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Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service Paperback – November 6, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Although there is probably plenty of interest in a fond reminiscence of the bygone days when people regularly traveled the U.S. on steel tracks, this is certainly not it. This is a hard look at the current state and (possible) future of America’s passenger rail service. McCommons, a travel writer and frequent train passenger, addresses a number of key issues: the widespread distrust of railroads; the railroad companies’ record of poor service; the increasing erosion of the country’s intercity rail system; a lack of funding and support for what used to be an efficient and popular form of transportation. McCommons writes in a measured tone (he’s trying to be informative not judgmental), but there’s an undercurrent of disappointment and even disgust: he’s not just a reporter; he’s also a fan of the railroads, and he feels like they’ve let him down. What is the future of the passenger rail system? That’s a tough question, but McCommons says one thing is certain: if we don’t commit now to building a solid rail network with high-speed trains, soon there could be no railroads left. --David Pitt


Library Journal, Editors' Pick-

Attention! Readers of travel memoir, of investigative reporting, those seeking to understand America today, even devotees of fiction of the American journey--heck, simply of fine writing! Look out for James McCommons's Waiting on a Train. NOTICE!: Train chasers, railroaders, and train hobbyists, you'll want to chase down this book as well. DESCRIPTION: Height nine inches, approximately 272 pages deep. Instigated by veteran journalist McCommons, who was last seen riding the rails in 2008 on extended trips covering all regions of the country that still permit the possibility of passenger rail travel. As he rides the California Zephyr, the Silver Meteor, the Acela, the Empire Builder, he interweaves stories of the men and women he encounters with an accessible and expertly traced history of America's enchantment and subsequent tragically wrongheaded abandonment of its railroads. In a year when gas prices tipped the $4 mark, the speed and efficiency of freight trains carrying shipping containers became all the more clear. McCommons urges us not to fall back on train nostalgia but to look to the future. He sees the possibility that with increased stimulus support of America's railroad lines, age-old disconnects between freight and passenger rail may at last ease, and we may cease to be "a third-world country when it comes to passenger railroads." McCommons is the son and grandson of railroad men. He does them proud. Detain his work. Can be found as of November 2009. Reward: The pleasure of reading prose that has the shimmer, strength, and authenticity that our railroads can still inspire and that they may yet attain again.

Library Journal-

McCommons sets out to rectify American ignorance of passenger trains by describing his rail travels around the United States in 2008. He writes of the people he meets, the scenery, the long decline in American rail travel, and its emerging renaissance, interweaving discussions he has had with dozens of the leading minds on American passenger rail. McCommons explains that Amtrak has been starved for funding since its 1971 inception but argues that a brighter future is coming with increased funding from the Obama administration, states working on regional plans, a new spirit of cooperation from the freight railroads, and the 2008 four-dollars-a-gallon gasoline price, which refocused the public's attention on rail travel. Still, he's objective, and though repetitious, his narratives get the mood of train travel right. He's at his best when deftly connecting the lack of a salad in a dining car with bigger issues like Amtrak's funding. VERDICT: Essential reading for rail fans, policymakers, and anyone curious about the future of transportation.

"America once had a passenger railroad system that was the envy of the world. Now we have one that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The task of reviving it could not be more important if we wish to keep people moving around this continent-sized nation, especially as the airlines crap out and our system of mass Happy Motoring founders on the shoals of 'peak oil.' The infrastructure of our rail system is lying out in the rain waiting to be fixed; the project would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels; and the fact that we're not even talking about it shows how un-serious we are as a society. This book is one small step toward the giant leap of consciousness necessary to repair our battered country."--James Howard Kunstler, author of World Made By Hand and The Long Emergency

"Like William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways before it, James McCommons' Waiting on a Train is a celebration of America's past and a hopeful prescription for its future. It is one of those rare books that will change the way you see the world, a fascinating and engaging tale of how this nation's infatuation with the automobile all but destroyed a once glorious passenger rail system. If you are not already a rail lover, you will be by the time you finish this book. You will want to pack your bags and hop aboard. Waiting on a Train is an important story thoroughly reported and well told."--John Grogan, author of Marley & Me and The Longest Trip Home

"James McCommons has captured the adventure, the angst, and the inadequacy of modern train travel. He also gives us perspective, taking us from the days when trains were the pulse of America to today when they could be so much but are on life support."--Don Phillips, columnist for Trains magazine and former transportation writer for The Washington Post and International Herald Tribune

"Waiting on a Train is a timely and worthwhile addition to the canon of transportation literature. It manages to be both a lively account of rail travels across America--with insightful portraits of the train enthusiasts and just plain folks met along the way--and a deeply informative history of Amtrak in its short but troubled existence. More than that, it points the way toward a more dynamic future for passenger railroads, complete with heavily used high-speed trains zipping around regional corridors."--Jim Motavalli, author of Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works and Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future

"This is must reading for anybody who cares about the transportation future of this country. It should be a call to arms for all Americans who keep wondering why our friends in Europe and Asia have terrific trains while we have poured billions into highways and airports and a pittance into our national passenger rail system."--Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and vice-chairman of the Amtrak Board of Directors, 1998-2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing; First Edition edition (November 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1603580646
  • ISBN-13: 978-1603580649
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #898,726 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Charles M. Nobles VINE VOICE on December 13, 2009
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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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