Book Talk: Aboard America's neglected passenger trains

NEW YORK Wed Jan 20, 2010 11:08am GMT

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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?

A: "The federal government will have to match state funds just like it did with the interstate highway system. The Feds have a huge role to play in standardization of equipment, prioritizing routes, and negotiating with the freight railroads, which own most of the infrastructure.

"Something changed in 2008. Car companies are talking about smaller cars. Some realization happened that oil prices are eventually going to rise. I even saw a change of attitude (among) the freight railroads. I think it's going to be incremental, absent some sort of national crisis, like $7 gas."

Q: Did Obama's election change the outlook for U.S. passenger rail?

A: "We've seen some change with the Obama Administration's $8 billion (rail) stimulus package. The best way is if that money flows to the few states that have already been working with Amtrak, and with the freight railroads, to create corridor trains (linking major cities). Popular support is growing."

Q: Will the U.S. ever have a rail system like Europe's?"

A: "If you go to California or Florida, there are places with the density to support bullet trains. I don't think you'll see bullet trains running across the country, but you need cross-country trains to connect disparate high-speed networks."

Q: Do you have a favorite train route?

A: "The Coast Starlight from L.A. up to Portland (Oregon) is beautiful. I like the Empire Builder, particularly along the border between Washington and Oregon. Amtrak does run a lot of good trains. In Europe, I like the train from Paris to Stuttgart and Munich. Trains function so well over there."

Q: What is it about trains that fascinate people?

A: "It's a nice way to travel. A big part of it is not getting there, but the journey. I like the community of people you meet on the train. You dine with people, you have the time to sit back. For professionals, it's a great time to work."

Q: In your travels you often came across rail fans who are derisively called "foamers." What are they like?

A: "Those folks are great. There's some nerdiness involved, but they were also great sources of information, such as why the train wasn't moving.

"A lot of people love trains. The advocates, and me on this trip, we separated ourselves a bit from those folks because we don't want to seem like foaming rail fans. We're advocating for trains because trains make sense for America."

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