Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 April, 2010

Waiting On a Train With James McCommons

(Photo by Megan McCormick.)

With LOST having gone on a one-week hiatus, I availed myself of the opportunity to catch James McCommons speak at the Central Library yesterday night. His book, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America was on my to-read list and so it was great to be able to hear him speak in person. McCommons is a journalist and teaches at Northern Michigan University up in Marquette which is up nort in the Upper Peninsula.

Let me begin by noting the headline at the Badger Herald for this event: "Transportation expert argues for creation of 2 rail stations in city". I find this to be misleading. The issue of rail stations in Madison was alluded to during his talk when he noted that the Wisconsin State Journal article about him said that he was arguing for two stations - one downtown and one at the airport when his comment had more to do with Milwaukee. During the Q&A after McCommons' presentation he was asked about the issue and said that having two stations is how they approach the issue in Europe and that it has the advantage of delivering people to city centers, where people often want to go, and of letting passengers off where they have easy access to other forms of transportation that can get them to their final destination. Furthermore, he said that, if he had to choose one, he'd choose a downtown stop for Madison but that he was not sure because he wasn't familiar with the devil that is the details.

McCommons spent the vast majority of his time last night speaking in very general terms and not about the choices facing Madison. In his first half hour or so he gave a very condensed review of the history of intercity passenger rail in the United States and talked about the current state of Amtrak before introducing his book and making a case for more passenger rail in the future and what the prospects for realizing that are.

He began by saying that he began riding trains around 1975 while he was in college and he noticed in 2007 that passenger rail service in this country hasn't changed much in the intervening 32 years. We have an "anemic system" where only 0.1% of all passenger miles are done on rail and only 2-3% of Americans have ever ridden on a passenger train. But it was not always this way. Our system used to be massive with 380,000 miles of infrastructure with trains delivering passengers, the mail, packages, and freight and they were all privately owned. Today, we only have 144,000 miles of train infrastructure. McCommons' main point here was that, when the rails were first laid in the 19th century, they were heavily subsidized by the government, including land grants. But by the 1970s, passenger rail suffered, in part, because of government subsidies to other modes of transportation: air and automobile. Amtrak was essentially a bailout of the rail industry as it relieved the railroad companies of unprofitable services.

Amtrak ended up being the bastard child of U.S. transportation and inherited a fleet of old equipment and some dilapidated stations. It has been received a pittance over the years in funding when contrasted to automobiles.

McCommons argued for a robust rail system here in the United States but he was very blunt that it would only come with a heavy price tag. Rail can fill a niche, he said, in our collective transportation scheme of trips in the 100-500 mile range which are lengthy car rides but very short flights. America's population is projected to grow by 100 million come 2040 which will produce massive highway and aviation congestion. Expected constraints on oil and environmental concerns bolster a pro-rail view for the long term. He also stressed the need for more intermodal stations such as the one in Milwaukee as rail was, in his view, one part of the larger transportation scheme here in the U.S. which also included planes, automobiles, and bicycles.

If I give you the impression that McCommons didn't talk about his book a while heck of a lot it is because he didn't or, at least, he didn’t place most of the information he gave in the context of what he'd written. He did give a brief overview of the book, however. It was the result of traveling 26,000 miles on trains over the course of nine lengthy trips. Along the way he interviewed historians, transportation officials, passengers, rail executives, etc. Most references to his book came in the form of stories that he'd gather in doing his research. For instance, he noted that an official with Florida's Department of Transportation gets a call at least once a day from Europeans who'd flown into Miami and were inquiring about which train to take to Disney World. The guy had to inform them that there was no train and to either fly or rent a car. Such anecdotes populated his entire presentation.

For we Madisonians, I think the evening gave us two main points to ponder:

1) Think intermodal. Let's build an intermodal station downtown which connects Amtrak to intercity buses, Madison metro buses, and bicycles.

2) Think long-term. Gas prices are likely to grow beyond $3/gallon in the not-so-distant future and the population of the region will also be expanding. We can either make rail a viable regional transportation option or widen our highways and build more airports which will eat up more land and countless billions of dollars.
|| Palmer, 1:56 PM


Thanks a lot for covering this. I agree that it is very important to consider the long-term picture here. I also believe the we suffer in America in the 100-500 mile travel range. Train travel has been short changed in this country and it's time to fix that.
Blogger MattRock, at 8:02 AM  
You're welcome. As with pretty much everything, fixing passenger rail is easier said than done. We as a country will need to make a big commitment of money. And, I'd imagine, for gas to shoot up in price.
Blogger Palmer, at 8:32 AM  

Post a Comment