The Trails & Rails program is a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service that educates travelers on the heritage and natural resources of a specific region while traveling by rail. The program started in New Orleans in 2000. That year, National Park Service rangers created on board programs for Amtrak's City of New Orleans. Soon that summer program grew into a year-round partnership.
By the mid-2000s, the program had expanded to trains all across the country. Volunteer guides climbed aboard the Sunset Limited, the Empire Builder, and the Southwest Chief. Soon the program expanded to cover most of Amtrak's long distance services and several regional routes out of Chicago and New York City.
The number of National Park Service sites hosting Trails & Rails programs also grew. The host sites sponsor a team of volunteers who facilitate programs. These volunteer guides bring along travelling trunks of props and maps to help explain the passing regional historic and natural resources to the passengers. The Trails & Rails guides learn the special nuances of conducting programs using the train's PA system, greeting passengers in the lounge car, and wandering through the train. Each volunteer must meet Amtrak's requirements for physical fitness.
Texas A&M University's Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Science joined the partnership and continues to coordinate the Trails & Rails program across the country. Working with the National Park Service and Amtrak, professors create training materials for the onboard guides and set standard operating procedures for the program. Their students created podcasts, junior ranger books, and other tangible resources to support the onboard programs. The podcasts for the Sunset Limited between New Orleans and Los Angeles cover 2,000 miles and 100 anecdotes and fun facts.
Trails & Rails guides also participate in special events in their local communities. The guides meet people from around the world and share the beauty and history of National Parks and their regional landscapes. In 2017, there were 600 Trails & Rails volunteer guides who gave 43,000 hours of time to the program, and they contacted 560,000 passengers.