Starting just before everything went to sh*t, McCommons started riding trains and talking to train people in order to write this book. The book, as a result, is three books in one.
(1) A description of "train" culture, complete with terminology like "foamers". McCommons -- and many of the people he interviews -- recognize that while people in general like trains, they are often kind of weirded out by people who are very enthusiastic about trains. McCommons only breaks out the autism diagnosis once (and in a fully supported way), but a fan of Baron-Cohen's autism test could have some serious fun with some of the stories in this book.
(2) A description of the railroad network, who owns what, who runs what, how it got to be the way it is, and which groups are pushing to modify it and how.
(3) What it's like to actually take various Amtrak trains, including Amtrak trains that are supported by state DOTs (like the Sounder). While there is occasional mention of light rail now (street car and interurban Back in the Day), it is very ancillary to the main thread(s) of the book.
McCommons is the protagonist: he's the guy doing the interviews, taking the trains, dealing with the too-hot cars and the dining cars that are out of food and figuring out how to get a cab from the train station to his hotel. Sometimes he has one or more members of his family with him, but often he's on his own and a lot of that time he's getting to know other people on the train and conveying their reasons for taking the train and their opinions and feelings about that experience.
McCommons is not nostalgic, at least not in the rose-colored-glasses sense. And at least intellectually he understands that for the next decade(s), whatever growth there is in passenger service in the US is going to be along corridors, not long-haul. He reflexively argues for the importance of long-hauls for connectivity, but I'm not sure he believes it. In some ways, I feel like it would be a much better book if McCommons' conception of politics could find value and idealism in survival and compromise -- in the "art of the possible". I don't think that is a star he is prepared to follow.
But it's a straightforward and interesting read. Because I read it now, rather than back when I bought it, and that's _after_ reading all that other train stuff, I can't be certain this is a good introduction, or if it would be confusing as hell to anyone who didn't already have a pretty good idea about what McCommons is writing about. If you decide to read it without a bunch of train background, I'd love to hear your opinion.
Reading it is yet another reminder that (a) gas is really expensive. Again. and (b) somehow gas being this expensive is much less news-worthy than it was a very few years ago.