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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.


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