On Monday, July 20, 2015, the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) officially launched a brand new program. Rail Rangers is a special long-term outreach effort that will be directed primarily at individuals and groups that own and operate private railroad cars, in addition to organizations planning private or public rail charters, railroad museums, and other similar venues. By contacting the APRHF and simply advising they are interested in the Rail Rangers program, a rail car owner or group organizer can now easily make all the arrangements necessary to have experienced, educated docents aboard to present an informative, but yet entertaining, interpretive program.
Newly-appointed Chicago Coordinator and Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern explains, “Of course, almost everyone loves to go on a train ride – especially in a private rail car from the 1940′s or 1950′s. But, how many of the passengers on these excursions really know what they are seeing out their window? It’s almost like watching the Travel Channel with the audio turned off. You’re not going to get quite as much out of your ride without having live guides on-board that passengers can interact with. That’s where we will come in. The APRHF Rail Rangers program will work with private car owners to custom-design a First Class program in the style and format that they want for their passengers.” Possible options can include custom-designed route guide sheets or booklets and other handouts, live guides aboard the train to provide narration, route guide book sales, travel trivia contests with prizes, and even special activities for children.
While the formal affiliation with the APRHF and group name is in its infancy, the actual concept behind Rail Rangers isn’t by any means. Since October 2010, Robert has been entertaining and informing passengers on select Friends of the 261 excursions with his unique brand of narration, route guides, trivia, and wit. The Friends of the 261 is based at Minneapolis Junction, MN, and operates Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261 and more than a dozen private rail cars, including the Milwaukee Road Skytop “Cedar Rapids”, and the “Super Dome”. Previous Friends of the 261 trips that have featured Robert’s interpretive programs have included the following: October 2010 Fall Colors Excursions from Minneapolis to La Crescent, MN and Boylston, WI, July 2011 Train Festival Excursion from Davenport to Homestead Wye, IA, October 2011 Fall Colors Excursion from Minneapolis to Boylston, WI, May 2012 National Train Day Excursion from Minneapolis to Chicago, October 2012 Fall Colors Excursion from Minneapolis to La Crescent, MN, May 2013 “Return of the 261″ trip to Duluth, MN, October 2013 Fall Colors Excursion to Willmar, MN, and a May 2015 Windy City Excursion from Chicago to Milwaukee.
After getting married to recently-appointed Rail Rangers Chicago Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern in 2012, the couple works as an a well-matched on-board team; Robert is often found in the upper level of the dome car pointing out landmarks to Premium Class passengers, while Kandace roams the rest of the train and gears her presentations and hands-on activities more toward the children and teens who are riding. In late 2013, Kandace even developed a very popular children’s activity book and “junior conductor” program for the Friends of the 261; she is hoping to do something similar later this year or in early 2016 for the APRHF’s new Rail Rangers program. Kandace says, “Over the spring and into the summer now, we had been looking closely at what we do so well on Friends of the 261 excursions, and, with the APRHF’s help and involvement, now hope to expand this outreach to even more rail charters across the Midwest, and possibly even in other areas of the country. That would be really great to engage more passengers and educate them about all of the sites you can see from the train, but might not otherwise know about, if you didn’t have a pair of live and local guides helping out on the train.”
Along with Robert and Kandace, APRHF President Bob Cox and Vice-President Amy Cox will have a direct role in co-managing the new Rail Rangers program, serving as the organization’s La Plata Coordinator and Assistant Coordinator, respectively. Bob explains, “The APRHF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote the role that passenger rail played in the building of this nation. We feel that the mission of the Rail Rangers program fits right in line with what we have been doing out here the past couple of years. After much consideration, we are going to try an outreach program to private car owners. Amy and I will be managing a lot of the logistics with the private rail car owners and working with them on planning out upcoming trips. This will be a great way to meet more private car owners and also share with them what we are doing out here in and around La Plata.”
In addition to sponsoring Rail Rangers, the APRHF has been key in supporting such other projects as the Let’s Talk Trains Internet Radio Show, the Silver Rail Events Center, the Silver Rails Gallery and Memorial Library, the Exhibition of Amtrak History, and on-going maintenance and upkeep at the current Amtrak station in La Plata, MO.
The decision for the APRHF to throw its support behind the new Rail Rangers program also comes out of the immense success the organization had from creating and co-sponsoring a Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago Union Station and La Plata, MO. From December 3, 2012 through July 19, 2015, this partnership between Amtrak, the National Park Service, Texas A&M University’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences, and the APRHF, featured 32 Chicago-based Trails & Rails volunteers who provided educational programs to more than 50,000 Amtrak passengers traveling through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. Robert and Kandace served as Trails & Rails’ Chicago Coordinators, while Bob & Amy served as Trails & Rails’ La Plata Coordinators. The APRHF contributed more than $25,000 in goods and services towards the program over three years, including being the primary partner to fund overnight accommodations for Trails & Rails volunteers in La Plata, and providing funding for the use of a new wireless speaker system by volunteers. Despite being the least funded of all Trails & Rails groups in the country, Chicago to La Plata Southwest Chief volunteers always came in at number one in the country in terms of volunteer hours for non-daily Trails & Rails programs; it also had one of the strongest social media and outreach presences. In early June 2015, Trails & Rails National Coordinator and National Park Service Ranger James Miculka, based in College Station, Texas, advised that he felt having the APRHF continue on as a co-sponsor of Trails & Rails presented a “conflict of interest” for him. Despite the APRHF pointing out how everyone, especially passengers, benefited from the partnership, Jim refused to change his stance. The last APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO took place on the weekend of July 18-19, 2015. Sadly, the program is now in a “suspended status” and is no longer offering on-board educational opportunities to passengers on the Southwest Chief.
Despite the very recent loss of a Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, the future already extremely bright for APRHF’s brand new Rail Rangers program. Robert explains, “We are looking forward to working with private car owners to provide new opportunities and a true First Class, but also fun, experience for their passengers. If a private car owner wants route guide sheets or maps — we’ll head out, drive the route, and do the research for them, and have them ready to go at the gate, complete with being there with a smile on our face to answer any questions. If they want us aboard to do live narration and kids’ activities — we and the APRHF have them covered there too. Personally, I really look forward to the creativity we will have now; we didn’t get much of a chance to be creative with the cooky-cutter format and regulations imposed on us by the National Park Service as part of the Trails & Rails umbrella. We also look forward to doing our program on more than just one route.”
For now, the APRHF Rail Rangers program, consists only of Robert, Kandace, Bob, and Amy. However, if current demand increases, Rail Rangers and the APRHF will consider holding interviews for new guides.
You can learn more about the APRHF Rail Rangers through their brand new website (http://www.railrangers.org), and follow them on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/railrangers).
A more in-depth article about how the APRHF Rail Rangers program will operate will be released on the APRHF website on Wednesday, July 22nd.