Narrow-gauge PeruRail Expedition train at Hydroelectric station on Oct. 6, 2017. Photo by Malcolm Kenton

I know it’s been a while since I last caught up with you all. Travel and my clients and projects have kept me busy. Since I last wrote in this space, I’ve been all over central and southern Peru (mostly by train), to Marin County, California to reunite with alumni of the Millennial Trains Project (in spite of  smoke from the devastating wildfires a few dozen miles away), and to Oklahoma City for another week of work with my client, Herzog Transit Services, preparing various plans and procedures for the pre-revenue operation of that city’s streetcar system, which is under construction with vehicle delivery expected to start in a couple of months. This past week has been my first full week at home since the last week in July, though I was actually in Baltmore for two days attending the Smart Transit 2017 conference.


What I’m thinking about

I am finishing up a feature story for Trains Magazine about the present and future of the business of owning, maintaining, operating and marketing private railcars. There have turned out to be more controversies and delicate politics associated with this topic than I expected. The long-term survival of this unequaled way of exploring North America’s railroads is by no means guaranteed. There is, however, one concept that, if it could somehow become more mainstream, would greatly help the prospects of both the private railcar business and of passenger trains in general, particularly long-distance national network trains.

Long-distance trains play a largely unheralded but vital role in North America’s transportation network. They provide the only reliable and affordable means of travel, other than private automobiles, to many otherwise isolated small towns and rural communities. One long-distance trains can be thought of as many corridors rolled into one route. The longer the route, the more origin-destination pairs can be served by one efficient vehicle. These trains also provide what may be the only way that people who cannot or will not drive or fly — for health or other personal reasons — can travel at all, including to see far-off friends and loved ones. More passengers take “purpose trips” — to see family, friends and acquaintances — than trips that can be squarely classified as either “business” or “leisure.” (Yes, intercity buses serve some of the same demographics, but without the level of comfort trains can offer and without the opportunity to avoid highway traffic.)

However, this important basic transportation function alone is not enough of a base of commercial or political support to sustain long-distance trains, much less to create an environment in which their expansion becomes politically and economically possible. The voices and demands of rural and small-town residents, of people unable or unwilling to drive or fly, and of those of us who simply prefer train travel to the alternatives for various reasons, will need to be supplemented by those of other demographics who are lured to the train travel experience by some other hook.

This is where the idea of purpose or mission-based travel comes into play. Trains are the only mode of travel that allows for large-group interaction to take place comfortably while in motion, thanks to cafe, lounge and observation cars in which people are seated in a way that naturally facilitates conversation. They also provide an intimate view of the landscapes through which they pass that is only otherwise possible to experience on foot, and usually roll right into the centers of cities and towns. Thus, trains offer an unparalleled platform for hosting mobile conferences, gatherings, confabs and happenings of all sorts, from lectures on science and history to discussions of current affairs to business and professional development seminars and retreats to touring celebrations of art, music, food and culture.

A handful of companies and organizations have already proven this concept with popular and impactful events on rails. The Railroad Revival Tour, Roots on the Rails and Station to Station brought artists and musicians to multiple rail-served locales while hosting on-board performances, workspaces and discussions. And the Millennial Trains Project, which I participated in for its first two journeys, turned private sleeping and dome cars into incubators for social entrepreneurship and forums for engaging in some of our time’s most difficult challenges from a trans-regional perspective. Somehow, the idea that passenger trains can be used to explore a number of issues, interests and hobbies in a manner that no other type of experience can match (save perhaps for a maritime cruise) needs to be implanted into the minds of more people who could put together such journeys. I aspire to take part in that effort.


What I’m writing

  • I consider the implications of driverless cars and trucks for railroads and public transit, as discussed at Smart Transit 2017, in the Trains Magazine Observation Tower blog.
  • Also in Observation Tower, I take a twopart look at the passenger services offered on what may be the Americas’ busiest narrow-gauge railroad, and one of the world’s most scenic: PeruRail’s line between Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru.
  • I offer a primer on why passenger trains in the US are often late and what travelers can do to help improve their timekeeping in the Travelers United blog.

A friendly reminder

I am here to help put more railroads, companies, agencies, cities and region on the write track with seasoned research, writing and multimedia communications talent as well as subject matter expertise in transportation, railroading and public policymaking. If you like what I do and know of someone who might benefit from my knowledge and services, please feel free to forward this email to them and ask them to check out my website, www.malcolmkenton.info. Thanks for helping me become better known in the field.


A civic duty reminder

If you live in a state with state or local-level elections in odd-numbered years, Election Day is November 7. The decisions of state legislators and governors, mayors and city council members, and other officials have a great deal of impact on people’s lives, particularly on transportation issues. Don’t forget to vote, if you haven’t already (most states have early or by-mail voting).


Where I’m Going Next

Passengers board a special excursion train in downtown Roanoke in November 2012. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.

On Monday afternoon, I depart DC on Northeast Regional train 171 for its last trip terminating in Lynchburg, VA. There, I will transfer to the final run of a Thruway bus to Roanoke that will soon be supplanted, and spend a short night at a downtown Roanoke hotel. Then early Tuesday morning, I will board the first departure of a revenue-service Amtrak train from downtown Roanoke since 1979Northeast Regional train 176, which will return me to DC late morning. I’ll likely be joined by other passenger train advocates and enthusiasts on this departure.

Then at 4 PM Tuesday, I’ll depart DC again on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited for the nation’s rail hub, where I will be for five days attending RailNation Chicago, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Rail Passengers Association, with which I have been involved for over a decade. I look forward especially to hearing from Amtrak’s new CEO, Richard Anderson, on Thursday morning. Then on Sunday, Nov. 5, I’ll take the Southwest Chief back to Oklahoma City for another week of streetcar work, by way of the “Extended Heartland Flyer” Thruway bus from Newton, KS. After that, my next planned trips are back home to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, to eastern Canada with a friend just before Christmas, then back to NC for the holidays.


A Musical Sendoff

Here are a few great versions of one of the many classic train songs in the bluegrass tradition, Train 45. All aboard for all points south!

Take care and best wishes,

Malcolm