
for the program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri
(Robert & Kandace Tabern photo)

For the past two years now, we have been given the unique task of being the Chicago-based Coordinators of the Trails & Rails program on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Union Station and La Plata, Missouri. If you are not familiar with Trails & Rails, it is a partnership program between Amtrak and the National Park Service, which places volunteer guides aboard various Amtrak trains around the country to present interpretive programs in the lounge car. Topics include topography of the region, geology, as well as natural and human history. Earlier this year, I wrote a TrainWeb article about how the Trails & Rails program came into existence at the national level back in the late 1990’s. This article will focus on how our American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF)-sponsored Trails & Rails program got started on the Southwest Chief a few years ago.

Trails & Rails volunteer Richard Demink promotes the National Park Service to a group of Boy Scouts aboard the train
(Photo Courtesy: Bob Burkhart)

My involvement in the Trails & Rails program began in 2006 when I was traveling on Amtrak's Empire Builder between Seattle and Milwaukee, as part of a trip to Alaska. I noticed there were Trails & Rails guides doing a program in the Sightseer Lounge Car going through Glacier National Park. Since train travel and national parks are two of my greatest interests – I thought it would be a great thing to become involved in someday. I initially thought Trails & Rails was something that only took place on the train through the western national parks, so I was surprised the next day to see guides getting on in the Twin Cities and doing a program all the way into Chicago. The guides mentioned they were part of a relatively new Chicago-based group that presented programs through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I contacted the then-Chicago Coordinator, Jim Carr, who mentioned he was looking for additional volunteers for the 2007 season, since the goal was to have guides do programs seven days per week that following summer. Between 2007 and 2010, I was a guide who presented numerous Trails & Rails programs on the Empire Builde, telling passengers about Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Dells, the Mississippi River, and other topics. I had a good time and got to learn the ropes from some long-time volunteers who had been with the program for the better part of a decade, including on the original Trails & Rails route out of Chicago (to St. Louis on the Texas Eagle between 2000 and 2004).

My first Trails & Rails trip in May 2007, pictured here with then-Amtrak Manager of Onboard Services, Gary Erford
(Photo courtesy: Phil Hehn)

A dinner gathering with some of the administration of the Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder in 2009.
(Left to right): Craig Hansen, ranger with Knife River Indian Villages NHS; John Kelly, Trails & Rails volunteer;
Joan Guilfoyle, former Mississippi National River & Recreation Area ranger; Robert Tabern, Trails & Rails volunteer;
James E. Miculka, founder/National Coordinator, Trails & Rails; Ann Sarnecki, former National Park Service ranger
(Robert Tabern photo)

This photo appeared on Page 55 of the March 2008 edition of "Trains Magazine" and featured an article about Trails & Rails
(Photo courtesy: Linda Shult)

Trails & Rails volunteers Dick Holt (left) and John Kelly (right) at the turn-around spot in Winona, Minnesota in 2010
(Robert Tabern photo)

The recession and federal budget cuts that hit a few years ago caused many units of the National Park Service to re-evaluate their interpretive programs. Our then-sponsor park, the Mississippi River National River & Recreation Area in St. Paul, announced in 2010 that our Chicago-based Trails & Rails group would not return for the 2011 season. From what little information we were given by their then-Park Superintendent, the main issue was administrative costs and the expense of the hotel rooms that were provided to our volunteers in Minnesota. Our Chicago-based group, made up of over 50 volunteers, had been presenting a Trails & Rails program on the westbound Empire Builder (Train #7), staying overnight at a hotel in either Winona, Minnesota or St. Paul, Minnesota, and then doing a program the following day on the eastbound Empire Builder (Train #8) into Chicago. Each round-trip had consisted of traveling more than 600 miles through three states. Instead, for 2011 and beyond, our former sponsor park decided to form a new St. Paul-based Trails & Rails group of volunteers that would do a single-day turn program between St. Paul and Columbus, Wisconsin on Train #8 and return home that night on Train #7; thus, eliminating the hotel rooms for guides in their budget.

Trails & Rails volunteers Dick Holt (left), John Kelly (center), and Robert Tabern (right) pose together on September 20, 2010, the
last day that a Trails & Rails program operated on the Empire Builder between Chicago, Illinois and Winona, Minnesota
(Robert Tabern photo)

In early 2011, the then-displaced guides out of Chicago were given the opportunity to become part of a new Trails & Rails program that was created and sponsored by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This was designed as a single-day turn program where guides would present an interpretive program while traveling through the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Amtrak’s Wolverine and Blue Water between Chicago and Michigan. We decided to give the program a chance and did a couple of runs with the new group. Unfortunately, we did not really find it to our liking and resigned after just two trips. We didn’t feel like we was able to effectively connect with passengers on such a short trip (just 62 miles), while operating at 110mph through the minimal areas of the park you could actually see from the train. We also realized we would be spending more miles commuting into Chicago Union Station from Milwaukee, than on the train actually doing a program. Also, the train the Dunes program was operating on at the time (Train #350), left Chicago at 7:20am; most passengers, understandably so, didn’t seem interested to hear our talk and just wanted to grab some coffee or go back to sleep. I really enjoyed doing Trails & Rails in the Sightseer Lounge car, but found it too challenging to do a formal program in the Amfleet café cars on the Wolverine and Blue Water. Since train crews seemed to take up two tables and we were using another, a maximum of 12 people could come and hear our program. In the end, about half of the former Empire Builder Trails & Rails guides ended up joining the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore program, while the other half resigned. Shortly after this, I approached Amtrak and National Park Service officials about several ideas I had to restore a long-distance program out of Chicago, but was told that there wasn’t money for a new long-distance Trails & Rails program that required hotel stays for guides. Another problem was the lack of potention sponsor National Park Service units. If there was some way to get past this hurdle, they said we could talk further down the road.

One of our Trails & Rails trips to Michigan on Amtrak's Wolverine Service train
(Robert  & Kandace Tabern photo)

Kandace tells passengers about the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Amtrak's Blue Water train while in Porter County, IN
(Kandace Tabern photo)

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Trails & Rails volunteers Fred Glure and James Walsh on the Wolverine
(Robert Tabern photo)

When my initial time with Trails & Rails came to an end, I became more active in other rail history groups, including the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) in La Plata, Missouri. In late 2009, on a trip home from Galesburg on the Southwest Chief, I was seated next to Matt Melzer in the dining car; at that time, he was the Executive Director of the Silver Rails Resort and Depot Inn & Suites. While I briefly heard about La Plata before in various rail fan magazines, I didn’t know all there was to do there until chatting with Matt over our lunch in the diner. Before we parted ways, Matt gave me a discount coupon for the Depot Inn & Suites, which helped seal the deal and encouraged me to finally book a trip to La Plata the following year. From the moment that I set foot at the station in August 2010, I was surprised at how friendly and welcoming everyone was in La Plata. Maybe because I have lived in the hustle and bustle of the Chicago and Milwaukee metro areas for most of my life, I didn’t expect the smiles and pleasant attitudes of everyone in the town. Bob Cox, and his wife Amy and daughter Karri, greeted me at the station and took me on a personally guided tour of the Silver Rails Gallery, the Events Center, the Rail Lookout Point, the depot, and the Exhibition of Amtrak History. A late train the following day even provided us the chance to visit the Thousand Hills State Park, located outside of Kirksville, and the Amish bakery on the outskirts of La Plata.

Ticket stub from my first visit to La Plata, Missouri, August 17, 2010
(Robert Tabern photo)

Photo with APRHF President Bob Cox, taken in August 2010 on my first visit to La Plata, Missouri
(Robert Tabern photo)

I began making frequent trips out to La Plata starting in early 2011, when Bob and Amy Cox agreed to have three of my railroad photographs on display at the APRHF Silver Rails Gallery. I also met my future wife Kandace that year; and, as we began planning out our wedding for 2012, we decided to hire Bob and Amy Cox to be our wedding photographers.  Of course, this meant even more trips out to La Plata in order to work out the details of what would be taking place at our ceremony and reception.  With the frequent trips between Chicago and La Plata, we became more interested in some of the sites we saw along the train route of the Southwest Chief. We learned from some of the conductors that during the winter months you can often spot eagles and their nests from the train between Lomax and Dallas City, Illinois along the Mississippi River. Another passenger, who happened to be a history professor at the University of Illinois, pointed out a large hill between Mendota and Princeton, Illinois that was once part of a coal mine disaster in 1909 that killed more than 250 miners; you could also see this from the train. This started to put the idea in our head that the Southwest Chief might be a good candidate to establish a new Trails & Rails program on; there was a lot more stories out there than just the corn and soybeans most people associate with this area. Unfortunately, the way the schedules are written, Chicago-based guides could not go beyond Galesburg, Illinois without needing lodging somewhere; the very issue that had prevented a long-distance Trails & Rails program from operating out of Chicago during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The thought of guides somehow being able to stay at the Depot Inn & Suites was always in the back of our minds, as this railroad-themed inn in La Plata, Missouri, seemed like the perfect fit.

In an effort to gauge their interest levels, early in 2012, we conducted preliminary talks with all of the parties that would need to be involved in the creation of a Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri. When Amtrak, the National Park Service, the APRHF, and the owners of the Depot Inn & Suites seemed to be on board, we brought all the organizations together for formal negotiations. While there have been Trails & Rails guides on the route between La Junta, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico, for many years, there was never been a program on the Southwest Chief through the Midwestern states.  APRHF officials saw that sponsoring a Trails & Rails program would be consistant with their non-for-profit mission of helping educate passengers about the landscape and passenger rail opportunities. A deal was struck on December 3, 2012, for one trial season of Trails & Rails to take place on the Southwest Chief from May to September 2013.

A photo from the first run of Trails & Rails on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri on May 18, 2013
(Robert Tabern photo)

Trails & Rails volunteer Robert Neil poses with two children who just became junior rangers
(Robert Tabern photo)

Trails & Rails volunteer Ruth Maxwell takes a break from her narration to pose with a family on the Southwest Chief

(Photo courtesy: Frank Maxwell)

Normally, individual Trails & Rails programs are managed by a unit of the National Park Service and one of the park’s rangers serve as the Coordinator. The lack of National Park Service units between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri, presented a real challenge as to how the group would be administered. The only National Park Service unit along the train route from Chicago to La Plata is the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, a 1,300-mile trail through several western states, which commemorates the trek of the Mormons in 1846 and 1847 between Nauvoo, Illinois and Salt Lake City, Utah. However, the closest National Park Service rangers who work for the Mormon Trail are located at an office and visitor center several hundred miles away from any point of the route of the Southwest Chief, making their oversight very difficult. It was decided that the founder of Trails & Rails/National Coordinator, James E. Miculka, would be in charge of the new group; he was generous enough to take on the responsibilities of managing things from his office at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.  Since Jim already had oversight duties of Trails & Rails on the national level, and even other duties at the university itself, he appointed us to serve as the program’s Chicago Coordinators. We oversee the day-to-day operations of our program on the eastern end of the route; APRHF President Bob Cox, serves as the La Plata Coordinator, and oversees operations on the western end of the 298-mile route. Our group’s connection to Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences has allowed us to collaborate with instructor Susan Scott. Susan was instrumental in the development of the resource manual and educational training of the guides. She continues to be a consultant to our program.

Our Trails & Rails program was given only about six months to get fully organized, with the agreement being formed on December 3, 2012, and guides set to go out on the first trip on May 18, 2013. The first thing we did as Coordinators was put out an advertisement for Trails & Rails guides. Finding qualified guides can be a real challenge for some programs, especially those who are based in smaller towns across the country. Luckily, in such a large city as Chicago, we were able to have a large pool of applicants to choose from. Over the course of two weeks, we ended up interviewing more than 60 applicants at Chicago Union Station, then picking the 25 who we thought were most qualified to participate in the first season. From there, we spent four weekends in a row driving the entire train route between Chicago and La Plata, stopping off in small towns and historical societies along the way to get material and stories for the reference manual we would have to put together. While driving the route in the Chicago suburbs and eastern Illinois can be easy because of many paved roads that parallel the tracks, it can be quite the challenge in southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri, where most highways are gravel or dirt and don’t go along the tracks for long distances. We hope to write a separate Train Web article sometime in 2015 about some of the adventures we had during the drives to produce our Trails & Rails reference manual. So, stay tuned!

One of Kandace's favorite things about Trails & Rails is doing the National Park Service Junior Ranger program with kids onboard the train
(Robert Tabern photos)

In the end, everything came off without any problems, and our first trip left Chicago on-time at 3:00p.m. on Tuesday, May 18, 2013. We were greeted in La Plata by the local television station and newspaper, who did reports on our new Trails & Rails program. Over the past two years, our volunteers have reached out to more than 40,000 passengers on the Southwest Chief. We would like to thank the National Park Service, Amtrak, APRHF, and the owners of the Depot Inn & Suites for their continued support. We would also like to thank our volunteers who have donated over $3,000 of their own money to purchase a wireless speaker system and various handouts for passengers. If you are interested in becoming part of Trails & Rails on the Southwest Chief in 2015, contact Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern by e-mailing him at

WE ALSO ASK FOR YOUR SUPPORT BY "LIKING" OUR SOUTHWEST CHIEF TRAILS & RAILS FACEBOOK PAGE. We are currently less than 20 "likes" away from being the most-liked Trails & Rails page on Facebook!!  This way you can follow our trips and updates on the group. Thanks in advance!

Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern stands on the platform at La Plata, Missouri waiting for the eastbound train back to Chicago
(Robert Tabern photo)

Kandace Tabern shares some stories with a passenger during a trip on the Southwest Chief in November 2014
(Robert Tabern photo)

Robert Tabern poses with Amtrak's Veterans Locomotive in his Trails & Rails uniform
(Robert Tabern photo)


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