Saturday, February 9, 2013

Waiting on a Train

Waiting on a Train: the Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service
© 2009 James McCommons
304 pages

You leave the Pennsylvania Station 'bout a quarter to four,
Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore!
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina!

("The Chattanooga Choo-Choo", Henry Warden & Mack Gordon)

Since 2000, U.S. gasoline prices have more than doubled  Not coincidentally, since 2000, ridership aboard the country's only nation-wide passenger rail service, Amtrak,  has risen 49%. In 2008, in the middle of an as-yet-unbroken sting of nine consecutive record-breaking years, James McCommons traveled  the length of Amtrak's many varied routes to gauge the state of the nation's passenger rails. In the wake of an ostensibly transit-friendly president being elected, and in anticipation of some stimulus money being applied toward improving rail infrastructure,  such a journey seemed timely. Chatter about rails is on the rise, and in Waiting on a Train, McCommons offers a sober -- sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful -- evaluation of the passenger rail services in America, and advice on how restore a largely abandoned service.

There was a time when railroads were the default means of extensive travel for most Americans, every city and town of consequence linked in a network that covered the continent.  A casual glance at the Amtrak map now reveals how drastically the situation for passenger rail has declined: although the northeastern U.S., Chicago, and west coast  are seemingly well-covered,  the majority of the nation receives scant services, and some states none at all.  Throughout his yearlong journey, McCommons explains how this came to be: public distrust of the railroads as large, corporate entities, coupled with enthusiastic popular and governmental support for the automobile and airports relegated them to the sidelines, where stifling, archaic regulations drove them into moribundity until they sloughed off the need for passenger service and focused on freight.  Passenger service became the exclusive domain of Amtrak, a queer public-private corporation that was given access to the freight's rails...or was supposed to have been.

As McCommon's account shows, passenger service is very much the "red-headed stepchild"  of American railroading. Although the rail companies, now purely freight-haulers, are obligated to let Amtrak use their lines, freight is given priority more often than not. Time and again, McCommon's ride is driven into the sidings to allow freight trains to pass them. ("Make way for the cheap crap for Wal-Mart!" said one conductor, disgusted. European passengers were utterly aghast at the concept.) With demand for both freight and passenger services on the rise, limited infrastructure is a worsening impediment to expansion. Not only did railroad companies throw away hundreds of miles of lines in the 1970s in a leanness effort, but many current lines were built for an older generation of slower engines, and their curve ratios can't take speedier modern trains...and especially not the bullet trains which some rail advocates seem to think is the only kind of rail it is possible to enjoy. But the greatest problem is the scantness of the network itself, which a recent article from The Atlantic demonstrates nicely.

The good news is, despite of the weaknesses of the system, in spite of the work that needs to be done,  the situation can’t help but improve. A new generation of officials and service professionals are running Amtrak these days, and they’re not former freight employees who regard passengers as problems to be endured. Even if President Obama conforms to the longstanding Democrat tradition of giving trains lipservice and then ignoring them, states are beginning to take their rail systems into their own hands – and while that’s almost just as well, because local officials know their needs better.  Ultimately, though, McCommons believes restoring passenger rail service will require a substantial investment from the federal government, because the revival of passenger rail will depend on a network that serves the many, that reaches a multitude of destinations – not just one limited to parts of the coasts and Chicago. Forget profitability, McCommons writes; accept that passenger railroads are an investment in the future, a foundation to build around and not a revenue-producer by themselves. Unfortunately, that’s an argument we hear from the highways, too, and these days making investments without some idea of the returns isn’t going to sell well. What will sell well is the fact that since heavily subsidized highways and airports also don’t generate profits , we’re better off with the transportation option that loses the least money – trains.  Future rises in oil prices will help, as well.

 Waiting on a Train is part travelogue, part citizen-advocacy, but a travel tale wherein our guide gives more attention to the means of transportation than the landscape – except when he combines them by reminiscing about how lovely the Rockies looked from the dome-covered observation cars of old.  For Americans  with an interest in reviving passenger rail in the United States, Waiting on a Train is a solid beginning, sizing up the system’s current strengths and weaknesses and at the same time giving rail romantics like myself an appreciation for the practicalities of rail transportation; it is a lesson in railroad logistics. 



  1. Interesting. I've traveled a bit by train on the European Continent and have found it to be a great way of getting around. I always like travelling by train because you see so much more of the country you're passing through and are relaxed enough to take the time to truly see things. It's a great way of meeting people on long journeys too.

  2. McCommons stressed the social aspects of train travel, as well. Do you use trains in Britain much?

  3. I used to get the train into work everyday when I working in London but lived about 15 miles outside. Being London no one talked to each other of course - unless something happened (like a points failure) - then afterwards everyone went back to ignoring each other.

    I did get to speak to people on my longer journeys up North to see my parents (now my Mum) which took about 3-5 hours depending on route and time of year. Those journey's were much more sociable.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.