Rail passengers who plan to travel between Chicago, Illinois and South Bend, Indiana are in for a real treat this summer and fall. Earlier today, APRHF President Bob Cox announced that a new agreement has been signed, allowing APRHF Rail Rangers’ Interpretive Guides to present onboard educational programs on South Shore Line trains, beginning next month. The South Shore Line, now owned and operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, is one of the last electric interurban train routes left anywhere in the country, spanning 90 miles between Chicago, Gary, Michigan City, and South Bend. Guides will enhance passengers’ journeys by providing live narration about landmarks on the south side of Chicago, the historic steel-making region of Northwest Indiana, the scenic Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the ‘breadbasket’ farm region of LaPorte and St. Joseph County, Indiana. A new 120-page route guidebook will also be offered, along with free handout sheets.
Interpretive Guides with the APRHF Rail Rangers will be available to present programs on the South Shore approximately two to three Saturdays per month, with the first program slated to occur on Saturday, August 5, 2017. Eastbound programs will be on Train #503, which departs Chicago-Millennium Station at 8:40am CT and arrives at the South Bend Airport Station at 12:10PM ET. Westbound programs will be on Train #506, which departs the South Bend Airport Station at 1:05pm ET and arrives back into Chicago-Millennium Station at 2:39PM CT. Those wishing to hear the Rail Rangers’ program have the option of riding the entire round-trip or boarding from any of the intermediate stations stops along the route; that includes Chicago-Van Buren Station, Chicago-Museum Campus/11th Street, Chicago-McCormick Place, Chicago-57th Street, Hegewisch, Hammond, East Chicago, Gary/Chicago Airport, Gary-Metro Center, Miller, Portage/Ogden Dunes, Dune Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City-11th Street, Michigan City-Carroll Avenue, and Hudson Lake.
Upcoming interpretive program dates through mid-fall 2017 include: August 5, August 26, September 9, September 23, October 21, and October 28. The initial test period between the APRHF and the South Shore Line continues through January 31, 2018. Program dates for November, December, and January will be announced soon. If things go well, Rail Rangers’ Interpretive Guides hope to become a permanent fixture on the route.
The APRHF first began presenting educational programs in December 2012 through a partnership with the National Park Service and Amtrak; the result was a new co-sponsored Trails & Rails route through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. Volunteer docents were stationed in the lounge car on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train four days per week during the summer to educate passengers about the history and geography of trackside towns on the 300-mile stretch of track between Chicago and La Plata.
APRHF President Bob Cox remembers, “Passengers who were traveling the entire distance between Chicago and Los Angeles, but who had never been to Northeast Missouri, were fascinated with the stories our Trails & Rails guides would share on the train. We would talk about the ghost town of Dumas, which is supposedly haunted following a major train derailment near the Des Moines River in the 1880’s. It’s not even a blip on the state highway map today; I think there is a solitary house you see from the train there. Another one of the favorite stories was about Ella Ewing. She was from the small town of Gorin, and is said to have been the tallest woman ever to live. Ella traveled with the circus and used her money to build a custom-made house for her eight feet, four inch height. People also loved the passing look they got of the old Santa Fe Railroad Hotel in Baring too.”
The APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails programs between Chicago and La Plata quickly earned national recognition. During the 2013 and 2014 summer seasons, docents reached out to over 50,000 Amtrak passengers. The group’s leaders even wrote a 350-page route guidebook for passengers who wanted more stories than guides had time to share during their five hours aboard; it is entitled, “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO.” (copies available at www.aprhfstore.com).
Despite the incredible accomplishments, Trails & Rails management made the decision to end its partnership with the APRHF in July 2015. This closed the door on the docents’ onboard educational efforts on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief through Northern Missouri. In the weeks that followed, the APRHF’s headquarters was flooded with hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, encouraging volunteer guides to find a new outlet for their onboard programs. Since providing talks on public Amtrak trains was no longer an option, the APRHF’s Board of Directors issued a direct appeal to private railcar owners. These small groups of individuals own and operate collections of historic train cars from the early-to-mid 1900’s that are used primarily for group excursions or private charters. About a half-dozen owners quickly signed on to have APRHF volunteers aboard their trips in the Upper Midwest during 2016. The APRHF decided to brand its new outreach program as ‘Rail Rangers’; it seemed fitting since guides provide historical programs on trains, much like land-based rangers do at state and national parks.
In the past two years since the program began, the APRHF Rail Rangers have participated in nearly two dozen private rail excursions across seven states in the Upper Midwest – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Current private rail/excursion partners include Friends of the 261, Zephyr Route, American Rail Excursions, Paxrail, Friends of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, and the 20th Century Railroad Club of Chicago.
While the primary mission of the Rail Rangers will always remain providing educational programs on private rail excursions, leaders of the group also look forward to opportunities to expand programs to public rail trips too. APRHF Vice-President/Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern says, “Private rail excursions can be pricey; it’s just the nature of the beast. By expanding our educational efforts to public train rides too, we are able to reach out to a whole new group of rail passengers who also want to know what is out their window. Passengers can pay less than $10 for a ticket to hear the Rail Rangers’ program on the South Shore Line and that is pretty cool.”
The Rail Rangers were lucky enough to expand their efforts from just private railcars to also include public trains about a year ago, thanks in large part to support from Ed Ellis, President of Iowa Pacific Railroad. Mr. Ellis just happened to be riding on the Rail Rangers’ private rail excursion to Galesburg, Illinois in June 2016. Being so impressed with the narration he was hearing, Mr. Ellis approached APRHF Vice-President Robert Tabern about having the organization’s Interpretive Guides ride on the Hoosier State train through Indiana and Illinois. At the time, Iowa Pacific provided the onboard services for the Hoosier. After several months of research and training, educational programs began to take place on select Sunday mornings between Lafayette, Indiana and Chicago-Union Station in November 2016. Iowa Pacific and the Indiana Department of Transportation both received incredible feedback from passengers who were finally able to know what they were seeing out their window during the 120-mile journey. Unfortunately, the “test period” to have Rail Rangers’ Interpretive Guides aboard the Hoosier was cut short when Iowa Pacific ended its management of train services on February 28, 2017. Amtrak chose not to have educational programs as part of their new service model for the Hoosier State.
Recognizing that for the Rail Rangers to have a successful future, it must have both a private rail and public rail component, the APRHF Board of Directors began immediately approaching several potential new partners when it looked like the Hoosier program was going to fall through. Rail Rangers’ Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern says, “One of the first companies that we approached about having guides aboard was the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, or NICTD. From the first phone call we had with their marketing team in March 2017, they have always been very open and supportive of having our Guides on the train. They knew their route, at two-and-a-half hours in length, and going through varied scenery, was a perfect fit for an educational program. They have been one of the best partners we have had! We really look forward to serving their passengers and being an outreach tool for them to make passengers’ rides that much more enjoyable.”
A formal agreement was signed between the APRHF Rail Rangers and the NICTD just a few weeks ago. Per the deal, Interpretive Guides will present programs in one designated car of the train on select Saturday morning round-trip departures between Chicago and South Bend. Passengers must be in the “Rail Rangers Car” to hear the live narration, however Rail Rangers’ Guides will roam the whole train several times to answer questions and provide complimentary maps of Downtown Chicago and route guide sheets. Guides will also be selling copies of a 120-page route guidebook on the train; it is specifically designed for the South Shore route. “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to South Bend, IN” begins with an introduction about Chicago interurbans from famed railroad author John Kelly. It then launches into a milepost-by-milepost description of the South Shore Line between Chicago-Millennium Station and South Bend Airport. The sale of these guidebooks for just $20 are the most significant source of funding for the Rail Rangers’ program on the South Shore Line. Copies of the book are also available through the Rail Rangers at www.midwestrails.com.
Fans of the National Park Service’s Passport to Your National Parks® program have an added reason to ride with the APRHF Rail Rangers on the South Shore Line. On select trips, special South Shore-specific cancellation stamps will be available to passengers for Pullman National Monument, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the Kankakee River National Water Trail. The train line runs adjacent to Pullman National Monument, right through the heart of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and just a few miles away from the recently-designated Kankakee River National Water Trail. There is a special fourth cancellation just for the program on the South Shore Line that reads “APRHF Rail Rangers” on the top, and “Chicago, IL to South Bend, IN” on the bottom. Those seeking the cancellation stamps must ride on the South Shore Line with the Rail Rangers, as these cancellations will not be available at the parks’ visitor centers. Cancellations are also available at select outreach events.
For more information about the Rail Rangers’ new program on the South Shore Line, a new website has been launched. Check out www.southshoreline.org. Of course, the Rail Rangers will maintain their main website, at www.railrangers.org, which covers information on both private and public rail excursions. More information about the program can be obtained by e-mailing the Rail Rangers at firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving us a voicemail message at (847) 271-1979.