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(HOST) Plans to enlarge a train tunnel in Bellows Falls has got commentator Allen Gilbert thinking about the importance of railroads in the region.

(GILBERT) A tunnel framed by a flower shop and hotel is blocking Vermont from assuming its rightful place in the nation’s rail sys- tem. The tunnel, located in Bellows Falls, is seven inches too short for the current freight standard on railroads. That standard is two container trailers stacked on top of one another. Rail officials say that the tunnel is a bottleneck on a crucial north-south New England route.

A small chunk of the massive federal transportation bill recently passed by Congress will begin to fix the problem. The floor of the tunnel will be lowered, providing the necessary clearance.

It is hard to think of Vermont as providing a crucial link in nearly any transportation system. We just don’t seem to be between, or at, anywhere.

But we are. Interstate highways and air transport have largely erased the topographical boundaries that once blocked the flow of goods in this country. But now, with fuel prices rising, we’re re- minded that transport by truck is relatively expensive – not to mention by air. Trains can carry a ton of freight for about a third of what trucks charge.

I was bicycling in the northern part of the state the other week.
As I saw rail lines or rail beds in the unlikeliest of places, I was reminded of the railroads that once laced their way across Vermont on their trip from Montreal to New England cities and ports.

Take out a map of North America, forget the international boundary between Canada and the United States, and think of the shortest way to move goods from the continent’s interior to major markets along the Atlantic.

The Erie Canal once provided that major link. Before the advent of railroads, the Erie Canal was the only practicable way to move goods from along the Great Lakes to Albany and New York.

Railroads provided more construction options. Tracks were easier to lay than canals were to dig, and locks weren’t needed to move trains up and down hills. Still, rail lines had to respect geography while aiming for the shortest practicable distance between two points.

That’s where Vermont came in. Our state was a bridge between the Great Lakes basin drained by the St. Lawrence and New England’s cities. We’ve always served a bridge role in transporta- tion, in fact. When Deerfield, Massachusetts was raided by a war party of French and Indians in the mid-17th century, captives were marched to Montreal along the route that the trains squeezing through the Bellows Falls tunnel still use.

I’m glad that the Bellows Falls tunnel can be sufficiently enlarged rather than destroyed to accommodate larger trains. I’m also glad that Vermont might regain some of the prominence it once had in New England rail transport. And getting more trucks off our roads – saving both fuel and wear-and-tear – that can’t come soon enough for me.

Now, if we could only bring back express passenger trains. That’s where I think our transportation dollars could really do a lot of good.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studios in Montpelier.

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