Professor writes book on experience riding trains

ben.hocking

The issue of funding for railways in America has been in the national spotlight due to the fact that the Obama administration has approved $8 billion to be provided for the development of railroads.

California currently has plans to build a bullet train that can travel up to 220 mph. Most trains in the Amtrak system don’t exceed 79 mph. The state received its funding from the Obama administration.
With the nation’s focus on trains, an NMU professor has written a book tying together the past, present and future of the railroad industry in America.

English professor James McCommons has recently published his book “Waiting on a Train.” He wrote the book while on sabbatical during the 2008-09 school year.

Despite these new financial incentives for railroads, McCommons feels the railroad system in America is still a long way from where it needs to be. He hopes that it will one day be able to replicate the railways currently in place in Europe, where trains have substituted most flights ranging from 100 to 500 miles.

“It will take decades to make a huge change,” he said. “It’s going to take hundreds of billions of dollars worth of investment and that won’t all come at once.”

McCommons’ book was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on Oct. 20. He describes the book as half travel writing and half investigative journalism.

“Part of the book reflects my travels and who I met on the trains,” he said. “In the other half I get off the train and have interviews with decision makers.”

McCommons hopes that this approach will make the book more appealing to a larger audience.
“There are some readers that will like it for its factual information,” he said. “Some will like the characters I met while on the train.”

During his research, McCommons spoke with historians, the Federal Railroad Administrator and the past two presidents of Amtrak.

He said he didn’t know a lot of information about the U.S. railroad system prior to starting the book.

“[They] gave me a perspective on what railroads mean to America,” he said. “We wanted to weave that [information] into the narrative.”

McCommons said he was inspired to choose railroads as a topic for his book after taking a strenuous ride from Chicago to Sacramento on Amtrak. The trip featured several problems which led McCommons to fly back instead of taking the train again.

“Everything was working like clockwork and then it all kind of fell apart,” he said. “It was one disaster after another.”

Amtrak has struggled in part because they don’t own a large amount of the railroad tracks that they run on. Of the 22,000 miles of track that Amtrak currently operates on, it only owns 700 miles. This leads to the organization not getting first preference on the use of the tracks.

Through his research, McCommons said that railroads have the potential to be a major source of transportation for America in coming years, like the industry has been in the country’s history.

“My general point of view in the book is that America is going to need more rail transportation in the future, especially if we are going to have a greener economy,” he said.

According to McCommons, only 2 percent of Americans have taken a train from one city to another in the U.S.

Cynthia Prosen, associate provost for academic affairs, said that the experience McCommons had can benefit the NMU community.

“Our students are fortunate to be able to learn about journalism from someone who is so actively involved in the art,” she said.
Prosen said she hasn’t read the book yet, but looks forward to reading it over the upcoming winter break.

“I have read many of his articles and am impressed with his ability to weave an exceptionally interesting story of his journeys,” she said.

Editors note: Jim McCommons is the advisor for The North Wind.