James McCommons isn't a starry-eyed romantic about railroads. He's not a dreamer who envisions Maglev trains racing from city to city at 300 mph or more. But he does think that passenger rail service — that unwanted stepchild of American transportation — is a vital part of America's future.
So he spent a year riding the rails of this country studying how that might be done. Then the veteran journalist wrote a book describing the grim reality of life aboard today's American trains and outlining a vision for how they might be restored to respectability — if not their former glory.
That book, "Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service" (Chelsea Green, 2009, $17.95) makes for fascinating reading for anyone who rides the American rails — whether MARC commuter trains, the Acela to New York or the long-distance Amtrak trains that vainly attempt to stay on schedule on tracks whose owners barely tolerate their presence.
For riders on MARC, the book provides generous background to help explain the canceled trains, the crowded cars and the seemingly ineradicable inefficiencies. If nothing else, it makes for lively reading while waiting for the relief train to show up. The book is written in a conversational, novelistic style, weaving together ruminations on policy and colorful anecdotes about the people he's met in his travels.
McCommons, who now teaches at Northern Michigan University, begins his account of his year on the tracks — many of his travels take him to interviews with industry leaders — with a prologue set on the MARC Camden Line. It's a fitting setting because, as the author notes, it has some of the most historic track in the United States, including the still-remarkable 1835 Thomas Viaduct over the Patapsco River.
While the book pays proper respect to history, its focus is the present state of U.S. railroading and the path to a better future. And the central corporate character in that tale is Amtrak, the national passenger railroad cobbled together out of failed private enterprises in the early 1970s.
If that description sounds familiar to riders of MARC, it should. Like Amtrak, Maryland's commuter railroad was stitched together from the remnants of privately owned lines that could no longer turn a profit. If Maryland is "America in Miniature," MARC is very much Amtrak in miniature.
In an interview, McCommons said that was a valid comparison.
"For some of these commuter services, they're often operating on a shoestring," he said. More than that, he points out, many operate as tenants on tracks with scarce capacity and less-than-welcoming landlords. That is certainly true of MARC, where the Penn Line is owned by Amtrak and the Brunswick and Camden lines by the freight giant CSX.
While McCommons doesn't dwell on the issues facing MARC, he does a thorough examination of the cultural flaws, scarce resources and unreasonable expectations that have plagued Amtrak since its birth.
For decades, McCommons recounts, Amtrak struggled to make real the politically inspired fantasy that it could someday achieve profitability running a system that hadn't made money for its freight railroad predecessors for many years. The more it failed to live up to those unrealistic expectations, the more it met with a reluctance by Congress and some administrations to invest the money needed to maintain and expand aging infrastructure — particularly in the Northeast Corridor that plays host to the Penn Line.
"Amtrak has lurched from one crisis to another, and that does affect corporate culture," McCommons said.
While some have looked at Amtrak's shortcomings and found reason to pull the plug on the entire enterprise, McCommons believes it's not only possible to rebuild it as a modern high-speed railroad but imperative that the nation do so.
"Waiting on a Train" takes readers on a series of Amtrak journeys — some of which illustrate its infuriating inefficiencies and others that show its promising capabilities.
McCommons describes the long hours aboard the Texas Eagle — Amtrak's' worst-performing route — as the train is sidelined again and again to give freight traffic priority. He provides grim descriptions of stations that were once civic gems — abandoned and replaced by squalid trailers — and the poorly stocked dining operations on long-distance trains. By the time a reader finishes this book, he or she will have a clear picture of just how bad life on a train can get.
But the author also seeks out what does work — Amtrak's Hiawatha service between Milwaukee and Chicago and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a commuter line that owns its tracks and received the type of infrastructure overhaul MARC has never seen.
Amtrak's operational problems seem to stem from two basic causes: In the Northeast Corridor, it operates a system to which it was granted ownership but never given the money to maintain. (This is the system the MARC Penn Line shares.) Elsewhere, Amtrak operates primarily on tracks owned by freight railroads, which are legally required to keep them open for the passenger railroad but have come to resent that decades-old commitment.
McCommons resists the impulse to simply bash the freight lines. He sees them as a part of the solution, and shows that some of them — including CSX — are beginning to recognize that freight and passenger systems have a shared interest in improving the national rail network. These traditional adversaries, he concludes, need to expand and would benefit from operating on separate parallel tracks where today they often share single tracks in awkward fashion.
"It all comes down to capacity. We don't have the infrastructure capacity in this country to be moving these trains," he said.
Building that infrastructure, he says, will cost billions. And to succeed, he shows, it will take heavy involvement at the state level. Where rail travel is making strides these days, he writes, it is largely a result of partnerships between the states, Amtrak and freight railroads. Many of those partnerships bear a strong resemblance to the long-term expansion plan for MARC devised by former Maryland Transit Administration chief Paul Wiedefeld but put on the back burner by the recession.
McCommons published his book in 2009 in the heady days when billions of dollars in federal money started flowing into rail projects as part of the Obama administration's economic stimulus. Now, with a change in political climate, the prospects for rail are less certain. The game changer, he said, could be the federal transportation bill expected to come up in Congress next year.
"Is this going to be like a one-shot thing and then we're back to the old days?" he asks.