Book Review: Waiting on a Train

“Waiting on a Train” by James McCommons details the author’s experiences travelling around the country on Amtrak throughout 2008. The book reads partially as a travelogue, but more importantly as an analysis of the history, current state, and future prospects of inter-city rail in the United States.  McCommons deftly describes his experiences riding the train and speaking with those who work in the business of trains, bringing to light just what a large challenge creating a viable rail network will be, but also what the amazing benefits are as well.

Throughout the book, McCommons examines every facet of the rail experience. He portrays both sides of the Amtrak passenger experience; we see that an Amtrak journey can be both thrilling and frustrating. Captivating views and unexpected connections with other passengers are contrasted with delays of several hours, malfunctioning air-conditioning, and dining cars that seem to always run out of food. He shows that the railroad industry is a diverse group populated by passengers, train enthusiasts (referred to as “foamers” because trains make them metaphorically foam at the mouth), advocates, “hard-assed” businessmen from both passenger and freight companies, and politicians, among others.

Where the book really excels, for those of us interested in the future of inter-city train travel,  is in sharing the conversations that McCommons has with this diverse group of stakeholders all over the country. Included are conversations with railroad passenger advocates, freight rail executives, Alex Kummant (the former president of Amtrak), Michael Dukakis (the former governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate), and Gene Skoropowski (the former managing director of the Capitol Corridor in California who is now a Florida). These discussions offer a wealth of diverse experiences and potential solutions, which are far too numerous to detail here (I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you, either).  McCommons does an impressive job of finding the right people to talk to; by presenting so many different perspective he lets the reader make their own judgments about potential solutions to the challenge of inter-city transit. This book is worth the price alone just to hear what these people have to say.