MAKING TRACKS: An American Rail Odyssey By Terry Pindell (Grove Weidenfeld: $22.95; 399 pp.)

You know a book isn't all it could be when the author notes in the acknowledgements that both his publisher and editor have left the publishing house. That's certainly true here, for "Making Tracks" is a competent book that frustrates because it isn't better.

Train-travel books usually are fun, and this one is no exception, but it suffers from poor shaping; Terry Pindell, a former English teacher and grandson of a railroad engineer, can't decide whether his book should be a local or an express. He often lingers on uninteresting people, places, and events while speeding by others with greater promise.

By Page 100, we've already journeyed from New Hampshire to Florida, from Massachusetts to San Francisco, and from San Francisco nearly to New Orleans, and that pace all but ensures superficial comment. Pindell devotes a scant two pages to the S.F.-L.A. route, for example, and a few more chronicling the state's early railway wars, but in attempting to integrate history, social commentary and landscape description in bite-size pieces, he sacrifices any sense of momentum.

For all that, Pindell has crammed "Making Tracks" with many unusual facts and observations--I certainly didn't know the term "cowcatcher" once was literal: the contraptions initially made of pointed spikes and intended to turn inattentive animals into the train crew's next meal--and at those moments, the book redeems itself.

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