The Trails & Rails program is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service. Locally, 10 trails’ volunteers at San Diego’s only national park have jumped on board and will journey two-at-a-time on summer Saturdays through August. Guides travel as crew and are well versed in passenger and on board safety, as well as knowing the route’s history and natural resources. Each volunteer must also meet Amtrak’s requirements for physical fitness.
(Incidentally, do not be misinformed: the infamous statue of Cabrillo located on the prominent site is not Cabrillo National Monument. The monument is the land upon which you stand and its resources once you enter the sentry gate. San Diego’s national monument is distinguished by having objects of historical and cultural interest. Versus, a national park wherein lies the reason for preserving and protecting the land.)
A program that began in 2000 in New Orleans, Trails & Rails expanded in the mid-2000s to trains all across the country. Volunteers climb on board very popular routes, among them the Sunset Limited (a passenger train that runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles over the nation’s second transcontinental route), the Empire Builder (a daily run between Chicago and Spokane), and the Southwest Chief (a higher-speed passenger train operating 2,265-miles through the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S.).
In 2017, there were 600 Trails & Rails volunteer guides nationally who gave 43,000 hours of time to the program, and they connected to 560,000 passengers.
This article is written from my own perspective of having been a guide on this inaugural run to Los Angeles. Our program trainer and lead, Mark McFann, said to me as we boarded, “Just go do what we do at the park! Give‘ em our goods!”
It was a bit intimidating at first, even to the seasoned extravert, to simply make eye contact with train passengers who were not sleeping, texting, reading, or computing. But in our nine hours on the job I had the most fascinating conversations with strangers.
I met a UCSD control systems analyst, Raj Singh, who was going north to visit relatives. He told me about his addiction with pickleball. He thought I should try it!
Four others wearing white shirts and red headbands were goofing off in the café car sipping beer in prep for the Los Angeles “Running of the Bulls.” That afternoon they would do six half-mile runs (with beer sipping intervals) hoping not to be caught by human ‘bulls’ with red paint. Eric and Jonathan said they were a “Drinking club with a running problem.”
Another fellow was heading southbound to run his first 26-miler, the Rock & Roll Marathon. Further down the consist of six train cars was another four people wearing blue shirts of a guide dog training program in San Diego. Two lovely tan-colored dogs sporting blue vests rested at their feet. As conversation can go, we learned of a mutual association with Jack Davis (of Point Loma’s Red Sails Inn and who bought and sold World War II aircraft). This passenger attended school with Jack’s kids, and had bought a motorcycle from Jack a lot of years ago.
You might be asking yourself at this point, with such broad conversation topics with passengers, did I promote Cabrillo National Monument (at the southwestern-most edge of the continental U.S.), the tidepools and ocean, a restored base end station (that once controlled the 16-inch gun of Battery Ashburn), the lighthouse, or any of the history here to LA? You bet I did!
Our Conductor Gene Ili said, “The more direction we can give our passengers, the better—any information to get them where they’re going.”
People were enthusiastic and chatty. We elevated our beloved national monument atop the 462-foot Point Loma peninsula (come and visit again). Rumbling along the tracks we passed Camp Pendleton (125,000 acres of Marines’ training grounds and the former Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores), Mission San Juan Capistrano (Where are the swallows?), and an ever-changing geology.
Welcome aboard, Trails & Rails guides!