Dreams of mass transit

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(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth recently spent some time in Scotland, and he was impressed with the way they’ve used high-tech rail to meet the challenges of modern life.

(Baruth) About a week ago I found myself somewhere I’d never been before, someplace I’d dreamed about for years and years: Scotland. Not only was I in Scotland, but I was traveling around on the Great North Eastern Rail line – a long, super-stylish line of deep burgundy cars with the words “The Flying Scotsman” stitched in gold across their sides.

From the dining car of “The Flying Scotsman,” I could see everything. The hills were this unreal technicolor green, with flocks of sheep and new lambs just going nuts, rioting in the springtime sun. Every hundred yards or so you’d see some 900-year-old fortification rise up in that sea of grass; sometimes just a lone tower,
like somebody somehow stole the stone outbuildings that once surrounded it, and then “The Flying Scotsman” would flash by and you’d be on to the next one. Mostly we ran parallel to the coast of the North Sea, a series of long, slender bridges carrying us over its inlets and bays.

Okay, things weren’t quite perfect: I got into a little spat with the waiter because I didn’t realize you had to order a full dinner to take up a seat in the dining car. The only thing I could afford was a cheese plate, from the appetizer menu. But eventually the waiter relented: tourism was way down because of terrorism, he said.

So other than that, things were as close to perfect as they usually ever get for me – cheese plate, rioting sheep and lambs – and suddenly I was more sure than I’ve ever been of anything in my life that high-tech railways are the keys to Vermont’s future. I’ve had this realization before, once when I went to Calgary and saw the miraculous light-rail system they built for their Olympics, and every time I’ve ever been to Sweden.

But it’s like when you wake up from a great, productive dream with the answers to all your problems; they slip away from you as you come to full consciousness. Every time I come into possession of this railway truth again, I slowly forget it as I slip back into the jetstream of American life, governed as it is by the capabilities and the appetites of the automobile.

So before I forget again, let me run this by you. Vermont’s economy, like Scotland’s, is rooted heavily in farming and tourism. Preservation – that is, preserving New England’s past and New England’s environment – is the key to this equation. But by definition a car-driven culture consumes rather than preserves. In Sweden and in Scotland, high-tech rail lines allow for the preservation of small villages, and small-village life.

I know that modern rail travel has a mixed history in Vermont. It costs a lot to develop, and the number of passengers has never quite reached the take-off point. But this is a cultural rather than a technological problem: it’s tough to eat health food when everyone around you is eating karmelcorn.

Vermont will eventually have to remake its culture to embrace mass transit that’s lighter on the environment, and that should start with light-rail in Chittenden County. It’s working for the Scots, I’m here to tell you. It’s keeping their country competitive and green and, in a word, bonnie.

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