APRHF Rail Rangers: 2015 Year in Review

Can you believe it? Christmas has already slipped past us and New Year’s Eve is just around the corner! Since today marks the start of the final week of 2015, there is no more appropriate time than now to look back and reflect on some of the accomplishments of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s (APRHF) Rail Rangers program during its first year in operation. Towards the end of this blog post, we will also look ahead to some of the upcoming APRHF Rail Rangers excursions and outreach events that you will want to include on your 2016 calendar.

During Spring 2015, a deal was struck between the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation and Mr. Mike Abernathy of St. Charles, Illinois. It included APRHF volunteers being allowed to provide narration and design route guides for a private rail trip that Abernathy’s “Zephyr Route” organization was planning between Chicago Union Station, Galesburg, IL and Quincy, IL/Hannibal, MO on Saturday, June 27th, 2015. Abernathy’s passengers would be heading out on a full-length ex-Milwaukee Road Super Dome from Chicago Union Station to either Galesburg Railroad Days or the Mark Twain Festival. At the time, the APRHF was also co-sponsoring a Trails & Rails program on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO, in partnership with Amtrak and the National Park Service. Volunteers with the Trails & Rails program gained the reputation for being ‘local experts’ about the scenery and history along the former CB&Q and Santa Fe routes through Illinois, Iowa, and Northeast Missouri. Since Abernathy’s trip ran on most of the same trackage as Trails & Rails, he was eager to have experienced docents on board to educate passengers about all of the interesting landmarks that can be seen from the train. The presence of APRHF volunteers aboard Abernathy’s excursion was so successful, there was almost immediate discussion about turning what was supposed to be a one-time event into a long-term partnership deal between the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation and “Zephyr Route”.

Around the same time, Mr. James Miculka, the National Coordinator of Trails & Rails based at College Station, Texas, informed us that the National Park Service would soon be terminating its agreement with the APRHF after three years. The result of Mr. Miculka’s decision was the indefinite suspension of more than 35 Trails & Rails volunteers and the loss of the last remaining Trails & Rails program on a long-distance Amtrak train out of Chicago. The last Trails & Rails trip between Chicago and La Plata, MO on the Southwest Chief took place on the weekend of Saturday, July 18th and Sunday, July 19th, 2015. To commemorate the final trip, Amtrak arranged for 14-year-old Aida Frey to ride along and earn her first train-related Junior Ranger badge. Frey gained national attention for earning the most Junior Ranger badges of any child or teen in the entire country. Frey’s trip to La Plata, MO over the summer resulted in her 209th Junior Ranger badge… and setting a new world’s record, as she stepped off the train in La Plata, MO. Dozens of people turned out at the station to honor Frey’s accomplishment and witness the arrival of the last Trails & Rails trip.

With the end of the Trails & Rails looming and the success of the June 2015 “Zephyr Route” trip still fresh in everyone’s memory, the APRHF Board of Directors decided to pursue the creation of a new affiliated group that would provide interpretive programs and route guides for private rail car trips. On Monday, July 20, 2015, APRHF President Bob Cox announced the launch of APRHF Rail Rangers. Former Trails & Rails Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern was appointed the APRHF Rail Ranger’s Executive Director and was asked to fill a recent vacancy on the APRHF’s Board of Directors; Tabern continues to supervise the day-to-day operations of APRHF Rail Rangers and also oversees the affiliate’s finances. Former Trails & Rails Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern was given the same title and role in the APRHF Rail Rangers group. American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation President Bob Cox agreed to serve as Rail Rangers’ La Plata Coordinator; APRHF Vice-President Amy Cox was appointed Assistant La Plata Coordinator, a role that she also served in during the final season of Trails & Rails. Former Trails & Rails volunteers Kathy Bruecker, Robert Neil, and Dave Poole also signed on to be the initial three interpretive guides for APRHF Rail Rangers.

Much of August and September 2015 were spent putting together the formal operational plan and outlining long-term goals for the new APRHF affiliate; this involved meetings in both Chicago, IL and La Plata, MO among the four managers of Rail Rangers. Late summer was also spent designing the new APRHF Junior Rail Rangers program; since having a junior ranger program was such a popular feature of Trails & Rails, it was decided that this also had to be an integral part of the APRHF Rail Rangers organization. Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern, and Karri Cox, the daughter of Bob and Amy Cox, put a lot of time into designing a new 32-page activity book which was released on October 1st, 2015. In just the first few months of its release, several dozen new Junior Rail Rangers have been sworn in. The activity book costs just $10.00, or you can purchase the activity book and prize pack for $15.00. The prize pack include the official APRHF Junior Rail Ranger gold badge, junior ranger patch, sticker, and a surprise gift. All money raised goes towards the APRHF Rail Rangers program.

The inaugural APRHF Rail Rangers event took place on Sunday, October 4th, 2015, when Robert and Kandace Tabern provided an interpretive program for passengers on board a “Zephyr Route” trip between St. Paul Union Depot, MN and Glenview, IL. The 400-mile trip aboard an ex-Santa Fe Big Dome (now owned by Iowa Pacific) included a beautiful stretch along the Mississippi River (eagles were spotted from the train!), the rolling hills of Central Wisconsin, and the urban corridor between Milwaukee and the northern suburbs of Chicago. Passengers were delighted to receive narration and an in-depth route guide book for the first time ever on a “Zephyr Route” excursion.

There was no rest for the weary, as APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers headed back to the Twin Cities just six days later for a fall colors excursion sponsored by the “Friends of the 261″. The organization’s charter on Saturday, October 10th, 2015 featured an entire private train set pulled by ex-Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261. Amtrak’s Phase IV Anniversary Engine #184 was also in the consist. Passengers traveled up the former Great Northern Hinckley Subdivision between Minneapolis Junction, MN and Boylston Wye, WI, with APRHF Rail Rangers providing narration in Premium Class, and selling route guide books throughout Premium, First, and Coach classes. Highlights included brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows in the trees, and several high trestles in Northern Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers also sold route guide books before the departure of the Sunday, October 11th, 2015 “Friends of the 261″ excursion between Minneapolis Junction, MN and Willmar, MN. Since the “Friends of the 261″ trip featured an entire train set of cars versus just one private car, this ended up being the biggest trip of the year for APRHF Rail Rangers, with us being able to reach out to more than 500 passengers over the weekend. APRHF Rail Rangers was able to raise more than $500.00 for the “Friends of the 261″ from this trip, as well as several hundred dollars for the Rail Rangers fund.

Late October 2015 saw the release of the official APRHF Rail Rangers Passport Stamp, which is pictured below:

Many people collect these popular Passport Stamps when they visit various National Park Service sites; this was also another popular feature that has rolled over from the APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program that ran between Chicago and La Plata, MO on the Southwest Chief from 2012 to 2015. APRHF President Bob Cox and Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern announced that one APRHF Rail Rangers Passport Stamp will travel around the Midwest to be available during all on board interpretive programs done by Rail Rangers interpretive guides; the stamp will also be available during outreach events that APRHF Rail Rangers are involved in. The second APRHF Rail Rangers Passport Stamp will be permanently housed at the Amtrak Depot in La Plata, MO, and will be available whenever a station caretaker is present (usually daily, at the arrival and departure of the Southwest Chief; it is recommended that you call ahead if planning to travel specifically for the stamp). Additional passport stamps may be available on board various excursions that feature APRHF Rail Rangers interpretive guides, including for the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Mormon Pioneer National Historical Trail, and Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Specific questions about the availability of our passport stamp collection can be directed to any APRHF Rail Rangers manager.

APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers participated in three days of outreach programs during November 2015. On Saturday, November 7th, 2015, the Taberns gave a presentation about APRHF Rail Rangers to a crowd at the Galesburg, Illinois Public Library. They explained how Rail Rangers was formed, the overall mission of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation, and provided a slideshow about 60 of the most interesting landmarks along the BNSF line between Chicago and La Plata, MO. The Taberns also sold and signed copies of their “Outside the Rails” rail route guide books, which serve as the official reference manuals for APRHF Rail Rangers docents on the train line. Newspaper reporters from Mendota and Galesburg were on hand and wrote stores about APRHF Rail Rangers being in town.

On Saturday, November 14th and Sunday, November 15th, 2015, APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers, including Fred Glure, Robert Neil, and Dave Poole staffed an outreach table at TrainFest 2015 at the Wisconsin State Fair Park near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. TrainFest is the largest model train show in the United States, so it was important for Rail Rangers to have a presence there. Saturday saw record crowds, while Sunday was a little quieter. APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers talked about the new organization to people who were attending the event, promoted upcoming 2016 trips and outreach events, and sold railroad route guide books that are used by interpretive guides. TrainFest-goers got a double dose of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation, as the APRHF-affiliated “Let’s Talk Trains” made an appearance, including two two-hour live broadcasts from “Shuttle Train Ted” and friends.

The final APRHF Rail Rangers event of the year was the “Friends of the 261″ North Pole Express train; numerous APRHF Rail Rangers interpretive guides were up at Saint Paul, MN Union Depot on Saturday, December 5th, Sunday, December 6th, Saturday, December 12th, and Sunday, December 13th, 2015. Those who participated included Kathy Bruecker, Joe Kuczynski, Robert Neil, Dave Poole, Kandace Tabern, and Robert Tabern. Unlike other trips, APRHF Rail Rangers did not narrate or perform educational programs for the “Friends of the 261″ during the North Pole Express. Instead, volunteers served simply as car hosts for the trip, welcoming families on board and explaining how the trip would work… including singing songs and handing out activities to keep children busy while waiting for Santa to make his way through the train. During the last weekend of the “North Pole Express”, APRHF Junior Rail Rangers Children’s Activity Books were sold, raising more than $100.00 for the “Friends of the 261″ and enhancing the APRHF Rail Rangers fund.

So what is brewing for 2016? Besides the “Friends of the 261″ and “Zephyr Route”, APRHF Rail Rangers is hoping to partner with additional private rail car organizers to bring additional educational opportunities to passengers. We are hoping to announce more agreements soon… including with an operator who does long-distance private rail car trips beyond the Midwest! Stay tuned to this website for that! Also, during the quieter winter months, we are finishing up our research on the 284-mile railroad route between Chicago and St. Louis, MO, owned by Canadian National and Union Pacific. In February 2016, we expect our partners at Outside the Rails route guide books to release a new 102-page book for passengers about things to see from their train window. Guide books will be $20.00, with a portion of the profits being donated to the APRHF Rail Rangers program.

Mark your new calendars for the 2016 following dates, as our preliminary schedule begins to come together:

Saturday, February 20th and Saturday, February 21st, 2016 – APRHF Rail Rangers events will be on-hand at the 49th Annual MadCity Rail Show at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit with interpretive guides to learn more about the program…. while picking up copies of your favorite “Outside the Rails” rail route guides. The brand new Chicago to St. Louis book is expected to have its debut at this event! Get yours hot off the presses!

Saturday, June 25th, 2016 – APRHF Rail Rangers will be on board the “Zephyr Route” excursion planned for this date departing Chicago Union Station at 7:30am. Passengers will have their choice to de-train and spend the day in Galesburg, Illinois, or continue on and de-train at the end of the line in Quincy, IL and exploring the Mark Twain town of Hannibal, Missouri. This is a single-day excursion that gets back into Chicago around 10:00pm.

Sunday, October 9th, 2016 – APRHF Rail Rangers will be on board the “Zephyr Route” excursion planned for this date between St. Paul Union Depot and Chicago Union Station. Get the “private car experience” on the back of Amtrak’s famed Empire Builder. Your interpretive guides will tell you everything you need to know about Southeast Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Northeast Illinois. The stretch along Lake Pepin is one of the most scenic Midwest rail journeys.

Saturday, November 12th and Sunday, November 13th, 2016 – APRHF Rail Rangers volunteers have already secured a booth at TrainFest 2016 in Milwaukee. Come out and have an informal chat with one of our interpretive guides or pick up our full collection of “Outside the Rails” rail route guide books, just in time for the holidays. What would the largest train show in the USA be without visiting the Rail Rangers booth?

Please note that this is a VERY preliminary schedule for 2016 and it is subject to change. Many other dates will be added in the coming months. For an up-to-date listing of events, please check out www.railrangers.org. Also, we hope that you will “like us” on our Facebook page!