Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service
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During the tumultuous year of 2008--when gas prices reached $4 a gallon, Amtrak set ridership records, and a commuter train collided with a freight train in California--journalist James McCommons spent a year on America's trains, talking to the people who ride and work the rails throughout much of the Amtrak system. Organized around these rail journeys, Waiting on a Train is equal parts travel narrative, personal memoir, and investigative journalism.
Readers meet the historians, railroad executives, transportation officials, politicians, government regulators, railroad lobbyists, and passenger-rail advocates who are rallying around a simple question: 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?
Distrust of railroads in the nineteenth century, overregulation in the twentieth, and heavy government subsidies for airports and roads have left the country with a skeletal intercity passenger-rail system. Amtrak has endured for decades, and yet failed to prosper owing to a lack of political and financial support and an uneasy relationship with the big, remaining railroads.
While riding the rails, McCommons explores how the country may move passenger rail forward in America--and what role government should play in creating and funding mass-transportation systems. Against the backdrop of the nation's stimulus program, he explores what it will take to build high-speed trains and transportation networks, and when the promise of rail will be realized in America.
incompetence of Amtrak, to the sprawling layout of our suburbs, to our immense investment in cars, trucks, and highways—motoring culture now overshadowing all other aspects of our national identity. This said, I will hazard to engage in a personal sentimental journey to the memory bank of my many adventures on trains, starting with the best: my yearly journey from New York City to summer camp in New Hampshire, which I repeated for several years beginning in 1959. Apart from my delirious joy at
river were littered with broken drywall and old asphalt shingles, bags of leaves, tires, auto parts, washing machines, and plastic toys. Americans wouldn’t tolerate this amount of trash along the highway, but railroad tracks are considered inherently bad neighborhoods, backing up to scrapyards, recycling centers, factories, and warehouses. Homes and lots next to the tracks aren’t the choicest residential real estate either, so prices are lower, and as a result the poor often concentrate there.
transportation: I-5 is near capacity, and to build more lanes or new highways—turning rich farmland into asphalt—will be expensive as well as unpopular. The Cascades corridor is one of eleven rail corridors of 100 to 600 miles in length that were designated in 1991 by the U.S. Department of Transportation as “high-speed corridors” where passenger trains might someday run at speeds of more than 100 mph. The designation enabled states in these corridors to apply for funds to begin planning for
shirt. He formerly worked the Chicago yards for Amtrak and Conrail and eventually becoming a trainmaster in charge of crew operations. Like many state rail officials, he began the conversation by lamenting the lack of federal funding for rail. Outside of some money from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Illinois had gone it alone. And it had been a struggle. In 2005 and 2006 when the Illinois legislature didn’t appropriate the state’s subsidy share for the Hiawatha, Wisconsin had to
change, no sir.” It was late afternoon and Texas-hot outside. Passengers jammed the tiny waiting room, which is built into the corner of a much bigger and empty depot, still owned by Union Pacific. The city of Longview would like to take it over and rehab the station, but hasn’t been able to come to an agreement with the railroad. Having run out of chairs, the passengers plopped on suitcases, fingered their tickets and looked glum. Outside, away from the air-conditioning, more people stood in