McCommons Explores Timely Topic in Waiting on a Train

James McCommons (English) spent a one-year sabbatical riding the rails across much of the Amtrak system to research his new book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. Published this week by Chelsea Green, the book is already gaining media attention because of its timely, relevant topic. President Barack Obama supports a high-speed rail network and $8 billion in federal stimulus funding has been earmarked to get the project on track.


It was a less than satisfying 2007 spring break trip with his eldest son on Amtrak’s California Zephyr that convinced McCommons to pitch the book proposal. He wanted to tackle a couple of simple questions: Why has the greatest railroad nation in the world turned its back on the very form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible? And why has Amtrak, created in 1971, failed to expand and play a significant role in surface transportation?


America’s infatuation with the automobile certainly played a role. But through his conversations with the people who ride and work the rails—from transportation officials, government regulators and railroad executives to politicians, passengers, lobbyists and historians—McCommons discovered the answer is far more complex.


“The U.S. had a private rail system that was in big financial trouble by the middle of the 20th century,” he said. “The government allowed the railroads to drop passenger service in 1971 to enable them to concentrate on freight. Congress created Amtrak to save a few passenger trains, but largely to save the railroads. It never really invested in Amtrak and rail. A lot of people thought passenger trains would simply fade away in a few years and all of our transportation needs would be met by highways and aviation.”


McCommons added that Europe, by comparison, never moved away from its trains. The systems were largely state owned and governments there continued to invest in them and innovate—creating high-speed networks and bullet trains. He said Amtrak runs a skeletal system today, often functioning on a shoestring with run-down equipment and a poor track record for being on time.


“It’s not always Amtrak’s fault because it owns very little of the track it runs on,” he said. “The freight railroads are required to allow Amtrak access to their networks, but there has been an antagonistic relationship between the two since Amtrak’s creation. On the bright side, some of those attitudes are changing. Just recently, freight and passenger rail advocates have joined forces and lobbied Congress for more investment in infrastructure. In the contraction and near demise of the railroad industry, the nation’s rail infrastructure has been reduced by one half since 1960. Where there used to be double track, it’s now single track, and some corridors have been abandoned and turned into walking and biking trails.”


McCommons said California is a model for the rest of the nation because it has invested more in rail than any other state. It recently worked with Union Pacific to create the Capitol Corridor from Sacramento to San José.


“The state paid for infrastructure improvements to increase the capacity of the freight line. It designed and bought new passenger trains and simply brought Amtrak in as the operator. The state also runs a system of connecting buses that meet all trains and provides connectivity to other forms of mass transit. If you make rail service frequent, dependable and convenient, it makes all the difference. If it’s also fast, that’s great.”


A Pennsylvania native, McCommons began riding Amtrak in 1975 while attending college and had traveled by train extensively before embarking on the book project. His father was a clerk with the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad, which delivered ore from the Great Lakes region to the Pittsburgh steel mills. His grandfather, a railroad brakeman, was killed in 1919 when a steam engine exploded. Despite his personal connection to the subject, McCommons said he is not a railroad "buff" and was motivated less by nostalgia than his interests in transportation and geography. He describes Waiting on a Train as equal parts travel narrative and investigative journalism.

Any hope of resurrecting passenger rail in the United States, according to McCommons, will hinge on two factors: significant financial investment and time.


“It’s going to require a lot more than $8 billion. It will also take decades, barring a national crisis. The cost of energy will drive a lot of this. When gas was $4 a gallon during my 2008 sabbatical, the trains were full. Trains are already more efficient, even with the improvements in automobiles. There’s talk of biodiesel trains in the future. Eventually you could even electrify the corridors and get energy from cleaner sources. Passenger rail fits in with the green economy and the goal of getting more vehicles off the road.”


Fueled by the national discussion and debate over high-speed rail, McCommons has been interviewed by FOX Business and national radio and print media. His book is also gaining favorable reviews. Library Journal magazine called it one of the “Best Picks for Fall.” An accompanying review by Margaret Heilbrun stated, “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’ Waiting on a Train. McCommons 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.”

For more information, visit Waiting on a Train.


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Updated: November 4, 2009

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