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Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service Paperback – November 6, 2009
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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.
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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While the cost of gas isn't the issue that it was in 2009, there remain many reasons to take trains. Seeing the country is one amazing one - getting there quickly isn't always.
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.