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Chelsea Green Blog

Passenger Trains: The Future of Transportation?

Our friends over at PlanetGreen recently interviewed author James McCommons about the future of passenger railroad. They wondered: is it bright?
With the doom and gloom of climate change and the frightening post-peak oil reality, it’s hard to understand why the US is so far behind the times when it comes to trains. Whatever happened to the days of cross-country landscapes zooming by from a sleeper car? Or how about just plain old common sense, sustainable mass transit? It’s crucial to consider the future of transportation in this country. So while we’re shelling out gazillions in gas money (depleting what little reserves we actually have), passenger trains are rusting on their tracks–and what a waste it is. Planet Green spoke with author James McCommons, whose new book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service asks–quite rightly–why has the world’s greatest railroad nation turned its back on the form of transportation that made modern life and mobility possible? And, more importantly–what can we do to revive it? Planet Green: During the crazy 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–you spent a year on America’s trains. Can you talk a bit about what drew you to the system, and what made you want to spend a full year learning more about it? James McCommons: I’ve been an Amtrak rider since 1975 when I was going to college, so I have long experience with the current system and used it to travel all over the country in the intervening years. Although I’ve had some great train trips, many were marred by late arrivals, missed connections, and traveling on run-down equipment. In 2007, I took a cross country trip on the California Zephyr that was both wonderful and frustrating, illustrating many of the contradictions of rail travel in America. At the end of that trip, I asked myself, “Why hasn’t the rail system gotten any better and is there any hope that it ever will?” I took a sabbatical from my teaching position at Northern Michigan University to research and write the book. As a side benefit, I got to ride a lot of trains and see a lot of country. PG: What surprised you most about the U.S. train system? JM: That it isn’t entirely dysfunctional. In regions of the country, such as California and parts of the Midwest, where Amtrak is supported by states and where their departments of transportation have worked out cooperative relationships with the big freight railroads–who own nearly all the tracks–Amtrak actually runs a pretty good service. I was gratified to meet people–including some at Amtrak–who understand passenger railroading quite well and know what needs to be done to move it forward. DOTs [Departments of Transportation] in Wisconsin, Washington, North Carolina, and Illinois are starting to see rail as a solution to their surface transportation problems. These DOTs understand that they have to be more than just highway departments because we can’t move people and goods efficiently by just building more roads and adding lanes to the interstates. So they are beginning to build rail expertise in their staffs, putting money into infrastructure, working with the freight railroads, and even purchasing trains themselves because the feds and Amtrak can’t supply the rolling stock. Amtrak simply operates these state-supported trains. These states and their corridor services are really models for what can be done across the nation. […]
Read the entire article here.

The Limits to Growth and Greece: Systemic or Financial Collapse?

Could it be that the ongoing Greek collapse is a symptom of the more general collapse that the Limits to Growth model generates for the first two decades of the 21st century? Author Ugo Bardi (Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet) examines the correlation between what is unfolding between Greece […] Read More..

Permaculture Q&A: Mulching Options for Your Garden

As Permaculture Month continues, we are making our expert authors available to answer your burning permaculture questions. If you have a question to submit, fill out this form. This week, Lottie from Florida asked if there are other garden mulch options that are as effective as hay. Josh Trought, one of our soil building and garden management […] Read More..

Designing Your Own Solar Cooker & Dehydrator

In today’s world, nearly everything we use, from phones and computers to cars and kitchen appliances, requires energy derived from fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be nice to offset some of that energy use by harnessing the renewable power of the sun? Josh Trought, founder of D Acres—an educational center in New Hampshire that researches, applies, […] Read More..

Building a Sustainable Community: The D Acres Model

If you were going to create a community-based homestead or farm from scratch, where would you start? What building materials would you use? What crops would you grow and what animals would you raise? How would you develop an organizational structure and connect with your community? And, how would you make sure all of this […] Read More..

A Man Apart: Remembering Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Life

A Man Apart is the story—part family memoir and part biography—of Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow’s longtime friendship with Bill Coperthwaite (A Handmade Life), whose unusual, and even radical, life and fierce ideals helped them examine and understand their own. Framed by Coperthwaite’s sudden death and brought alive through the month-long adventure of building with […] Read More..