Book Talk: Aboard America's neglected passenger trains

Wed Jan 20, 2010 6:08am EST
 
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By Nick Zieminski

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Anyone who wants to travel by train from the United States' third-biggest city, Chicago, to Houston must board a bus for part of the journey.

Amtrak, the national passenger rail operator, no longer directly serves Houston, the country's fourth largest city from the north; a bus connects from Longview, Texas.

Such is the sorry state of passenger rail travel in the United States, says James McCommons in "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service."

McCommons, a journalism professor at Northern Michigan University, spent a year riding Amtrak trains, logging 26,000 miles. He interviewed rail advocates, freight executives, politicians and train crews and passengers about how to improve rail travel, relieve highway congestion and cut energy use.

McCommons spoke with Reuters about rail politics, his favorite trains, and obsessive rail fans called "foamers."

Q: You call the U.S. a third-world country when it comes to passenger rail. How did it get this way?

A: "We had a private system versus the public system like other countries have. We let it go to seed. After World War Two it was easier to replace trolley systems with buses. Amtrak is a quasi-public entity created to take money-losing passenger operations away from freight railroads. The idea was Amtrak would somehow become profitable, but it had mandates from Congress that were in conflict, to maintain a nationwide system and create efficiencies to make money. Amtrak's never done that. There's also been animosity with the freight railroads."

Q: What should be done to improve the system?   Continued...