Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service

~by James McCommons

This review is part of the Green Books Campaign. On November 11, 2009, over 100 bloggers reviewed over 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. The goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. The campaign was organized by Eco-Libris, a company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available here.

When I first heard about the Green Books Campaign, I was intrigued. I strive to live locally and sustainably, and "green" living is often a part of that. So, it made sense for me to participate--combining "green" with my love of reading. Plus, they had a great list of books to choose from. I ended up with Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (a journalist and instructor at Northern Michigan University). Having only recently been on a train for the first time, and having enjoyed it immensely despite problems and delays, I found myself particularly interested in the subject. McCommons spent a year riding the rails across America in order to research Waiting on a Train; the resulting book is a mix of investigative journalism and travel memoir. Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, the book was included in the campaign because copies are printed on chlorine-free recycled paper (some of it post-consumer-waste) and do not use old-growth forests in their production.

Over the course of a year, McCommons interviewed historians, railroad enthusiasts, politicians, transportation executives, railroad officials, Amtrak staff, fellow passengers, and others about passenger trains in the United States--each person bringing a different perspective to the discussion. McCommons made a point to never rent a car during his travels, using buses, cabs, and occasionally planes to make his connections, showing just how difficult it is to get around without a car in the U.S. He also showed how difficult Americans' dependency on cars will be to change, but that creating a reliable passenger rail system would be a huge step in the right direction. In addition to relating his experiences traveling by train, he also delved into the history and politics surround passenger train services and Amtrak. He also made a point to visit different areas of the country exhibiting some of the best and the worst passenger rail services that America has to offer. McCommons was able to remain predominantly objective in Waiting for a Train even if the narrative wasn't always very linear and was somewhat repetitive, but the chapters are short, approachable, and easily digested.

Overall, I enjoyed Waiting on a Train quite a bit. I certainly gained a better understanding of the current state of passenger rail in the United States and how we got to where we are now. It is somewhat surprising to me how quickly the U.S. went from having a rail system envied the world over to having a system that's a rather large embarrassment today. But that just means that there's plenty of room for improvement and fortunately more and more people are interested in making that happen. It will take a lot of work, but it is doable. McCommons handles this quite well in Waiting on a Train--he is not overly optimistic, but he doesn't make the situation feel absolutely hopeless, either. However, the book does seem a bit disjointed in its approach. I did enjoy the travel narrative, but it was sometimes difficult to completely mesh that with the investigative material. Even though McCommons deals heavily with current events, there is plenty of history covered and the book should remain interesting and informative for quite some time. Whether you are interested in current events, politics, trains, or are simply a fan of mass transportation (like I am), then you will probably find McCommons aptly named Waiting on a Train a book to pick up.


Melanie said...

This book does sound intriguing! Having just experienced a train ride that was supposed to be 4 hrs total return trip and ended up being 10 hrs because of delays, I'd love to see improvements in rail travel! But there is still something romantic and also environmental about train travel.

Serena said...

Wow, passenger rail service is not something I've given a lot of thought to. Thanks for the honest "green" book review.

Phoenix said...

Thanks for stopping by, Melanie and Serena!

Anonymous said...

I'm an American currently living right outside of Seoul, South Korea. They use subways and trains as an almost exclusive form of transportation here. If we did anywhere near as good a job of transporting huge numbers of people (Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world), to their destinations every day via train, it would revolutionize intercity communities. I personally would love to be able to take a train from Nashville to Chicago on the weekends when I get back home.

Phoenix said...

There's definitely an interest growing in the United States; 2008 was a record breaking year for Amtrak in many ways and ridership was certainly up. One of the problems we have now is that Amtrak would like to increase the number of train cars to meet demand (assuming they have the funding) but they are no longer built in the U.S. Train cars pretty much have to be special-ordered from outside the states, and that takes time. Hopefully, that will be able to happen before interest wanes.