U.S. railway system must be restored

02/14/2010 12:00 AM

02/15/2010 8:50 AM

As recently as the 1940s, America had the world's finest system of passenger trains. Brought down in later years by our obsession with the automobile and the airplane, and by government neglect, America's railways are today on a par with those of Bulgaria.

James McCommons, who teaches journalism at Northern Michigan University, is out to change all that. His recently published "Waiting on a Train," which reads like a novel, is the grand and passionate tale of America's railroads, a sweeping analysis of what can still be accomplished, an historic saga of the rise, decline and possible future restoration of our passenger rail system.

It is organized according to trips the author took on virtually every single rail line in America in 2008, during which he met and interviewed dozens of highly opinionated officials and activists who concern themselves with rail matters.

While doing that, he also paints a picture of the America that unfolds to his gaze outside the railway car's windows, and conducts fascinating conversations with the unique Americans who choose to travel by train.

In addition to describing the tragic decisions that led to decline of our train system, he details all the plans that cities, states and federal officials have for improving and expanding passenger rail travel. A major effort is under way, according to him, to restore passenger rail in America. And why? Because our fast-increasing population, our unsolved fuel issues, the sky-high prices for oil that will inevitably return, the ever-more-crowded highways, the growing need for more freight trains on our already overcrowded rail system all mean that the current situation cannot be tolerated if we are to remain a first-rate nation.

"Waiting on a Train" takes on added significance because of grants that have been made to the states out of the $8 billion set aside in the Economic Stimulus Bill for high-speed rail. Initial allotments include $2 billion-plus to California to aid in the construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. One billion dollars was given to the state of Florida for the construction of a much shorter (but equally needed) line between Tampa and Orlando (that eventually will be extended from Orlando to Miami).

Interestingly enough, it appears that opposition to Amtrak's expansion is waning — the recent experience a year or so ago of $4-per-gallon gas has reminded us how perilous is our reliance on the automobile for most of our passenger transportation. There's been no great public outcry against the administration's decision to devote $8 billion to a high-speed rail.

Also waning are those claims by some that the population density of America isn't sufficient to support a major rail system. McCommons explodes those arguments: He points out, as one example, how an area of the Midwest centered on Chicago and the size of Spain has a population density even greater than that of Spain. And yet Spain has led the Europe in the development of widespread high-speed rail capabilities, greatly improving the economy of that country.

In "Waiting for a Train," McCommons points out that another 120 million people will be added to our national population during the next 40 years, resulting in 10 major population centers — the northeast (Richmond, Va., to Boston), Southern California (San Diego to Los Angeles), the Great Lakes (Chicago to Detroit), the Texas "triangle" (Dallas, Houston, San Antonio), the Piedmont-Atlantic (Atlanta to Raleigh, N.C.) and others — each mega-region with a high- density population that literally will choke if it has to rely on already overcrowded highways.

We must begin the restoration of a railroad system that was once the envy of the world. I urge you to obtain a copy of James McCommons' "Waiting on a Train."

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