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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There is still hope...maybe
This is a timely, relevant book on a subject that just about everyone loves to hate: The state of train travel in the U.S., both long distance and inner city. I think it is one of the best books on America's trains available today. I am a fan of trains and have ridden most of the Amtrak trains discussed in the book. Based on my experience the author is accurate and fair...
Published on December 13, 2009 by Charles M. Nobles

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but tends to repeat itself
James McCommons' "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America" had such an intriguing idea that I had to read it. Having spent a little time on overnight Amtrak trips I wondered if the author would experience some of the frustrations I had, such as trains running 7-9 hours late, being stuck on side tracks waiting...
Published on February 10, 2010 by Archie Mercer


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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There is still hope...maybe, December 13, 2009
By 
Charles M. Nobles (Tulsa, OK United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
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This is a timely, relevant book on a subject that just about everyone loves to hate: The state of train travel in the U.S., both long distance and inner city. I think it is one of the best books on America's trains available today. I am a fan of trains and have ridden most of the Amtrak trains discussed in the book. Based on my experience the author is accurate and fair in his description of the routes, service, and history of Amtrak since its founding in 1971.
But there is so much more in the book than the history of Amtrak and its numerous problems. The author spent a year (2007) riding Amtrak trains and meeting with just about everyone that has an interest in the subject including government regulators, historians, railroad executives, politicians, passengers, transportation officials, and passenger train advocates. In a highly readable narrative the author provides the history of America's early embrace of passenger trains and the subsequent abandonment of such trains that has proven to be a "train wreck" into itself. The story of how and why Amtrak was created and how that affects its performance today is not only interesting but will likely enlighten readers that have been raised on the notion that somehow Amtrak should make a profit like other private businesses.
Regardless of your philosophy as it relates to passenger train travel in the U.S. this book is a must read. The discussion of California's experience with train travel within the state is enlightening and the author's contention that it is a model for the U.S. is worth reading for anyone interested in public transportation policy.
Surprisingly, given the subject, this is really a fun read. It is part travel narrative, part memoir, with a dose of old fashioned investigative journalism thrown in for good measure. The current administration in Washington has proposed $8 billion in federal stimulus funding for a high-speed rail network in the U.S. Will it work? Is it worth doing? Why or why not? This book will help answer many of the questions that are being ask by taxpayers, riders, and others interested in the subject. Highly recommended.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Passenger Rail Service: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Now and Where We Should Be Headed, December 1, 2009
This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
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If you have ever wondered why passenger train service today is a skeleton of it's former self, or if there is any possibility of a return to passenger rail and what that service would look like, then this is a book you should read.

The author spent months riding current passenger rail routes around the country in order to evaluate the service level presently, to talk with passengers and to interview people on all sides of the rail issue, from politicians to freight railroad executives and on to current employees of passenger rail operations. He not only road the main service routes that cross the country, but also the regional trains (or more properly corridor trains) that have become so popular in certain areas of the country. While doing so, the author describes a little of the history of the line and the forerunner trains, as well as discusses current conditions. Upon arrival in a particular area, the discussion turns to what the future holds in both national and regional rail and how people in that geopgraphical area feel about national and regional rail service.

The author broke the book into sections by region, starting with the Pacific Northwest and moving on to the Southwest, etc. Each of the discussions about particular trains is covered in the geographical section that the train most represents. The ending is a culmination of what the author has discovered and where he believes the future of rail is headed.

The author did a wonderful job of weaving together the various stories that make this book so readable. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a monograph, or pieced together to form the book. Even dedicated rail travelers such as myself can learn historical and political lessons from the book, which should be in the hands of anyone who believes rail has a future in the United States and especially in the hands of those who doubt rail has a future!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Future of Passenger Rail, January 26, 2010
By 
sneaky-sneaky (Moscow on Hudson) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
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Trains are largely invisible to many of us who only occasionally wait at a level crossing, and the industry is perceived as defunct, old, and out of date. But rail is back, it's very necessary, and a viable alternative that can deliver freight and people at a lower cost to the environment. Amtrak's woes are amply documented in 'Waiting On A Train' as the author takes dozens of different services all over the country, some that are run very well, and others that are a commuter's nightmare. The chapters are extremely short, but that seems to fit in neatly with modern culture; even if you only have a few minutes to spare you can actually read a chapter of McCommons' book. The author interviews rail executives, conductors, and passengers, and records some interesting quotes such as John Hankey of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum; "Without railroads it's hard to imagine a United States: We ought to be five different countries instead of one, and the reason we aren't is the railroad."
Outside of San Francisco George Chilson tells the author, "I don't think any city has ever put up a bus stop and seen major development. But put up a train station or build a new transit stop and the developers are flocking to build."
McCommons worked hard to produce his book, catching connections at all hours and driving himself to capture every interview, and the effort paid off. Trains are a peculiar subculture to capture, people are wary of those folks known in the U.K. as trainspotters, but in the U.S. are more derisively labeled as 'foamers.' James McCommons is a solid writer to top it off, with a delicate descriptive touch that makes the idea of taking an overnight train an enticing adventure.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, captivating, compelling: give us more trains, December 2, 2009
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This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
Mr. McCommons provides us with a past, present, and future prospects of passenger trains in our country; fundamental information about the value of this invaluable source of transportation as the U.S. faces increasing populations in need of moving about this great and huge land for economic and recreational purposes. As you read you accompany the author as he crosses America, experiencing diverse accommodations of present-day travel by rail, and sit in on his one-on-one interviews with principals of the industry. It is a comfortable and entertaining read. It is essential for any policy-makers engaged in promoting the expansion of passanger trains, and for the rest of us who enjoy terrific non-fiction that has the power to incite action to improve our country. Just outstanding; encourage you to read it, and support more track more places for us all.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Third world America, and we don't even know..., September 7, 2010
America once had the best system of rail travel in the world. Not the best at the time but the best of any time, better than anything now in Europe or Japan. It's all forgotten. When I visit family in the States, a rental car or a long pick-up at the airport always has to be arranged. Third world. But most Americans don't even know it's third world. They just figure that's the way it has to be. The freedom, convenience, and sheer pleasure of ready access to the rails for all your needs is what most Japanese and many Europeans grow up with, what most Americans once knew, and what modern Americans can't even conceptualize.

Anyone over 80 years old reading this? You know what an interurban is. Your kids, though, have never heard the word. It's not even in most dictionaries, anymore. Certainly a huge part of America's Forgotten History. Interurbans were the new dual-purpose electric trains of the early 20th century. Cheap, clean, and comfortable, they were street cars in the city but morphed into high speed trains between cities.

Every Midwestern town with more than a few thousand people was connected to the system, as were all cities and many towns on both coasts. In the Midwest, you could get from anywhere to anywhere over the entire immense area. Too young, old, drunk, or blind to drive? No problem. The interurban is coming. The wait was usually short. Once you're onboard, you could admire the scenery or read a book. If it was rush hour, many even had short order cooks. You could have eggs, pancakes, coffee etc. on your way to work.

Interurbans weren't killed because the automobile was more economical. Think about it. How could it be? The system was killed by government support for the automobile, especially "the subsidy." IE, so-called free infrastructure. Interurbans were mostly private. No taxes. In fact, they PAID taxes instead of sucking up taxes. They built their own infrastructure.

And they weren't killed because spaces are too wide and destinations too far. Destinations now are too far because that's the only way you can organize society when cars are at the center of transportation. Once upon a time, job, school, shopping, church, recreation were all nearby for most people. You didn't have to burn a quart of gas to buy a quart of milk.

Here in Tokyo, the rails rule. They're not just for commuters, or the poor, they're for everyone. No such thing as soccer moms in Japan. Japanese moms are emancipated from car-pooling and everyone is emancipated from traffic jams, oceanic parking lots, and daily destinations scattered to the four winds. And emancipated from the expensive need to support a couple of cars in order to live a normal life. Maybe the need for a car is why, despite the theoretically lower cost of living, it's tougher to be poor in America than in many other advanced countries.

Waiting on a Train is a bit weak on the reasons for the collapse of the American system, and a bit unrealistic about how to recreate it. In other words, it doesn't really get into the details of my diatribe-disguised-as-a-review. But it does something possibly more important for the general populace. It reintroduces Americans to the romance of the rails, even our pathetic third world rails.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Before Proposing Ideas, Read this Book, June 18, 2010
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I agree with some of the detrimental comments other reviewers posted. The author could have gone deeper in some cases and present a little more comprehensive and detailed proposal without getting too technical and boring; main reason why I give the book four stars not five. But it gets four because it is an excellent read and every one who wants to, or is already involved, with an interest in passenger railroading has to read this book as a primer. If you have no idea how a freight railroad runs, what are the main blockades other than money that face passenger rail expansion, or in general, how a railroad can contribute to American transportation infrastructure now and in the future, this book is is a great introduction. The author keeps it simple, to expand on his work, volumes have to be written but would be laden with technical and economic details that would put off a common reader who wants to get the "gist" of the current and future American passenger railroad operations.

Rail fans need to read this book to help quell the outrages propositions (Like coast to coast bullet trains) commonly found on forums, news groups, magazines, conventions, and even passenger rail advocacy groups. I see some of these proposals as detrimental to the cause because the grand and sometimes outrages scope they posses have the propensity to be instantly ignored by those who make the decisions. In result, ignoring the more sensible proposed solutions that need to be implemented.

Sometimes it is the transit companies themselves whose grandiose plans get shot down because they cannot see the big picture. As an example of this, research SEPTA's Schuylkill Valley Metro (SVM) project in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. They wanted a to build a system that connected two main cities; Reading and Philadelphia with a huge and overbuilt rail system that was a clear overshot of what is needed with price tag of over $2 billion. I should mention that there was an existing service between these cities as recent as 1983. Instead of working with what they had and negotiating with the host railroad (Norfolk Southern), SEPTA wanted a unique, separate system designed to support frequent head-ways that most likely will not be needed and never reach capacity goals. Because of this grandiose plan, the project was nixed by the feds as too expensive for what is needed. I honestly believe that if the planners of the SVM knew and UNDERSTOOD what was in this book, trains would be running between Philadelphia and Reading today. Now, it may be at least 10 more years.

In conclusion, if you want to know what is wrong with this country in regards to the problems plaguing American transportation and how the railroads can help, read this book immediately. It will get your foot in the door so you can understand not only what it takes to get a passenger rail project moving, but what obstacles it will face. You will have a better understanding in reading rail proposals and the political underlinings involved. Again, a great foundation for more advanced research if so inclined, but enough for a casual reader to get what is going on and what is needed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Politics and practicalities of passenger trains in the United States, December 3, 2009
This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
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I have taken Amtrak on a few occasions from Chicago to New York, and Minneapolis to Sandpoint, Idaho. From the numbers in this book, that makes me a rather rare individual. Only a couple percent of Americans have taken a long-distance passenger train ride in their life. And mostly for good reason! Amtrak is an underfunded mess by and large. And the mess isn't that Amtrak never became profitable, the book looks at the history of Amtrak's formation as a benefit to railroads "too big to fail" and their unprofitable passenger services. The US government subsidizes highways, airports, and ports directly, gasoline and electricity indirectly via foreign policy and support of the oil and gas industry, so there's no surprise that trains need subsidies as well to compete.

Although the book would be of interest to the train buff, it's also accessible to the rest of us. There's politics and also the practical nature of the rights of way, the rails, and the trains that run on them. The book consists of a series of (mostly) rail journeys to interview the important players in bringing passenger rain service, long distance and regional, back to the States. Well written and a good read, though the Introduction (by James Howard Kunstler) made me more skeptical about the book, probably worth skipping the intro, with such absurd pronouncements as the end of the airlines and commercial air travel within five years (that would be four now). Really, I can support rail without silly fearmongering statements, the real energy situation is difficult enough without need for exaggeration.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well reasoned, researched book on passenger rail, January 31, 2010
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This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
With the Obama Administration starting to fund passenger rail more aggressively, I found this book to be a very well reasoned and timely addition to the literature. The book functions at one level as something of a travelogue, with the author taking various train trips and noting facts about the train and the passengers it serves. But more importantly, the book delves into the history of the passenger train, the reasons it started it's decline after WWII, and how Amtrak got it's start. The author takes pains to avoid being a "railfan cheerleader"; if anything he seems to go out of his way to decry avid railfans as being somewhat out of touch, which I personally could have done a little without. Never the less, his dispassion towards rail as a hobby serves him well as he discusses the key challenges rail currently faces, specifically capacity, funding, timekeeping, and linkage to other transportation modes.

For someone looking for a good overview of what to expect as we see more high speed rail, and as conventional rail gets more attention, this book is an excellent resource in my opinion. It is well written, very factual, and most of all, the author understands the industry and can discuss it as a business and a service industry.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just for train buffs, December 2, 2009
By 
Phelps Gates (Chapel Hill, NC USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Paperback)
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McCommons traveled around the country for a year, mostly by train, interviewing railroad executives, politicians, and ordinary people, and experiencing Amtrak along the way. I started the book with the feeling "Do I really want to read 300 pages about Amtrak?" but was sad to come to the end, and would have enjoyed another 300 pages by this highly readable author. The book is divided into lots of short chapters, and each one is an adventure: typically describing a segment of travel (either enjoyable or, more often, unpleasant) and then going behind the scenes to cover what's going on with the railroaders and politicians in that part of the country, and explaining why things are so bad (or sometimes good) there. You'll find out why some Amtrak trains are almost always late and others mostly on time. And what the political battles are all about. And why it doesn't make sense to complain about Amtrak "not making a profit." And what a "foamer" is. The author is modestly optimistic that a sensible passenger rail system is possible (and in some states progress is actually being made). And, as he convincingly demonstrates, we'd better get a sensible policy soon!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Learned so much I didn't know!, March 15, 2010
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There are people out there who love trains so much, they spend all their free time riding them. Even with the challenges of a rough schedule, low priority, and a far cry from the halcyon days of train travel, they still slog through the rides.

I'm an infrequent Amtrak user who completely identified with the problems discussed by the author. From the on-time struggles to occasional apathetic employees, I do see how train travel can be frustrating. On the other hand, I've taken a train, read a book, and enjoyed a coffee from the cafe car, and still arrived in less time than driving. This book explores the good and bad sides of train travel, and outlines what is being done to support trains on a national, state, and local level.

I particularly enjoyed the discussions of successful train service - especially in Wisconsin, California, and Washington - and how with only a little investment, it could grow even further. I hope that policy makers and car devotees both read this book and use it to understand that train "people" don't want subsidies - they just want a chance to reclaim a lost and extremely useful form of travel.
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Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service
Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (Paperback - November 6, 2009)
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