An article by author Karl Zimmermann in the most recent edition of “Passenger Train Journal” [Vol. 42, No. 2 (2018-2), Issue No. 275] pinpoints the many passenger amenities that Amtrak has decided to cut over the past few months. If you have not yet seen Zimmermann’s piece entitled “Amtrak: Pinching Pennies Again and Again”, it is definitely well worth the read. The main focus of the article deals with cuts that have been made to the popular onboard educational programs on Amtrak known as Trails & Rails. If you are not familiar with Trails & Rails, it is a partnership program between Amtrak and the National Park Service, established in the late 1990’s, that places volunteer docents on various routes all over the country to provide narration to passengers.
You may remember that the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) even co-sponsored a Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between December 2012 and July 2015. That program had over 30 guides who performed twice-weekly round-trips on the train through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri during the summer and winter holiday months. The APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Chief reached out to over 50,000 passengers during the course of its run… and it regularly ranked as one of the top Trails & Rails programs in the country in terms of both positive comments received from passengers and volunteer hours given to Amtrak and the National Park Service.
Unfortunately, even going back almost a decade, budget issues and mis-management plagued Trails & Rails. The extremely popular Chicago-to-Twin Cities Trails & Rails program on the Empire Builder was eliminated in September 2010 when Amtrak and the National Park Service decided to no longer cover the motel costs of volunteers during their layover in Minnesota. Likewise, Amtrak and the National Park Service mandated that the APRHF cover almost all of the costs of the proposed Chicago-La Plata, MO Trails & Rails program, including 100% of the layover expenses, before it was actually allowed to operate. Luckily, at the time, the APRHF had an affiliation with the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, so the program had a generous lodging sponsor. The volunteer guides themselves also made up any funding deficits out of their own pockets.
Despite all of the successes, James E. Miculka, the National Coordinator of Trails & Rails, advised the APRHF Board of Directors in July 2015 that Amtrak and the National Park Service no longer wished to partner with non-profits such as the APRHF to operate its onboard educational programs. The last run of Trails & Rails between Chicago and La Plata, MO took place later that month. Almost three years later… there are still no Chicago-based Trails & Rails programs that operate on long-distance trains. The APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program remained on the rails by quickly re-branding itself as the APRHF Rail Rangers. The independent program, which is managed by the APRHF Board of Directors, continues to be extremely successful by providing onboard educational programs several times per month on the South Shore Line between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana… and on occasional private rail excursions across a seven-state region in the Upper Midwest.
APRHF Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern explains, “Our onboard educational programs are in a much better position now because they are managed directly by the APRHF than when we operated as part of Trails & Rails. There was a lot of red tape and bureaucracy dealing with two government organizations – Amtrak and the National Park Service. It got to a ridiculous point at the end of our runs on the Southwest Chief — Trails & Rails management actually told our guides that they couldn’t talk about a topic unless it was in the ‘approved’ reference manual. Imagine possibly seeing a blue heron or even a bald eagle fly by the train — but you couldn’t talk about it because it wasn’t an ‘approved’ topic! We were extremely limited in what we could do for our fundraising efforts, too, when we were part of Trails & Rails. I remember at one point we went to Mr. Miculka and proposed selling our route guide books on the train to raise money for Trails & Rails, offering to donate all funds made to either Amtrak or the National Park Service… and were told ‘no’! Neither organization behind Trails & Rails, nor its National Coordinator, was willing to think outside of the box… and I think that is why they are in so much trouble now and facing so many cuts. Maybe they wouldn’t have been in such a budget predicament and losing half of their programs if they had more willing to work cooperatively and productively with non-profit partners such as the APRHF, or even for-profit hotels or sponsors, to cover some of the expenses. Seems like they are learning the hard way now and their volunteers and the passengers who can’t attend programs are the ones who are suffering unfortunately.”
Passengers will indeed notice the massive cuts made to Trails & Rails this summer. Two of the three Trails & Rails programs that operated on the Empire Builder have been eliminated; including programs through Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. The sole remaining Empire Builder program has been scaled back to run only with-in Washington State… meaning guides will not be on the train going through Glacier National Park. All Trails & Rails programs on the California Zephyr have been eliminated, including the extremely popular route from Denver to Grand Junction. Only one program remains on the Southwest Chief, and that has been scaled back to end in Las Vegas, New Mexico instead of Albuquerque. In fact, with the exception of one program, all Trails & Rails programs that required volunteers to overnight somewhere were either completely eliminated or severely scaled back. Many of the Trails & Rails volunteers we spoke with are upset at both Amtrak and the National Park Service for this decision – and feel that those in charge of Trails & Rails did not do enough to go to bat for keeping docents on the train. Several current Trails & Rails volunteers also made the point that cutting Trails & Rails programs will only result in Amtrak and the National Park Service saving a few pennies per passenger, if that. Volunteers on the remaining routes have been informed that neither Amtrak nor the National Park Service will pick up meal expenses… or even as little as a bottle of soda or water… in return for their time.
The APRHF Rail Rangers definitely sympathize with train passengers who value the opportunity to attend an onboard educational opportunity, but now will not be able to because of the cuts involving Trails & Rails. However, there are some exciting new options that may help fill the void.
APRHF Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern explains, “We are offering some exciting new options for train travelers who love learning about what is out their window, just in time for summer vacation season. All 12 editions of our Midwestern route guidebooks are now available in e-book format. Some of the books in our ‘Outside the Rails’ series are so detailed that they feature more than one page per mile of information about the route. We have also teamed up with Eva Hoffman, a recently-displaced Trails & Rails guide out of Colorado, to have her popular route guidebooks also available in e-book format. A lot of people have wrote us over the years asking for an e-book option because the traditional hard-bound books sometimes get just too bulky to carry on the train. Eva’s ‘Flashing Yellow Guidebooks’ series cover most of the long-distance routes, while our focus is exclusively on the Midwest. Whatever edition you choose — you will learn so much!”
Train enthusiasts also have another exciting and fun option to learn about their favorite routes in the Upper Midwest. In the just the past few months, the APRHF Rail Rangers have started producing downloadable MP3 podcasts. This means you can listen to expert narration from a Rail Rangers Guide on any train at any time — just don’t forget your earphones. On June 3rd, 2018, the first of six podcasts were made available from the APRHF Rail Rangers… this includes Chicago to Milwaukee, Milwaukee to Chicago, Chicago to St. Paul-Minneapolis, St. Paul-Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to South Bend Airport, and South Bend Airport to Chicago.
Executive Director Robert Tabern explains, “We are really excited about this podcast project. I love the fact people will be able to listen to our guides virtually on any train at any time. It’s the ultimate self-guiding experience, but it’s like we are along for the ride, too. This is something I really wanted to do for a long time.”
When all is said and done, at least 20 podcasts are planned for release. Next up to be produced will be the routes between Chicago-St. Louis and Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac, MI. Two additional recording sessions are planned later this summer to cover the Chicago-Quincy, Chicago-La Plata, Chicago-Carbondale, and Chicago-Indianapolis routes. All 12 current APRHF Rail Rangers’ Interpretive Guides are lending their voices to this project.
If the podcasts end up being a success, there is the possibility they become extended to passenger train routes outside of the Midwest; the focus would then likely be on sections of routes that have lost Trails & Rails guides.
E-books and podcasts from the APRHF Rail Rangers are available at www.MidwestRails.com or www.TrainPodcast.com.
While onboard educational programs may be taking a hit this summer with cuts made to Trails & Rails, the APRHF Rail Rangers are certainly happy to fill the void as best they can with their route guidebooks, e-books, and podcasts.