random thoughts on railroad photography, railfanning, technology, and such

Entries from April 18, 2010 - April 24, 2010


Trails & Rails ... & Podcasts?

According to the National Park Service’s web site, the Trails & Rails program

“is an innovative partnership program between the National Park Service and Amtrak. This program provides rail passengers with educational opportunities that foster an appreciation of a selected region’s natural and cultural heritage; it promotes National Park Service areas and provides a value-added service to encourage train ridership. It also renews the long tradition of associating railroads with National Parks.”

The “educational opportunties” are typically a very knowledge volunteer or two that are on-board the train and they give a verbal presentation and are available to respond to traveler’s questions.

I feel that the Trails & Rails program is very cool and can add tremendous value to one’s trip.  Deb and I would often wonder what the local history of the area was that we were traversing through during our many road trips.  In fact, her and I even thought of creating a product that travelers like us could play a CD that would describe the local history through a narrative and play music that fit the scenery and story, but like our other ideas, we had no funding for such an endeavour. So I think it is great that this program is available for others to enjoy.

From what I gleaned from the Trails & Rails web site, the program is only offered on some of the trains that Amtrak offers and only on a portion of the route as well.  That’s OK. Something is a whole better than nothing. However, there is now another option for train travelers - podcasts.

Here is an explanation from a page about the podcasts at the NPS’ Trails & Rails web site:

The National Park Service’s Trails & Rails program is expanding the Amtrak ® traveler’s experiences with another opportunity to learn about the nation’s national parks.

NPS has staff and volunteers on key Amtrak® trains promoting the national park sites, answering park questions, etc. and some Amtrak passengers can now be able to download audio podcasts highlighting the history and sites of interest along their route. The podcasts are accessible via smartphones, computers and strategically played at “on board” display screens on key Amtrak® trains, providing an audio guide, NPS anecdotes and fun facts.

Passengers can also download a printed version of the podcast, a perfect format for both teachers and the hearing-impaired. The podcast is a feature of the NPS Trails & Rails program, and was developed as a partnership between Amtrak®, the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University and the National Park Service.

Volunteer at http://www.nps.gov/getinvolved/volunteer.htm 

Route of Amtrak’s Sunset LimtiedCurrently there is only one offering and that is for Amtrak’s Sunset Limited which provides service between Los Angeles and New Orleans but I am certain more are planned.  The podcast appears to cover all of the key points along the route and some less known locations as well.  You can print out the narrative as a .PDF file if you prefer to read the information or for the hearing impaired traveler.

If you think about, now you have one more reason to travel by train besides you can keep your shoes on and use the bathroom whenever you desire.  Because railroads operate at “ground level” instead of 35,000 feet there is a lot to see.  Not only can you see beautiful scenery, you also get to see many areas that you cannot see any other way because, often, rail corridors are in remote regions and predate the interstate system.

Good job Amtrak and the National Park Service for combining two wonderful aspects of America and keeping it current and accessible. If only the system had GPS capabilities…Shhh…nevermind!


Become a Web "Rail" Ranger


Every once in a while I come across some cool information or web-site while I am surfing the internet. Today I came across a good one hosted by the National Park Service. The site is, in my opinion, a great example of our tax-dollars hard at work.


This particular NPS site is called Web Rangers. It is geared towards “kids of all ages,” (fortunately for me), and is intended to garner interest in the National Parks and all they have to offer through interactive games, quizzes, activities, and lessons.

On the site I saw a banner advertising a new addition to their current complement of activities geared to educate and inspire. The activity is called Railroad Connections.

Railroad Connections is a well-done flash-based activity along the lines of “Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?” The goal of the activity is solve several mysteries with clues and given along the way. There is a lot of good content here and definitely well planned an executed.

If you have kids that have an interest in railroads at any level, this would be a cool way to learn more about the workings of steam engines, railroads and their influence, the westward expansion and the transcontinental railroad and more.

All I kept thinking about while I was checking the site and activity out was “What a cool way to learn about history and the like! I wish his type of content and interactivity was available to me growing up.” All I had were Lincoln Logs and textbooks!

Point the kid in you or your kids to www.webrangers.us and you’ll see what I mean. Great job NPS!



Train, Talent, Tangent, and Tribute

THE TASK AT HANDI just took a trip.  It wasn’t a trip I intended to take but sometimes you just go there.

It started with an innocent email from a fellow train enthusiast named Linda Leinen.  I frequently get emails from visitors to ChasingSteel.com, which I love by the way, commenting on the site or seeking train or railfanning information.  I had read Linda’s email and it seem typical in all respects.  It should have had the words “TICKET” printed across the top.

Linda had expressed her desire to go and see UP’s No. 844 as it ran through south Texas this weekend. She stated that she had made “a zillion inquiries” to ascertain the Valley Eagle Heritage Tour’s arrival time and departure route as No. 844 moved south.  I didn’t particularly know the details she sought but I love to help, if I can.

At this point I was, and continue to be, engrossed in my new iPad.  I thought that I would use it to research the details that Linda asked about and test my iPad at the same time.  So I went to the UP Steam’s GPS tracking site which shows the route in detail on the map when you have fully zoomed in.  I discovered the track routing out of Houston and then proceed to make a map for her showing the general route to Bay City that No. 844 would take.  I did this on my iPad in a cool drawing program I purchased for it.  So far so good.

I sent a reply to Linda’s email, which I used Pages to pen, and attached the map I created.  I gave her some advice on the chasing aspect and asked her to thank any crew members she encountered for their dedication and service to railfans everywhere.  

In her reply, she said she would.

She also graciously thanked me for helping her and detailed her plans for the chase.  She also took the liberty of including a URL to a recent blog post she has written about her childhood and her attraction to trains.

I  began to read her blog entry and was quickly taken by the fluid imagery and precise prose that held me captive.  Wow, “she can write,” I thought. Her blog, entitled “A Task at Hand,” is subtitled: A Writer’s On-going Search for Just the Right Word. I’d say she has found many of them. It is a very compelling post and a great blog that is certainly worth a read.

In her post she describes some of the railroad-themed music that she enjoys.  One notation, in particular, took me back to my time in the Army.  

I was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii in 1984 and thought of little else than being a good soldier and all of the women vacationing down at Waikiki.  Having been bitten already by the “train bug,” I did experience a departure from my idealistic pursuits briefly when I attended a Boxcar Willie concert on base.

For the uninitiated, Boxcar Willie was a persona created by Lecil Travis Martin and a legendary “hobo music” artist and a member of the Grand Ole Opry.  A truly talented singer and songwriter, he is best known for his uncanny ability to imitate a steam whistle sound with just his voice and a microphone.

As I read Linda’s post I clicked on the various links and took the “journey” she laid out for us. When I clicked on the Boxcar Willie link I smiled and got lost.  I clicked on link after link after link highlighting the various songs that Boxcar has performed. I had forgotten about his stirring talent and soothing sounds. Thanks for the memories Linda.  I learned more and more about Boxcar and discovered that he had succumbed to Leukemia in 1999. I feel fortunate that I got a chance to see him perform live and meet him.