Category Archives: Amtrak

Another Review – Waiting on a Train by James McCommons

Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service

by James McCommons

Just like 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live, I got this book for free, except that I got this book at the library.

The book is a good summary of the current state of intercity rail in this country. James McCommons subtitles his book “A Year Spent Riding Across America”, and he did in fact ride on much of Amtrak’s rail network. The book is full of snapshots of the people who ride the train which makes it a kind of snapshot of America. Because really almost every kind of person takes the train.

Mr. McCommons introduces his readers to the major players in passenger rail in this country as well as some representatives of the major freight companies. This group of people is considerably less diverse than the passengers who take the train which I think is a barrier to communicating why trains make sense. It is stunning the number of people who came into the industry with absolutely no experience or relevant education at all.

Each section of the book examines the state of intercity rail in a particular region along with the challenges that the region will face in improving rail. Each short chapter focuses on a particular place or on an individual rail line. This outline allows the book to mix interviews, financial data and the snapshots of riders in a coherent fashion. I particularly appreciated the numbers. Books, websites, and articles on transportation in the US have a tendency to be math-free, like the choices we make don’t cost anything.

Of course, they do. Rail can transport people for much less than cars, using less space. Much less space if that rail is linked to buses. For example, establishing passenger service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge (which currently does not exist) would cost a grand total of $110 million. That includes the costs necessary to get the line running, and three years’ operating budget. Widening interstate I-10 would cost in the billions.

There are a lot of really good ideas out there, even more than got into this book. Waiting on a Train is a good place to start looking for them.


Glenwood Springs, CO

Of Interest: The Hot Springs Pool, scenic location

Lodging: hotel next to station, other hotels within walking distance

Glenwood Springs is famous for its outdoor hot springs and its beautiful location in the Rocky Mountains. The historic Hotel Denver is right next to the station. There has been a hotel on this spot since 1915 with the present hotel dating from 1938.

7th Street was where Glenwood Springs began, but most of the town is now an easy walk across the bridge over the river and highway. Just on the other side from the station. The Hot Springs Pool is the most famous hot spring in Colorado. There are actually two pools. The larger is two blocks long, and its water is 90 degrees. The smaller is 104 degrees.

Glenwood Springs is six and a half hours from Denver and nine hours to Salt Lake City via Amtrak’s California Zephyr. All trains arrive and depart in the early afternoon.

Empire Builder’s Split

The Empire Builder has two destinations (from Chicago), Seattle and Portland. The train splits in the middle of the night, so don’t go into the club car at night. If you fall asleep, you could end up on the wrong train.

The scheduling of the Empire Builder is messed up in general. The train is scheduled to arrive in St. Paul at 10:30 which is already bad enough, but what do you do if the train is late? When do the buses stop running? Is the area around the train station safe at night?

The train also arrives in Fargo, North Dakota and other relatively large cities along the route in the middle of the night. Even so, this train is often booked. I wonder if the scheduling is bad to hide how much potential ridership there is along this route. I think that several cities along the route could support more than one train a day.

Sacramento, CA

Of Interest: downtown Sacramento, old Sacramento

Lodging: yes

Tourist Office: no

There are two hotels close to Sacramento Station, but the city makes it a little hard to walk there. The hotels are in front of the station to the right, but to cross the street in front of station, you have to go left from the station. In fact, to get to those hotels, you have to cross the street three times. You have to cross the street to the left of the station then cross the street in front of the station then cross the street that is to left of the station again (this time going right). Are you lost yet? You need to cross the street in the crosswalk because cars drive on and off the highway on this street, and you need the lights AND the crosswalk to keep from dying horribly.

(In California, cars are required to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. This doesn’t actually help pedestrians since crosswalks are often badly placed. Remember you must have [indirectly] killed at least one small animal on any significant trip to get any respect.)

Once you have crossed the street, just walk along the street that runs in front of the station until you see the first one, a motel. In back of that is a Denny’s and in back of that is a Holiday Inn.

Luckily, the page for Sacramento is accurate as long as you can find the link to the Sacramento Amtrak station under the landmarks list. (They are getting better. Near the Holiday Inn, there is an underpass to Old Sacramento (see picture). There are some historic buildings and a railway museum here.

Walking left from the station will take you downtown which also has its fair share of historic buildings, although this area is further away from the station than Old Sacramento. There is a mall right next to the station. You will see it during the twenty minutes you spend crossing the street.

Oh, one of Sacramento’s light rail lines stops at the station. No one knows where it goes. I know because somebody asked. The cars are empty. (Gee I wonder why.)

Sacramento is the last stop for most Capitol Corridor trains. It is three hours from San Jose and two hours from Berkeley. The route is beautiful and environmentally friendly too. There is one Capitol Corridor train daily to and from Auburn which is about an hour away. Also the California Zephyr (to Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago) and the Coast Starlight also stop here daily. Both these trains also cover the Capitol Corridor route.

The San Joaquin has twice daily service to and from Stockton (an hour away) and Bakersfield (three and a half hours) with bus connections to Los Angeles.

Thanksgiving on Amtrak

According to tonight’s the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, today is Amtrak’s busiest day. Ridership is 66% above an ordinary day.

More info on Thanksgiving trains

Justin Nelson gives some information about train schedules over the holidays on his blog “Riding in Riverside“. I checked, and he is right. Each Metrolink line is running its own schedule for both Thanksgiving and New Year’s. No Metrolink trains will run on Christmas. No extra trains are being run today. Special promotions are in effect for Thanksgiving weekend. For example, round trip tickets are good for the whole weekend.

Metrolink monthly passes will only be accepted by the Pacific Surfliner on Friday. The Surfliner will run on a weekend schedule all holidays as will the Capitol Corridor. The Capitol Corridor is running an extra train to San Jose today using CalTrain equipment.

After Thanksgiving, Santa will be visiting Metrolink Stations on weekends from now until Christmas.

another bookstore

My last post included the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. A commenter mentioned another bookstore, the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA which is also within walking distance of Amtrak trains. The King Street Station also serves Souter Commuter Rail.

If you are thinking of taking Amtrak to or from Seattle this Thanksgiving weekend, you might want to book ahead. Booking ahead is also a good idea if you are thinking of going to Vancouver in December or January. Coach is 25% off for non-holiday travel booked before the end of the year.