Der Spiegel (Germany)
March 9, 2011
Can Obama Get High-Speed on Track?
By Philip Bethge
US Vice-President Joseph Biden is America's most famous commuter. It has earned him the nickname "Amtrak Joe." Several times a week, Biden takes an Amtrak train from Wilmington, Delaware to the historic Union Station in Washington, DC. It has been claimed the Democrat now knows the first name of every ticket inspector on the line.
Biden must have been pleased when he unveiled the government's new high-speed rail plans at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia last month. The administration plans to spend $53 billion (€38 billion) on passenger trains and rail networks over the next six years. The lion's share of this has been earmarked for new high-speed connections. The aim is that 80 percent of Americans will have access to "bullet trains" by 2035.
Such gleaming high-tech marvels could race between San Francisco and Los Angeles at speeds of up to 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour). The planners hope to cut the journey times between Washington and Boston to less than four hours. A T-shaped line in Texas would connect Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan foresees raising hundreds of kilometers of this so-called "Texas T-Bone" off the ground so that longhorn cattle can pass underneath the rails.
"It's a smart investment in the quality of life for all Americans," says Rick Harnish of the Chicago-based Midwest High Speed Rail Association. Industry insiders like Ansgar Brockmeyer, of the passenger rail division of Germany's Siemens Mobility, are thrilled about this locomotive renaissance. "There's reason for optimism," he says.
America's Legendary Railroads
However, the country's conservative forces are determined to derail US President Barack Obama's technological vision. No fewer than three newly elected governors (from the states of Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio) have completely rejected Washington's planned cash injection for the country's railways.
In fact it's difficult to say whether America's long-neglected trains can ever make a comeback. Large parts of the network are in a desperate state, and most Americans have long-since switched to traveling by car or plane instead.
And yet the railroad enabled their forefathers to open up the Wild West. Train services were profitable in the US right up until the 1950s. Many lines were legendary, such as the Santa Fe Super Chief, which brought its passengers from Chicago to Los Angeles in luxury. Film stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart slumbered in the elegant sleeper cars, and dined in five-star style.
The California Zephyr is another classic service, with its route stretching for almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from the Midwest to San Francisco. In better times, "Vista dome" cars gave passengers a 360-degree panoramic view of the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada. An elite team of hostesses, dubbed the "Zephyrettes," served drinks and even offered to act as babysitters.
The Zephyr still runs to this day -- but the 51-hour journey makes this more of a treat for diehard railway fans. One such fan is James McCommons from Northern Michigan University. The academic spent a year crisscrossing the US by train before chronicling his experiences in a book. "It's embarrassing," he says. "We were the greatest railroad nation in the world, and now we don't even build a railroad car in this country ourselves."
Continue reading at Der Spiegel.
October 27, 2010
Grand Canyon Railway Offers Glimpse of the Past
by James McCommons
The bustle in the RV park outside of Williams, Ariz., began at daybreak — kids skidding bikes inches from our tent, parents in pajamas flipping pancakes, and everyone slamming doors and packing gear for an early start to the canyon.We, too, were on a Great American road trip, touring the interior West, stopping at national parks and camping next to the interstates, where we fell asleep each night hearing the hum of the all-night trucks.
But this morning, my three sons and I were off the road and on the rails, catching a train to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, reaching this iconic landscape the way millions of Americans did before roads penetrated the desert and drive-through tourism became the norm at national parks. The Grand Canyon Railway runs 65 miles between Williams and Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (Santa Fe for short) abandoned passenger service on this branch line in 1968. In the 1980s, a wealthy Phoenix couple bought the right of way, rebuilt track and rehabbed the old depots. In 1989, the railway got under way with steam locomotives, but the current owner, Xanterra, which manages restaurants and hotels within several national parks, mainly uses diesel-electric locomotives to pull restored passenger cars.
Depot dates to 1908
It’s undeniably a tourist railway, with entertainment for families and vintage equipment for rail fans. When we arrived in Williams, the rail fans already were out in force, stalking the tracks with cameras, photographing the train and the historic depot built in 1908.
It was here that celebrities, presidents, potentates and average Americans debarked from the Santa Fe’s mainline to switch to the canyon train. They could stay at the Harvey House, a hotel operated by restaurant entrepreneur Fred Harvey. He opened eating houses all along the Santa Fe network in the 19th century, bringing fine cuisine to rail travelers accustomed to deplorable dining. The Harvey House now serves as the gift shop, and Xanterra has put up a new, retro-looking railroad hotel.
The day began with a Wild West show next to the depot. A shootout staged in a faux corral framed by plywood fronts of a Western town and bleachers for the tourists, it sounds hokey. But the cowboy actors thankfully did it tongue in cheek, including a mortally wounded hombre, who, before collapsing in the dust, sidestepped a pile of fresh horse dung. As we watched, the train idled nearby; outside each car, white-gloved attendants awaited their passengers.
We were in the cheap seats aboard a 1950s-era coach –one of 30 owned by the railway. The inside of the coach was all steel and leather of a sort of utilitarian, bulletproof construction. (Picture bench seats on a school bus.) For twice the price, you can upgrade to a coach with reclining seats, bigger windows and complimentary refreshments.
Read the full article at The Oregonian.
October 27, 2010
What America Can Learn From Europe's High-Speed Rail Battle
by Chikodi Chima
While short-sighted American politicians squabble over whether high speed rail should exist in the United States, European rail giants are battling for the future leadership of the continent, and untold billions in profit.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie today declared dead the $9 billion plan to build the ARC, a second rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River into Midtown Manhattan. The project has become symbolic of America’s sorry state of infrastructure funding, if not of high speed rail itself.
One week ago, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn ran their first high speed train from Frankfurt through the Chunnel, terminating at London’s St. Pancras Station. Deutsche Bahn honcho Dr. Ruediger Grube hailed the symbolic journey as the beginning of a “new era” of train travel, saying that Europe was becoming a smaller place.
Anticipating the incursion in an open rail market, Eurostar, who operates high speed trains between London, France and Belgium, through the Chunnel, announced that they would begin offering high speed service to Amsterdam and Geneva and also said they plan to invest $1.1 billion to buy 10 new 900-passenger Valero trains from Germany’s Siemens.
However, the French reacted to the news saying that the decision by Eurostar was null, because no material not made by Alstom would be allowed to cross the Channel Tunnel. The French move seems like text book protectionism.
To date, all trains traveling through the Chunnel between England and France have been manufactured by Alstom, whose base of operations is Levallois-Perret, near Paris.
Even to the amateur observer, the idea that German trains from Siemens would somehow be less safe than their French competitors is specious. Trade laws, lobbying efforts and back room deals will have the matter sorted sooner or later, but the pitched transnational battle underscores the importance of high speed rail for all the companies and countries involved. When money and jobs are on the line, savvy politicians holster their pistols and fight to get a piece. But not in America.
A Tough Sell
So why is passenger rail such a tough sell in the U.S.? It’s helpful to look at our history.
One of the reasons why our passenger rail system has atrophied is because of the tremendous ill will engendered by the “railroad barons” of yesteryear, who connected the East Coast to the Pacific frontier, but also made themselves unspeakably wealthy in the process.
“Railroads were like the tobacco companies, big oil and child pornographers rolled up into one,” writes author James McCommons, quoting John Hankney in his book, ‘Waiting on a Train; The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding Across America.’ “They were considered to be bastards that needed to be kept under the government’s thumb,” Hankney also told McCommons. “What went on during the 1800s poisoned the atmosphere for the next century.”
Read the full article here.
Full steam ahead along the Milwaukee Road
A bike ride in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho follows the Milwaukee Road's rail route.
By JAMES MCCOMMONS,
Special to the Star Tribune
September 4, 2010
Pedaling into Taft Tunnel, which burrows beneath the Bitterroot Mountains at the Montana-Idaho border, my sons and I quickly plunged into blackness. Scents of damp rock, the sounds of water running down the walls and an abrupt drop in temperature enveloped us in otherworldliness.
The tunnel at St. Paul Pass, a signature link in the Milwaukee Road's rail route between Chicago and Puget Sound, was as tall and wide as a boxcar. It was, however, 1.6 miles long, and the head lamps strapped onto our bike helmets threw only meager beams onto the cement floor. We'd entered on the Montana side, what's known as the east portal. Several minutes passed before the west portal -- the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel -- came into view.
We emerged in Idaho, and parked next to a waterfall where we warmed up in the sun. It was just 55 degrees in the tunnel. Changing states had been big events for my sons, Patrick, 9, and Colin, 12, on our summer road trip, but this subterranean passage through the Rockies topped everything. We even changed time zones.
The Taft Tunnel was just the beginning of our ride on the Route of the Hiawatha -- a 15-mile bike path passing through 10 tunnels and across seven high trestles. Dropping about 1,000 feet from the pass to its endpoint in Pearson, Idaho, the trail is an easy downhill ride, a fact reinforced by the families, children and seniors on the trail. The hard gravel path and concrete floor of the tunnels are suitable for hybrid bikes, even tagalongs and run-behind baby carriers.
Owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the Hiawatha is one in a series of rails-to-trails spanning the Idaho Panhandle -- including the 72-mile-long, paved Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes.
The ease of rail-to-trail paths
In Idaho and elsewhere, the rails-to-trails movement has bloomed with the demise and consolidation of major railroads. The United States' rail infrastructure shrank from 270,000 miles in 1920 to 120,000 today. Some 19,000 miles nationwide have been converted to biking trails. Unlike the rugged single tracks favored by mountain bikers, rail right-of-ways are rather wide and flat -- typically less than a 2 percent grade because trains have difficulty with hills.
The Milwaukee Road, officially known as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, abandoned its Pacific extension in 1980. The name, Route of the Hiawatha, evokes the legacy of its premier long-distance passenger train, the Olympian Hiawatha. Orange and maroon with distinctively styled sleeper observation cars, the Hiawatha was as much admired for its aesthetics as its speed, which topped out at 100 miles per hour.
Much of this history was presented on the trail with interpretive signs placed at pull-offs and rest areas where we stopped to snack and drink prodigiously from our water bottles. It was a hot day, in the 90s, and tinder dry. Douglas fir and lodgepole pine scented the air. Wildflowers bloomed along the trail's edge.
Occasionally, we stopped in a tunnel for the natural air conditioning, but lingered longest out on the sun-drenched trestles, mesmerized by the panorama of mountains and the mossy, emerald creeks running below the supporting ironwork. I sucked in my breath when I dismounted the bike and stepped onto a wooden-plank walkway on either side of the path. Some trestles stand more than 200 feet high, well above the crowns of the tallest trees in the valley. And though several strands of thick wire functioned as a robust guardrail, the cables present little visual barrier to what was a dizzying view.
Bikers can complete the Hiawatha trail in as little as two hours, but with our gawking, picture taking and my examination of the interpretive signs (the boys pleading, "Dad, stop reading everything") we took nearly five hours.
We loaded ourselves and bikes onto a reconverted school bus for a shuttle back up the mountain. Climbing up the switchbacks of the forest roads with steep, bare hillsides falling away 200 or 300 feet, the bus was its own thrill ride.
Turtles, beavers along the trail
We crossed from Montana to Idaho again, this time in our minivan via Interstate 90. We had a late lunch in the historic mining town of Wallace (population 906), also famous for having the last traffic light on the interstate. When the federal and state DOT proposed razing several blocks of Wallace to make way for the highway, residents fought back by placing the entire downtown on the registry of historic places. It wasn't until 1991 that the highway builders completed a viaduct over the town. The structure isn't architecturally compatible with the town's 19th- and early 20th-century brick buildings, but it spared gems like the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot, now a museum. We spent a couple of hours there exploring the golden age of railroading, looking at photographs of the Taft Tunnel construction and touching artifacts, including a very loud locomotive bell that the curator urged the boys to ring again and again.
The next day, while biking the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes, we crossed the 3,000-foot-long Chatcolet Bridge, built in 1921 as a swing bridge, which once carried trains over the southern end of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Modified into a bike and pedestrian bridge with a middle arch allowing clearance for boats, the bridge offered a wonderful vista of blue water and low, forested mountains.
Our destination was the village of Harrison. Running up the east shore, the trail skirted the water's edge. Beavers, muskrats and turtles scurried away at our approach. Blue herons stared from the shallows and a bald eagle flew low overhead.
In Harrison, we took a dip at the swimming beach and then walked into the village for french fries and ice cream. We rode back to camp in the long light of late afternoon, our shadows pedaling along beside us.
The rails-to-trails advocates in Idaho and Montana hope to tie together another hundred miles of abandoned right of way and forest roads to form a circuitous ride, what they are calling the Bitterroot 300K Loop. Meanwhile, Montana is extending the Hiawatha trail 31 miles to the east.
All good moves that make the region a mecca for bikers, but as I passed back over the Chatcolet Bridge, I had twinges of longing. In my mind's eye, I conjured up sleek trains -- the so-called streamliners -- running on this right of way, passengers gazing out from dining cars or sipping cocktails in the Hiawatha's Skytop lounge under huge expanses of glass. The Bitterroots and the Idaho Panhandle featured some of the prettiest train rides in America. I would have liked to see the country that way, too.
James McCommons is the author of "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, a Year Spent Riding Across America." He lives in Marquette, Mich.
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By James McCommons
Traveling by train might sound old-fashioned, but it remains one of the best, most environment-friendly ways to see some of America’s wildest places. Here are 10 trips of a lifetime.
There was a time when the railroad ran through most towns in America, when a trip to the seashore, mountains, or desert, even the wilderness, began aboard a train. Today trains can still take you to natural places where the wonders of a national or state park, a bike path, or a river are just steps away from the tracks.
Riding the rails and leaving your car at home is an environmental choice. Per passenger mile, trains are 24 percent more fuel efficient than automobiles, 17 percent more than airplanes. For the final leg of your trip, you may have to rent a car, or you might consider bringing a bike, using public transportation, if available, or simply walking.
Whether you hop aboard a short-distance tourist railroad, a commuter line, or Amtrak—the only intercity passenger railroad left in America—the following 10 routes cross some of the country’s most iconic landscapes. On long-distance trips, reclining coach seats can be comfortable enough for sleeping, or you can pay extra for a sleeper compartment, which includes meals in the dining car. Ticket and sleeper prices vary. Best advice: Do some research online, check for discounts, and plan ahead.
Click on the thumbnail images below for a downloadable PDF of the spotting scopes guide.
The Empire Builder
This train runs the “Hi-Line” route, on tracks owned by BNSF Railway, across the country’s northern tier between Chicago and Seattle/Portland. Passengers may glimpse pintail ducks, blue wing teal, and many grassland birds in North Dakota’s prairie pothole region; pronghorn antelope on Montana’s high plains; and mule deer and elk in the Cascades.
In the Rockies the train crosses the continental divide at Marias Pass and follows the southern border of Glacier National Park, where railroad history runs deep. The Great Northern Railway pushed hard for the park’s establishment in 1910 and built hotels and chalets to lure tourists to what was advertised as the American Alps. Amtrak stops at East Glacier and West Glacier, where you can catch a 1930s era “Jammer” touring coach to a nearby hotel or campground. At the park’s Essex Junction stop, you can stay at the Izaak Walton Inn, formerly a railroad barracks. Glacier Park is a 30-hour ride from Chicago and about 16 hours from Seattle.
For information: Amtrak; Glacier National Park; Izaak Walton Inn
The Algoma Central Railway
Pack a canoe onto a railroad baggage car. (It’s true—this train will carry snowmobiles and even boats.) Ride the rails into boreal forests of moose and muskeg, and step into the wilderness. Then, after paddling through lakes and rivers, head back to the tracks and flag down the next train. Just wave your arms for the Algoma Central Railway, which runs for 296 miles between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario.
Wilderness seekers head for the Chapleau Game Preserve, a 2,700-square-mile region of Crown Land (acreage owned by the British royalty and open to the public), where animals are protected from hunting and trapping. Between mileposts 184 and 245, passengers can step off directly into the preserve and embark on their backcountry trips.
Or you can get off at Fraser (Milepost 102) or Eaton (Milepost 120) to visit Lake Superior Provincial Park. If you’re just looking for a day trip, take a ride to Agawa Canyon. The canyon, which formed 1.2 billion years ago, is explorable only by train and five short hiking trails.
For information: Algoma Central Railway; Chapleau Game Preserve
The Grand Canyon Railway
In the early 1900s the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built a 65-mile spur from Williams, Arizona, to the canyon and erected the El Tovar Hotel on the south rim. The spur closed in 1968 but was resurrected in the late 1980s as a tourist railway. Year-round the Grand Canyon Railway operates a daily train of vintage passenger cars.
Leaving Williams, the train mostly steers clear of the highways and runs through the Colorado Plateau’s open desert, where blue-black mountain ranges serrate the horizon, and prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks abound in the scrub brush and dry grasslands. As the route climbs higher, the desert gives way to picturesque ponderosa pine forest near the canyon. The Southwest Chief, an Amtrak long-distance train, stops at Williams, so it’s possible to switch to the canyon train and reach the rim by rail from Chicago (32 hours to Williams) or Los Angeles (nine hours).
For information: Grand Canyon Railway; Grand Canyon National Park
The Sunset Limited
Running just three days a week between Houston and Los Angeles, the Sunset passes through the sparsely inhabited Chihuahuan Desert and the ancient volcanic mountains of southwest Texas.
The jumping-off point is Alpine, a small town established to provide water to steam locomotives. Alpine is a 23-hour ride from Los Angeles, 16 hours from Houston. You’ll need to rent a car in Alpine to go exploring because there is no public transportation to nearby parks. To the south, 98 miles away, sprawls Big Bend National Park, 800,000 acres of desert, 7,000-foot mountains, and the Rio Grande. Here’s a place to see roadrunners, javelinas, jackrabbits, and kangaroo rats while hiking through rock-strewn landscapes dotted with agave. The region’s diverse habitats make Big Bend a phenomenal birding destination.
Learn about the flora and fauna at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, 26 miles north of Alpine at Fort Davis. Continue north to 3,000-acre Davis Mountains State Park to hike backcountry trails through the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area. If you don’t want to camp, stay at the park’s Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
For more information: Big Bend National Park; Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center; Davis Mountains State Park
Hudson River Line/Metro-North Railroad
Commuter trains that carry workers into New York City on weekdays also provide doorstep access on weekends for people hiking the rocky Hudson Highlands along the Hudson River.
Hikers can board at Grand Central Terminal and disembark less than two hours later and 46 miles north at the Breakneck Ridge station. The aptly named Breakneck Ridge Trail gains 1,250 feet in less than the first mile before reaching a series of exposed summits with stunning views of the river and the surrounding plateau. The trail ends 4.6 miles later at a fire tower on South Beacon Mountain; on clear days it’s possible to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan from the peak.
Weekend trains also stop at the Manitou station, just a short walk from Bear Mountain State Park. Even the regular stops of Beacon and Cold Springs provide fairly easy biking or walking access to the state parks in the highlands.
For information: MTA Metro-North Railroad; Bear Mountain State Park; Breakneck Ridge Trail
Maryland Area Regional Commuter
Each evening two trains run the Brunswick Line between Washington’s Union Station and West Virginia. The tracks follow the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal armory struck the spark that helped touch off the Civil War. The trip takes two and a half hours from Washington’s Union Station.
The Appalachian Trail passes just 300 yards from the Harpers Ferry train station. Hikers cross a bridge to Maryland Heights and Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, where they gain extraordinary views of the river valley below. Watch for peregrine falcons; since 2001 a dozen young falcons have been released in the Heights.
Consider bringing a bike to ride the towpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which runs 184.5 miles from Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., through Harpers Ferry to Cumberland, Maryland. Begun in 1828 to connect the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River, the C&O Canal was never finished because of the coming of the railroad. Today it’s a linear national historic park marked by old farms and patches of woods dotted with trillium, dogwood, serviceberry, and rhododendron.
For information: Harpers Ferry National Historic Park; Maryland Transit Administration
The Denali Star
The train is a spectacular way to reach Denali National Park and Preserve. It takes about eight hours from Anchorage and four hours from Fairbanks. Running May to September, the Denali Star is popular with backpackers, rail fans, and wildlife watchers. When the weather is right, riders get impressive views of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) and typically see dall sheep, beaver, moose, wolves, and sometimes grizzlies. Caribou migrate across the tracks in fall. If you pay for an upgrade on the route from Anchorage to Fairbanks, you can get the GoldStar Service, with plush seating in custom-made observation cars that feature outdoor decks.
The Alaskan Railroad, owned by the state since 1985, is for more than tourists. It hauls freight and supplies to people living in roadless country. Anyone wanting to board can simply wave down the train.
For information: Alaskan Railroad; Denali National Park
Running daily between New York City and Montreal, this train skirts the eastern edge of six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest tract of land protected by a U.S. state. The Adirondack makes six stops at communities in the park’s eastern region. The trip takes about six hours from Montreal and five hours from New York.
Local transit shuttles at the Fort Edward and Westport stations run to Glens Falls, Lake George, and Lake Placid. At Port Kent passengers can board the seasonal ferry to Vermont, a passage popular with bikers along Lake Champlain. Motorcoach connections are possible at other stops, although you’ll need to taxi over to the local bus station. Otherwise, you may want to consider renting a car to tour the park.
You can find cappuccino and gourmet coffee on the road, and dine at grand old hunting lodges—all the while stopping at trailheads for hikes into big tracts of roadless country. As the land has healed from logging, extirpated species, including moose, fisher, beaver, marten, osprey, and lynx, are making comebacks.
If you prefer to stay on the train and enjoy the scenery, onboard docents, working in partnership with the National Park Service, narrate the journey with tidbits about nature and the region’s Revolutionary War/War of 1812 history. In the fall foliage season, Amtrak adds a vintage domed observation car, which allows passengers stunning 360-degree views.
For information: Amtrak; Adirondack Park
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway
(Alaska and Canada)
Starting in Skagway, Alaska, at sea level, this train climbs 2,865 feet in 20 miles up steep grades to reach its high point at White Pass in the Canadian Yukon. This was the route of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, hailed by miners as the “last great adventure.” The railroad isn’t long—just 110 miles to Whitehorse—but the route leads through dense old-growth forests, glacier fields, and a colorful past. At first the miners hiked to the gold fields carrying their provisions on their backs. A railroad was needed, but such rugged country required a narrower gauge of track, tunnels, trestles, and carving the roadbed out of sheer mountains. Today the picturesque ride takes about three hours one way.
For day hikes, trekkers can get off at two locations, Laughton trailhead and Denver Glacier, where the U.S. Forest Service has renovated an old caboose into a cabin for overnight stays. Follow in the footsteps of gold rushers with a challenging hike on the 33-mile-long Chilkoot Trail, which begins near Skagway and ends up at Lake Bennett, where you can catch the train back down.
For information: White Pass & Yukon Route Railway; Tongass National Forest
Three days a week the Cardinal runs a circuitous route from New York to Chicago via Washington, D.C. The train is so named because six states—Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—it passes through have designated the Northern cardinal as their state bird.
The Cardinal is a mom-and-pop sort of train with just one sleeping car (shared with the crew) and a single server/cook in the diner. Passengers often board at unstaffed stations and buy their tickets from the conductor.
The West Virginia portion of the route runs along the New River Gorge National River, a linear national park that protects 70,000 acres of land and 53 river miles. The rugged gorge is as much as 1,000 feet deeper than the surrounding Appalachian Plateau. Hikers and birders can detrain at Hinton, Prince, and Thurmond. The latter is about a seven-hour ride from Washington. Within a short distance are primitive campgrounds, trails for hikers and bikers, and whitewater for rafters and kayakers.
For information: Amtrak; New River Gorge National River
James McCommons is the author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service—A Year Spent Riding Across America.
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Books: New book states case for passenger trains as 21st century transportation
July 4, 2010
In the next couple decades, highway and airport traffic will surpass capacity as transportation infrastructure strains to hold together.
Travelers will encounter longer waits at airport; commuters will experience more extensive traffic jams in urban areas. Moving around the country won't get much easier as the years roll by and highways and runways age.
America's transportation saviour could come from what most people consider a moribund throwback to the 19th century -- railroad passenger trains.
In "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service," Chelsea Green Publishing, $17.95 paperback) James McCommons states a case for passenger trains as a key player in 21st-century transportation policy, but he also describes the massive financial costs that such a future would require. He examines the ambivalence to such a future of many railroad and government officials, and the attitudes of the American travelling and commuting public.
"The talk is in the next 30 to 40 years we'll need to double the size of the interstate highway system and build new airports," said McCommons, who spent much of 2008 riding Amtrak and other passenger trains around the country, gathering background on the future of passenger trains, freight railroads and partnerships among government entities, Amtrak and railroad companies.
"We're going to make these improvements anyway," he said. "Part of them will be made in rail. I think it's going to be evident we need to move more materials by rail. What I hope to see... is we go toward the idea of dedicated passenger lines, dedicated slow-freight and dedicated fast-freight lines all running together."
McCommons divvies the book up into regions, riding much of the Amtrak system, along with commuter lines built by states and other smaller entities to serve local and intrastate -- and sometimes, interstate -- needs. Everywhere he went, he talked to government and railroad officials, train riders and rail fans about the future of passenger trains and the successes and failures of the service currently on the rails.
What he found were wish lists totalling billions of dollars to pay for new rolling stock and new rails dedicated solely to passenger trains. Today, most passenger services, including the national railroad Amtrak, ride on lines owned by the privately-owned freight railroads with varying degrees of tolerance, even though many of those lines once offered regular passenger service.
"I knew in some places Amtrak was working well and some states were thinking (about expanding passenger service)," MCommons said. "I knew about California and Washington. I didn't know about North Carolina (three states that have established passenger systems outside the Amtrak model).
"It's easy to tell Amtrak horror stories," he said. "But there are also state agencies that are willing to fund (passenger rail service) and I wanted to make sure to highlight those."
The success stories range from corridor trains, such as California's Capitol Corridor, which runs passenger trains between San Jose and Sacramento, regional networks, commuter trains and light-rail systems. But as McCommons noted, the big plans for more service, whether local or interstate, rides on billions of dollars in costs and will take years or decades to complete.
"I like to say I'm optimistic that something has changed. I felt that way in the book," McCommons said of the outlook in some quarters that railroads are yesterday's people movers. "But if we are going to do something different, that takes a lot of political will. A lot of negotiations with railroad companies.
"We still have not really figured out what we want to do yet as a country," he said. "I think freight railroads are a little more willing, but they still do not go out of their way (for passenger service). There has to be a relationship struck between the railroads and the government. Congress can't just legislate that we have more passenger trains."
Federal stimulus money might seed some of the farther-along projects, as a start and a way to determine what's possible and what's not.
"What is needed is dedicated passenger tracks," McCommons said. "You can't run trains for people on a shared right of way. Getting up to 90 to 100 mph on a track with a slow-moving freight is not a good idea."
Amtrak pitiful now but there's rail hope
By Brian O'Neill
Sunday, May 30, 2010
I reached James McCommons in Albuquerque between trains. The man is always between trains.
Mr. McCommons just wrote a book about his year riding the rails, and his piece in the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post includes an account of an Amtrak trip from Chicago to Pittsburgh to New York.
The 900-mile trip took 22 hours. In the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Broadway Limited'' made the same run in 16 hours -- and passengers didn't have to endure the likes of the present Pittsburgh stop.
"At 5 a.m., the 'Capitol Limited' dropped me and a handful of passengers in downtown Pittsburgh, where we had a two-and-a-half hour wait before boarding the 'Pennsylvanian' to New York,'' Mr. McCommons wrote.
"The station was chilly; food came from vending machines; and outside the city was still asleep. I walked a few blocks but failed to find a restaurant for coffee and breakfast.''
Our pitiful stop encapsulates the demise of American rail travel. The luxury apartment building, The Pennsylvanian, was a grand station for the Pennsylvania Railroad back when it was the largest company on Earth. The Amtrak station lurks below it, almost apologetically, with all the charm that plastic chairs and stale candy can offer.
Read the whole article here.