Book Review: Making Tracks

Making Tracks: An American Rail Odyssey
by Terry Pindell
Hardcover: New York: Grode Weidenfeld, 1990. ISBN 0-8021-1279-X
Softcover: Henry Holt and Company, 1991.

This is the second of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The first book review is of Zephyr, and the third is of Booked on the Morning Train.

Unlike Zephyr, this book approaches the subject strictly from the passenger’s point of view.  After experiencing his father’s death, along with a failed run for mayor, Terry Pindell decided to take to the rails.  He crisscrosses the country from his starting station of Springfield, Massachusetts, the closest major station to his home in Keene, New Hampshire.  He rides on at least a portion of every Amtrak route, and he ends up only a few hundred miles short of riding the entire Amtrak system.  His ambition was:

"travel the entire country without ever eating in a fast-food restaurant, spending money in a mall, driving on an interstate, or waiting in an airport ... I wasn't looking for: the people who travel by train ... the decision to take the extra time to travel by train implies a certain set of worldviews and priorities ... here are two stories: one of the historical American landscape defined by the passenger rail routes that shaped it; the other of the people who travel these lines today."

And Pindell succeeds admirably in his task.  Any good American history textbook will mention the immigrant labor that built the American railroads, the railroad-sponsored settlement of the West, and the formation of the trusts.  Pindell fills in the details of these historical trends.  There's the battle between the Irishmen and Germans working on the Erie Railroad, clannish and brutal in the style dramatized in Gangs of New York (Remastered) [Blu-ray].  There is the history of the Harvey Houses, a great civilizing influence on the rough-and-tumble West and the progenitor of today's chain restaurants.  He even presents the often-neglected story of the development of railroads in the South, culminating in the great Southern Railroad that was consolidated by JP Morgan's men.  There's even a side stop to debunk the Civil War myth that Sherman lived off the land in his March to the Sea – in fact, he was kept well-supplied by rail the whole way.

Pindell’s focus on the passengers brings him into contact with all types of Americans: sports fans and Vietnam veterans, failures at business who are traveling to reconcile with their separated spouses and start a new life, the conductor Zeb Love who presides over the "Love Train," the drunkards, the couples meeting in sparks on the train, the actor who rides the train to study people.

Foreigners and immigrants provide a unique perspective on America.  He meets an Iranian exile who loves the tolerance found in America, and who hasn’t watched TV ever since he ran across an fundamentalist Christian television program, for it reminded him of the religious intolerance he experienced in his homeland.  There’s a young Austrian student who in her travels throughout America has encountered only "TV, loud music, impersonal sex, boasts, and bullshit."  And there are also the sights and oddities along the way.  As the train passes Omaha, home of the former Strategic Air Command, Pindell gives some background on the Reagan-era plan to develop a fleet of nuclear missile launchers traveling the rails.  Hey, if the Commies had one, then I guess we’d better spend some money on it, too.

Pindell is knowledgeable about train operations, and he has some chats with train personnel.  But these are incidental encounters experienced as a passenger, rather than the deliberate journalistic approach of Kisor's book.  Making Tracks is primarily a social study of the American rails, contrasted with historical developments and trends.  Pindell treats all the people he encounters with an open mind, and the ups and downs of these people combine with the ups and downs of Amtrak.  Ultimately, his rail journeys leave him with an optimistic view of the passenger railroad's role in American life.  In the epilogue, he writes of the "Amtrak miracle" that brought rail travel back into the minds of Americans, of the "necessity of community and generosity in a land of individualism and private opportunity."

Pindell also describes some long-range plans for Amtrak, and it is instructive to see what has and has not been accomplished in the last fifteen years.  The Northeast Corridor electrification has finally been extended to Boston, and new cars and new locomotives have been added to the fleet.  But Republican presidents still propose to cut Amtrak funding year after year, and the establishment of additional routes along heavily-traveled corridors has been offset by the dropping of many long-distance routes.  But there is still long-distance passenger rail in America.  As described in Making Tracks, this is a mode of transport that provides spectacular views, colorful history, as well as the safety, comfort, and luxury of time in which to have profound conversations with total strangers.