Is the Train Due?
A conversation with James McCommons about traveling by rail in America
James McCommons G'93 is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Audubon, and other major publications. In his 2009 book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green), he catalogs a year spent riding what is left of the once great American rail passenger system, hoping to understand the role its revival might play in the nation's future. A Library Journal "best book of the year," Waiting on a Train is neither sentimental eulogy nor utopian vision, but rather a practical case for making train travel a viable choice in an integrated national transportation system. McCommons, who earned master's degrees in magazine journalism at the Newhouse School and environmental science at SUNY ESF, teaches journalism and nature writing at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He spoke with associate editor David Marc about the future of train travel.
Why should the U.S. invest in a passenger rail system?
We've poured hundreds of billions of dollars into roads and aviation, but haven't invested much in rail. Partly, that's because through the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, passenger service was a private business operated by railroads carrying both freight and people. When that private business model no longer worked and railroads got out of passenger service in the early '70s, government set up Amtrak, but it didn't really invest in it or create business partnerships with the private railroads that own most of the nation's rail infrastructure. Consequently, it's no surprise we have an anemic passenger rail system. It's what we paid for.
Do you think train travel is compatible with the way Americans live?
The nation hasn't had a robust rail system since the 1950s, and most Americans have little experience with trains. But when they take the train, despite some of the hassles of Amtrak, they say, "This is nice." It's a comfortable and less stressful travel experience and they can use their laptops and electronic devices for entertainment or to be productive while traveling. The Acela trains in the Northeast, the closest thing Amtrak has to a high-speed system, now have wireless Internet, and other routes are adding it. It's a great setup for telecommuting.
When I was traveling, I was impressed with the corridor trains in California, which are operated in a partnership between the state and Amtrak. California may have a car culture, but it has been proactive in building rail corridors between its major cities, and it is now developing an 800-mile system of 200 mph bullet trains. California sees rail as a transportation solution to cope with a growing population and congested highway and air networks.
Other states significantly investing in corridor services are Washington, Illinois, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Until recently, they were investing on their own. Matching federal funds were only available for highways.
Is there momentum for long-term commitment to passenger rail?
The game-changer is the next transportation bill, which has been called the "highway bill" because that's where most of the money has gone. Highways will still get the bulk of funding, but this time, a portion will be set aside for rail. I've also been encouraged by the $8 billion in the stimulus package that the Obama administration pledged for developing "high-speed" trains. Now that matching federal dollars are becoming available and the administration is showing some leadership, many states, including New York, are drawing up plans to bolster their train service, usually in some kind of partnership with Amtrak. And the freight railroads are showing interest because they foresee a big opportunity to move more freight from highways to the rails. They'll need government help to expand their networks, which will be good for both freight and passenger service.
It's movement in the right direction, but we're likely decades away from the rail system we once had in America. What's required is a rethinking at the state and federal levels, where the focus has been inordinately on highways. And there has to be some sort of partnership forged with the private railroads. You can't do it without them.
Trains are not going to supplant cars or airplanes, but they will give Americans an alternative. There are many travel corridors in this country—such as Buffalo-New York City, Chicago-St. Louis, and Houston-Dallas—where fast, frequent trains would compete very well.
If you'd like to share your thoughts on U.S. passenger rail service, visit Viewpoint.