Journalist James McCommons gives a presentation arguing for two high-speed rail stations, saying the downtown one will be vital for the economy.[/media-credit]

After completing a 26,000 mile trip by rail, a journalist and train expert shared his passenger rail experiences and offered insights into the location of Madison’s high-speed rail station in a presentation Tuesday.

James McCommons, a Northern Michigan University professor, discussed the present and future of passenger rail in the United States at the Madison Central Library. He addressed issues concerning the ongoing debate over where city officials should place Madison’s high-speed station.

McCommons recommended the city build two stations: one located at the Dane County Regional Airport and the other located downtown. McCommons said the model is common throughout Europe and provides connectivity between two modes of transportation.

Regionally, McCommons said Milwaukee is also an example of this model, with stations located both in the downtown and at General Mitchell International Airport. He said this setup provided ease during a recent trip.

“It really is convenient,” McCommons said. “I had just dropped my car off, taken the train out west, and then I flew back into Mitchell and picked up my car.”

However, if the city is left with the decision between one location or the other, McCommons said the downtown location is the best option because it will help promote further development.

Some Dane County officials, including County Executive Kathleen Falk, have expressed strong interest in the airport location. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has been a steadfast advocate of a downtown location, and a number of alders, including Ald. Bryon Eagon, District 8, have favored the Yahara Station location.

McCommons said he thinks the city should partner with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which will make the ultimate decision in determining where the station will be built.

“Ultimately, the city is the one that is going to have to maintain it,” McCommons said. “In many cases Amtrak and even the states are not building the stations; it’s the cities that are building the stations.”

Wisconsin is the leader in preparation to build its segment of the Midwest Regional Rail system, which will include 3,000 miles of rail connecting 20 major cities, McCommons said.

In his book “Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service — A Year Spent Riding Across America,” McCommons chronicles his yearlong journey riding 26,000 miles of rail across the United States.

McCommons said the idea for the book came to him during a trip to the West Coast via Amtrak. After arriving in Sacramento, Calif. –12 hours later than expected — McCommons said he noticed his experience riding the train in 2007 was similar to his experiences in the late 1970s.

McCommons then decided to investigate the current state of passenger rail, interviewing historians, rail advocates, transportation officials, Amtrak presidents, freight railroad executives and politicians.

The investigation found rail is currently underutilized, constituting only 0.1 percent of total passenger miles for all modes of transportation.

McCommons said the country needs more rail to mitigate a host of issues, including carbon emissions, highway congestion, urban sprawl and land use. Increased rail utilization offers a solution to these issues, which he said would not be going away in coming years.