Monday, August 02, 2010

Waiting on a Train (A Book Review)

I came across this book last month in a coffee shop in Munising, MI and read it last week while flying out West. It was pointed out to me that it was ironic at best (and at worst I was tempting fate) to read a book on train travel while flying. But, like the author, I find myself taking “perverse pleasure in what is happening to the air industry” now that the “façade [of their] superiority has fade.” (183)

James McCommons, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing 2009), 284 pages.

During the turbulent year of 2008, a year when gas prices rose to record heights and the economy nosedived, James McCommons spent the year riding Amtrak around the country while speaking to railroad experts about the future of passenger rail services. As he takes various trains, he writes about his experiences traveling and his interviews. Mixed into the text is a brief the history of railroading in America. For a nation that has the most efficient freight system in the world, our passenger system is leaves much to be desired. McCommons describes what happened with passenger rail service in the United States and how we ended up with the spotty system we currently have.

Amtrak was formed at a time when the entire rail system in the United States was nearing a collapse. Railroads were expected to provide passenger service as well as haul freight as a result of the generous land grants and money they’d received to built the roads, but they wanted to get out of the passenger business. In order to shed this responsibility, Amtrak was formed. Each railroad contributed equipment and gave Amtrak running rights on its track. Amtrak did receive some of its own track, the “Northeast Corridor,” which was tracks own by the bankrupt Penn Central which had been formed into another quasi—government corporation, Conrail. At the time, the Penn Central bankruptcy was the largest ever and Congress felt it had to act or it leave much of the northeast without any rail service. In the late 60s, both freight and passenger trains were in trouble.

McCommons explores in detail how the railroads became such a mess. In the 19th Century, the government gave land and money and other incentives to the railroads to encourage them to connect the country. In some ways, railroads can be credited with created the “United States” as steel connected communities across the nation. But as the 19th Century came to an end, the brutal and often monopolistic practices of railroads caused them to be one of the most hated businesses in the nation. During the Progressive Era, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, railroads were highly regulated. As the nation entered the 20th Century, railroads had few friends to help them against the threat of other forms of transportation that were being subsidized. Furthermore, railroads were barred from having any connection with bus services, which was seen as a competition to rail travel, not a complimentary service. Railroads came out of the Second World War with high hopes for passenger service, but the interstate and air travel quickly diminished their hopes. (109-111)

Amtrak, according to McCommons research, was designed to fail. Although sold as a way to make passenger rail profitable, such an idea was a myth. Once Amtrak was created, railroads didn’t have to worry about providing passenger service, and if it failed the railroads would be off the hook.

As McCommons points out, the “farebox” doesn’t pay the cost of operating any of the railroads we’re envious of around the world. Unfortunately, we’ve been sold the line that passenger rail can pay for itself and the debate over such trains in the United States is framed by Congress who sees itself as “subsidizing” Amtrak, while they “invest” in highways and airports. (247) Obviously, such terminology puts passenger trains at a great disadvantage to other forms of transportation.

As he travels the country, McCommons visits with passenger rail advocates and industrial leaders of all but one of the Class 1 railroads in the country. Only Union Pacific refused to meet with him and Union Pacific comes across in this book as being anti-passenger rail. Yet, McCommons was surprised at the response he had from the other railroads who strive to work with Amtrak in providing passenger service. As Amtrak only owns a portion of its track, it has to depend on other railroads for space on their tracks. Norfolk Southern has even pondered the idea of getting back into the rail business. (221) CSX, which has the most passenger service on its system, proposed in 2008 to the US Department of Transportation “Corridors to the Future” Program, a north-south transportation corridor that would run along I-95 with dedicated freight and passenger lines to help remove congestion from the freeway. The Bush-era Department of Transportation only funded highway projects! (254) The Bush family looks anti-passenger rail in this book. George W. Bush tried to kill Amtrak funding throughout his administration and his family is well tied with Southwest Airlines, whose president bragged that he killed a proposed highspeed rail corridor that would tied together Texas three major metropolitan areas. In Florida, Jed Bush also killed a project that would link that state together with high speed rail.

Although McCommons points out the failure of passenger rail in this country, he also highlights several areas where it is successful. He points to corridors which successfully links population areas together and notes that trains can compete with airlines in travel of less than 500 miles. Many of these corridors have developed (Northeast, California, North Carolina, Chicago-Milwaukee, etc). McCommons suggests that for passenger trains to make a comeback, they will need of a nationwide strategy for rail service (that’s not based on nostalgia) and money. It will require new tracks as current tracks are near capacity (CSX noted that if railroads took just 10% of long-haul trucking off the freeways, it would gridlock the rail system). (268)

I recommend this book. Of course, I’m sort of a foamer when it comes to train travel (read the book to learn what a foamer is). Not to brag, but I have ridden all the trains he rode with the exception of the lines in New England. To read some of my train adventures, check out these posts:

Coast Starlight
Southern Crescent
The City of New Orleans
The Virginia & Truckee
Train from Musan to Seoul
Late Train to West Palm


  1. nice. we took our boys on a train up in PN...would love to catch another from here up to DC and beyond...will check out the book...

  2. The US and States governments have very good reason to not be bosom buddies with the Rail Companies.
    From their inception the management were one step lower to pirates. And in the WW2 the least of their issues was to leverage the income at that level and then to suck the moneys out.
    They expected that the to big to fail would kick in and they would get the current equivalent to the land grant to renovate the system. And anyway, do you not think it's a tad rich moaning because a bigger pirate in the shape of Herb Kelleher undercut them with fares that the taxi that brings people to the airport could not better.
    And I like trains too. But I dislike being fleeced.

  3. No pun intended, but I'm afraid the train has left the station on passenger rail in this country. The infrastructure needed to create and maintain a European style rail system is immense, given that the system has received very little investment since the end of WWII.
    It's not likely to change, if for no other reason the government now owns GM and Chrysler and is in bed with the auto unions.


  4. I love trains - my grandfather was an engineer with Southern Railway. A really long time ago, I took a Girl Scout trip to Savannah, Georgia on a passenger train called the Nancy Hanks. I remember sitting in the dining car and having breakfast, the porter in his white coat and feeling like a princess.

  5. R. Sherman is very right: in Europe we have good infrastructure, but Europe is a lot smaller than the US and almost all the countries have made huge investments on high speed trains, impressive infrastructures (tunnels under the mountains and the sea, bridges and modern trains) to improve communications and link the largest cities in the continent.

    Now high speed trains are competing with the aeronautics industry in distances of up to 600 miles.

    Add to it an excellent highway network and you'll find out why so many people don't mind driving to cross small Europe, especially for tourism. But flying saves time and money!

  6. Arrggh... my comment disappeared. Just as well, but I've enjoyed Japan's rail infrastructure where trains run within 30 seconds of published schedules. Of course you are packed in like sardines... :)

  7. Enjoyed this. High speed (even low speed) trains would help so much here in California. There's been talk for years of a high speed between LA and SF, but the commitment is not there. I'd love real commuter-friendly rail service between Palm Springs and LA; the only way to cover this 125-mile trip now is by car (or if you've got money to burn, by plane). There isn't even a bus.

  8. What happened to the railroads back then seems to be happening to the automotive industry now.

  9. It would be great if we had a rail system like Europe. Unfortunately, if there's no profit it's not going to happen.

  10. I've only been on a train twice, but I really enjoyed it, and hope to take a longer trip someday.

  11. I love riding the trains...but the last few times I took the Acela from NY to Washington DC it cost a bloody fortune. I swear, it was cheaper to fly.

  12. In India travelling by train is the norm. And the experiances one has can never be forgotten in ones life time. Someday do visit India and see it for yoursel..