Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Rail Rennaissance: We May Be About to Take a Huge Step Toward Reviving Train Travel

The following piece written by James McCommons, author of Waiting On A Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service; A Year Spent Riding Across America, appeared originally on

When I was researching my book on the American rail system, I interviewed William Withuhn, Curator of the history of technology and transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. He said: “America doesn’t get rail transportation. The politicians don’t understand trains because most have never ridden one. The press is all caught up in Amtrak not making a profit as if that’s somehow remarkable. Roads and airports don’t make money either. In the 1960s, we had same inane arguments. Critics saying: rail is not like other transportation systems, America is too big and not like other countries. People won’t ride trains here…In the meantime, other countries–lots of them now–have moved ahead and built these sleek, efficient and awesome machines. They get rail, but we don’t.”

Now, maybe two years after my conversation with Withuhn at the Smithsonian, America may be coming around.

On Tuesday, Vice President “Amtrak Joe” Biden and Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, stood in 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and proposed making passenger rail part of the next transportation bill, which would mean carving out about $8 billion annually or $57 billion–over the lifetime of the bill–for intercity passenger rail service. This has never been done before.

The money would go to states that put up 20 percent matching funds (just as they do now for highway projects) to lay more track, build signaling systems, bridges and tunnels, buy locomotives and passenger cars, and partner with Amtrak to increase service. The money would increase the capacity of the national rail infrastructure–which is privately owned by freight railroads–to accommodate both more passenger and freight trains.

If this proposal comes to pass–it’s part of the Obama Administration’s push for infrastructure and more American jobs–it would be a game changer for passenger rail. No doubt when this all is introduced in the President’s budget next week, there will be cries from the rail doubters in Congress –mostly Republicans–that this is nothing more than a boondoggle, a wasted effort to prop up Amtrak, or just another example of excessive government spending. Even some rail supporters have trouble with it, such as John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica believes any federal dollars ought to be channeled first into the Northeast Corridor to build a 200 mph train there.

But that would be a mistake. There are many areas in the country besides the Northeast–especially in California, the Midwest Hub around Chicago, and along the East Coast south to Florida–that would benefit from investment and faster train service. America doesn’t need a bullet train as much as it simply needs more trains. If anything, Biden clearly set some realistic goals for train speeds–which is to say, yes, some regions may build a a 200-mile an hour train, while other states may do well with 90 or 100 mph service.

The $8 billion dollar figure didn’t come out of nowhere. The number first cropped up in the latter part of the Bush Administration when Congress created the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Commission to study where the country should concentrate its transportation dollars. At first, the commission (headed by Mary Peters, the DOT secretary) wasn’t going to study rail, assuming roads and air could meet America’s transportation needs. But some members pushed for a rail study, and in the end, the commission recommended spending $225 billion annually on infrastructure, of which $8 billion would go to rail. It also recommended a gradual increase in the gas tax up to 50 cents per gallon. Peters and a couple other commissioners voted against the final report. And though President Obama wants more train service and spending on infrastructure, he hasn’t expressed interest in raising the gas tax and likely won’t during the run-up to the next election.

Continue reading this article at

Waiting on a Train by James McCommons is available now.

Bullshit. *Charisma, Icon, Intelligence, Empty Sandwich

How does the word “bullshit” connect to Charisma, Intelligence and the notion of The Empty Sandwich?To find out the answer to this question we meandered through David Fleming’s Lean Logic. A dictionary unlike any other, Lean Logic encourages readers to actively and intellectually engage with its entries. These entries are often cross-referenced so that you […] Read More

The Miracle of Farming: Toward a Bio-Abundant Future

Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer’s Le Ferme du Bec Hellouin is a celebrated model of innovative, ecological agriculture in Europe, connected to national and international organizations addressing food security, heralded by celebrity chefs as well as the Slow Food movement, and featured in the inspiring César and COLCOA award-winning documentary film, Demain (Tomorrow).In this excerpt from their […] Read More

Three Principles to Survive the Future

What guiding principles will you need to not just survive the future, but imagine a better one? Surviving the Future is a story drawn from the fertile ground of the late David Fleming’s extraordinary Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It. That hardback consists of four hundred and four interlinked dictionary entries, […] Read More

Sow Seeds: Stop Walking Around Doing Nothing

“In the last one hundred years, 94 percent of seed varieties available at the turn of the century in America and considered a part of the human commons have been lost.”That’s one of the key takeaways in award-winning author and activist Janisse Ray’s book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. In her book, Ray […] Read More

True or false? Figs contain dead wasps

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty … more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells their amazing story.Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles […] Read More
Follow us
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By