Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service—A Year Spent Riding Across America by James McCommons
Chelsea Green, 304 pp.
ames McCommons insists he is not a rail fan. This is not uncommon among those who work for, or with, the rail industry. To be a rail fan is to be what actual railroaders call a "foamer." In their extreme form, these are the people who chase trains in their cars while clicking pictures and listening in on train crew chatter with their handheld radio scanners. Police and rail crews often mistake them for terrorists or for some kind of nut. This has created some controversy among foamers themselves about whether the Bill of Rights should protect them from being regularly harassed and sometimes arrested. In December 2008, Amtrak police collared a man named Duane Kerzic and handcuffed him to a wall in a holding cell in New York’s Penn Station for an hour after he refused to delete images of trains he had taken while standing on a public platform; it didn’t matter that Kerzic was clicking away in hopes of winning an Amtrak-sponsored photo contest. The Amtrak police, unable to prove he was a national security threat, nailed him for trespassing.
So I understand why McCommons says he’s not a rail fan. (Neither, I hasten to add, am I.) A real rail fan, after all, would never make the mistake of asserting, as McCommons does in passing, that the pre-1971 California Zephyr ran on the Union Pacific. (It was the Western Pacific, Jim, along with the Rio Grande and the Burlington.) Still, McCommons spent almost all of 2008 riding Amtrak trains back and forth across the country, telling folks he met along the way that he was doing research for a book on the future of passenger rail. Not a bad cover story, and he stuck to it, though he did at times draw suspicion from rail officials when they learned of his travel history. The resulting work, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, is part travel log, chronicling both the horrors and the pleasures of riding Amtrak, and part solid political and business reporting on the rail industry that hardly any other journalist is doing. This is the part of the book that is highly relevant to non-foamers.
Starting with the Obama administration, governments at every level across the country are gearing up with big plans for rail. Competing for the $8 billion dedicated to high-speed passenger rail by the stimulus bill, for example, more than forty states plus the District of Columbia have submitted rail proposals totaling $57 billion to the once-sleepy Federal Railroad Administration. Both the cap-and-trade bill and the big surface transportation bill now overdue for reauthorization in Congress promise even bigger federal spending for rail. Many states, from Maine to Michigan and California, are spending their own money to fund passenger trains and, in some instances, such as Virginia, are investing in freight rail as well, to get trucks off the road.
Trains suddenly make sense to a lot of people who never paid much attention to them before—enviros, "smart growth" and industrial policy types, even erstwhile highway planners and billionaire financiers. But there’s a problem. Aside from foamers, there are few people left in America who know much about rail, and what the foamers know (the consist, car numbers, and flag stops of the 1949 California Zephyr, for example) isn’t particularly useful. This is where McCommons’s book could come in very handy, if, say, you are a mayor hoping to secure passenger rail service for your town, or a real estate investor with a transit-oriented development in mind. It would also be a useful read if you are a journalist or investor trying to figure out why Warren Buffet just plopped down $34 billion to buy a quarter of the nation’s rail infrastructure, or why Bill Gates’s largest single holding after Microsoft is a railroad stretching from New Orleans to Vancouver and Nova Scotia called the Canadian National. Because in the course of his Amtrak odyssey, McCommons managed (despite being occasionally rebuffed at first as a suspected foamer) to talk to nearly all the key members of the small fraternity of people left in this country who do have practical knowledge of railroading—including its engineering, its economics, and its rarefied politics.
And so the reader picks up, for example, on the very different corporate cultures of the nation’s major freight railroad companies (which, with rare exception, own the tracks on which Amtrak runs its trains outside of the Northeast). Some, like Union Pacific, have, at least until very recently, been hostile to passenger trains and regularly sideline Amtrak trains for hours to make room for its freights. "You need to understand this," McCommons quotes one UP executive saying to one of his sources.
If [Amtrak] is right to the minute on time and an ass in every seat, we don’t care. If you are nine hours late and nobody is on the train, we don’t care. If you have engine trouble and are stuck, we don’t care. If you bring a few million to the table in incentives, we don’t care. We are a $3 billion company, it means nothing to us. So no matter what Amtrak does. No matter what you do, we don’t care. WE DON’T CARE.
(Union Pacific declined McCommons an interview, but he got to just about everybody else who matters in the rail industry.)
Other freight railroads, like Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the 32,000-mile colossus Buffet just bought, have a more progressive reputation, but still are not eager to share their rights-of-way with passenger trains unless they’re well compensated and protected from liability issues. If you want passenger rail in your town, you’ll have to get to know freight rail executives, or form alliances with people who do, and work on deals to gain access to their privately owned infrastructure.
Similarly, you may need to do some serious community organizing. McCommons tells a delightful tale of three mayors, all of them of women, of small East Texas towns served by Amtrak’s Texas Eagle. It’s a slow, quaint train that meanders down from Chicago to San Antonio on its eventual way to Los Angeles. Few people ride it all that distance, but for people in towns along the route of the Eagle, like Mineola or Marshall, Texas, it’s a lifeline. When Amtrak threatened to cancel the service some years ago, the three mayors formed what they labeled the "East Texas Ladies Auxiliary" and with the help of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson went to work to save the train. To make a long story short, the Eagle runs today because a successor group of volunteers now not only lovingly maintain the stations along the line and greet passengers, they also handle marketing, ticketing, and pricing. "Now, the reason I’m good at setting prices is because I know the passengers," one tells McCommons. "I know why Aunt Mary takes the train, how often she does, and what she is willing to pay. No Web site or ticket agent on a telephone knows Aunt Mary like I do ... in my opinion, sir."
Yes, the passenger rail business in the United Sates, so long neglected by most of us, can be just that quaint and dependent on individual personalities. Many are low-level bureaucrats, working out of cubicles in various state departments of transportation, surrounded by rail maps dating back to the nineteenth century. Most state DOTs are still dominated by highway builders, but McCommons takes readers along with him to visit key government employees in a few states, such as California, Washington, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, where the culture of the state DOT has become pro-rail, usually under the leadership of strong personalities, like Wisconsin DOT Secretary Frank Busalacchi. States that have developed deep working relationships with Amtrak, the freight railroads, rail suppliers, and unions are likely to get most of the burst of federal spending on passenger rail because they have projects that are "shovel ready" and because they have the rail industry contacts they need to make them happen. Other states are like Florida, which during the eight years of Jeb Bush’s benighted governorship gutted the rail division of the state DOT and walked away from its early leadership in high-speed rail, and which now struggles to secure even lowly commuter trains for the traffic-choked Orlando and Tampa Bay areas.
McCommons’s book will also help you form an opinion about the great unresolved issue surrounding high-speed rail—one that the Obama administration should decide on before shoveling billions out the door for rail projects: How fast does high-speed rail have to be? California is planning a line that would whisk passengers between San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area at speeds up to 220 mph on a brand-new right-of-way that wouldn’t be shared with freight trains. This would give California world-class rail service of the kind France or China enjoy, and over time it could pay for itself by spurring economic development and reducing the need for new airports and highways. But it is fantastically expensive to get started and time consuming to build, not least because it involves the taking of much private property for the new right-of-way.
Arguably, many more communities could be served, sooner and for far less money, by projects that simply boosted the speed of passenger trains upward to around 110 mph, which would allow them to run on existing tracks and share the cost of the infrastructure with slower but profitable freight trains. This approach has the added benefit that capital spending for improved track and signaling would help freight railroads to get more trucks off the highways, even as it provided many more Americans with passenger service that is fast enough to beat driving or taking a plane. It’s a humble vision compared to that of gleaming bullet trains, but perhaps a more practical and equitable one as well.
As for McCommons’s account of his journeys on Amtrak, I’ll just say that I’ve been aboard all the trains he describes and more, and his travel log accurately reflects what one is likely to find riding the rails across the heartland. Trains outside the Northeast Corridor are frequently late, and the service provided by their on-board crews is usually fine but can also be dreadful—kind of like with airlines these days. Yet Amtrak’s ridership, though tamped down by recession, has been growing for years despite aging equipment and all the industry’s other problems. To ride across America enjoying the privacy of your own sleeper-car room, and also the sociability of dinner in the diner with strangers who often become friends (as well as all the electricity you need to keep your laptop and cell phone charged and actually get some work done), is a civilized experience more and more Americans are seeking out. College students, retirees, and small-town residents still make up the bulk of Amtrak’s long-distance riders, but more and more these days I meet worldly scriptwriters, computer programmers, and other professionals who have had it with airports and interstates and welcome the opportunity for either the concentrated work or the deep relaxation that train travel offers. With proper funding, and faster, more frequent service, passenger trains can regain their storied place in American life—and you don’t have to be a rail nut anymore to see that.