About Tracks Ahead

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Viewers in other markets, contact your local station.

Tracks Ahead

An all new season, Tracks Ahead 7, was released in January, 2009. As with the previous two seasons, it is in high definition, with digital 5.1 surround sound. The 14 part season includes segments from Japan, the Caribbean, Patagonia, and all around the United States.

Two other high definition series are out. Tracks Ahead 5 was released in 2003, and Tracks Ahead 6 was released in 2006. Each series is available on your local Public TV station, with a formidable lineup of features for railroading novices as well as experts. The series is available to all PBS stations in high definition and digital 5.1 surround sound, and in regular letterboxed TV. If you don't see it, contact your local PBS affiliate and ask about the series.

Work continues on Season 8, with approximately 80% of the material shot. As of March, 2010, about half the segments are edited and ready for insertion in the final program lineup. The remainder of the material will be acquired in summer and Fall, 2010, with one potential trip falling into 2011. Check the Travels Section for more details and to stay current on the trips.

Release of Season 8 has been pushed to 2011.

As always, the magazine-style series explores every aspect of the railroads of the world. You'll see railroad prototypes, models, personalities and lore covering not only the railways and modelers of the past, but of the present and future.

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New Technology

The television system in the United States has undergone radical change. This change is the first since the electronic standards for television were established right after WW2. The new system is a digital system, and marries computer technology with television. Visual images are captured in a digital format, processed digitally, broadcast digitally, and received and projected in the home, all via digital technology. "Great," you say. "But what is `digital technology?'" Simply put, digital refers to a system of ones and zeros, or on and off switches. Everything - every image, every line, and every picture element - is turned into binary (or a string of ones and zeros). In the old analogue system, there was some image degradation each time an image was manipulated. So between the time of image capture, and it arriving at the home receiver, there could be substantial image loss in detail. But the digital system alters that process. The results of this are the ability to faithfully reproduce images all along the line in the broadcast process, so that the image on your television set is identical to the one that was captured by the camera at the original scene.

An additional advantage is the fact that there are twice as many scan lines in the digital system - 1,080 vs. 525 in the old, analogue system. The result is stunning detail and clarity, in a screen that is wider than the traditional 4x3 ratio screen. The new high definition TV sets are in an aspect ratio of 16x9, or roughly one and a third wider than current screens.
Do you need a new TV set to see Tracks Ahead? No, as convertor boxes and cable/satellite operators downconvert the digital signal. You will notice some difference in enhanced clarity, but you will not get the full impact of the high definition signal unless you have an HD TV set.
Along with the picture (or video) is digital sound. All seasons starting with number six have been released of surround sound, sometimes referred to as 5.1. This means that there are six channels: Left front and rear, right front and rear, and center + a channel for the bass or sub-woofer signal. So the sound you hear puts you right in the center of the action. It's dramatic, and adds a whole new dimension to the viewing experience.

Tracks Ahead is pleased to be able to provide multiple seasons in the digital format. The results are truly amazing.

Chuck Zehner

The originator of the Tracks Ahead concept was the late Charles E. (Chuck) Zehner, Jr. Chuck was always interested in trains, and was a fixture of the rail fan community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for many years. Zehner kept a scrapbook about his efforts to bring railroading to he general public. It recorded Zehner's days as founder of the Lionel Club's "Program Night" rail fan presentations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his days hosting and producing the 87-episode public access Just Trains cable TV show, and his work as Senior Producer for the Tracks Ahead program produced for PBS.

To most people, a kitchen table is just a place to eat supper. But to Zehner, a kitchen table was a place to create a television show about trains that has been shown on more than 200 stations around the United States since 1990.
"It all starts right here, right here at my kitchen table," Zehner told friend David Riddle as he sat at the table flipping through an overstuffed ring binder. "I have a notebook full of story ideas, with a pocket for each idea and any notes, photos, or brochures about the idea. Different fans send me ideas and I have several of my own, and each one goes into the notebook."
For someone whose career is in television, that wouldn't be unusual. But for Zehner it was, because for him it was only a hobby. "I'm just a working stiff with a 40-hour-a-week job like everybody else," Zehner noted. "My bread and butter comes from working in a factory, and then after work I go down to the TV station. I don't have a college degree," Zehner said, "but I've got street-smarts. I know what the audience wants, and what will play well with the public. We've got a clean and educational show, one that's interesting, but also one that a mother cannot be afraid to sit down and watch with her children. We receive a lot of fan mail from mothers who watch the show with their children."
Zehner and the other producer for the series, Executive Producer David Baule, made an effective team, with Baule bringing his television skills to the mix and Zehner bringing the story ideas. "We're a regular Barnum and Bailey," said Zehner, who often reminded those around him of circus promoter P. T. Barnum and had created a circus model to go with the HO and O-gauge model trains in his basement.

Chuck died in December, 2000. But his vision of bringing the excitement of railroading to a vast audience lives on.
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