Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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That's what makes James McCommons's Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service, A Year Spent Riding Across America such a compelling read, and, now that the summer Trip Report has been filed, material for Book Review No. 26. Part ethnography, part policy advocacy, part business reporting, Waiting on a Train exposes readers to the Springer show that often plays out in the coaches; to the perspectives freight railroaders have about a passenger train, often with unreliable equipment, gumming up their transportation machinery; to the differing visions of successive Amtrak managements; and to the sometimes wishful thinking of state and national transportation planners.

Mr McCommons lives in the Iron and Copper Country of Upper Michigan, and he opens by noting the loss of the Peninsula 400 and the Green Bay corridor. Thus, many of his trips, sometimes solo, sometimes excursions with his sons, begin with a bus ride to Milwaukee to pick up a Hiawatha (generally routine, on time or ahead of time, as regular readers know, but when there's a pedestrian fatality, seriously late: is it necessary for the coroner to hold up a train and several hundred people for three hours as has been the case in my experience?)

Sometimes his trips are for family purposes or recreation, sometimes to interview senior railroad managers or Passenger Rail officials. He manages to cover almost all of the Amtrak system, including the southerly and southwestern segments that have not yet been marked up on the Cold Spring Shops map. Some of the trains are good, some of the trains are not good, some of the cost-cutting measures such as the cafe-lounge that replaces both Sightseer Lounge and diner on some long-distance trains please nobody, some of the crew are helpful, and some are crabby. Mr McCommons gets some details wrong in ways that will annoy serious ferroequinologists; on the other hand his discoveries of the South Shore Line (electric cars outside my window: what's that?) and some other railroading gems the ferroequinologists tend to take for granted are charming.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: business, travel writing
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