James McCommons: Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding across America

October 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

470978-1603580649 – Paperback – Chelsea Green Publishing – $17.95

I learned a great deal from reading this excellent book.  Not just information about trains – there’s alot here – but about the people who around the United States who are working to make train travel a viable alternative to driving, about the communities and states where rail is succeeding, about the history and scope of railroads in America and around the world, and specifically a great deal about Amtrak, its ongoing struggles, as well as the modern freight railroads that are thriving today.  Jim McCommons has alot to tell, but he never lectures us.  Because the book is built on the backbone of his year spent traveling around America by rail, and because McCommons is an experienced and talented journalist, Waiting on a Train beautifully combines travelogue, personal memoir and transportation analysis and history that gives us a great introduction to an important and large subject that might otherwise seem opaque and difficult to approach.

McCommons spent much of 2008 in trains.  He talked to travelers, workers on the railroads, policy makers, professional planners, politicians, including many of the people who have been most involved in passenger rail policy for the past 35 years.  Waiting on a Train is not a sentimentalist’s approach to rail travel.  McCommons tells us plainly what the challenges are for those of us who want to see mass transit developed into a meaningful alternative to automobile and air travel.  And he does not pull punches – developing passenger railroads is not going to be easy and it will not happen quickly.  It’s important to realize that only 2% of the American public has actually ever ridden a train – a stunning fact I learned from this book.  I’d recommend this book for anyone who loves trains, an easy call, but I’d also like to see people who have never even thought about riding on a train read this book so they will understand why rail must be an essential component of the American transportation system of the future.

In my interview with James McCommons, we talked in detail about what it was like for him to spend so much time in trains, writing this book, and many of the subjects he covered.  He talks about high speed rail, the differences between Europe and America, meeting railroad policy makers, and talking to regular travelers from many different backgrounds.  It’s a fascinating story I hope will be widely read and discussed.

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