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Customer Review

on March 15, 2010
An accessible introduction and review, without much new material. And a few factual errors which have been discussed elsewhere. The most significant contribution is understated and frequently expressed parenthetically: Lost in the current drive to play catch-up with competing high-speed systems is the crying need for the humble and unglamorous local.

The conservative critique of high-speed rail has been premised largely on the position that it's chiefly for the well-to-do. Statements to this effect are just fig leaves for an overall hostility to virtually any public works project. Seldom mentioned is the USA's embarrassing shortage of commuter and local rail service. These trains aren't sleek, they're not photogenic, and they're certainly not fast. But as far as the national transportation deficit is concerned, rebuilding disused trackage to connect suburbs, city neighborhoods, and small towns is likely a wiser employment of public money than a visionary program to match Asian and European express services. These nations began their commitments a generation ago; they have too great a lead, and it's possible America will be unable to catch up.

Mr. Wolmar's brief for investment in local services needs to be teased out of his narrative. His position is certainly informed and articulate, but framed in a subtle, indirect fashion that could escape notice. A more regrettable omission in his account concerns open hostility to rail that transcends the paleolithic rants broadcast by media demagogues.

Discouraging, but true: Right-wing assaults on rail transit derive in part from a genuine vox populi. This is the ugly little secret that forces progressives into the Denial Mode. In Connecticut, property owners have fought a ten year battle against replacement of a century-old trestle on the Acela right-of-way. In New Jersey, homeowners adjacent to a light rail line have gone to court to reduce service. In Washington, DC's Maryland suburbs, residents successfully blocked rebuild of an obsolete freight line which would have provided passenger service to Georgetown. These cases transcend class and party lines. They all occurred in Blue States. Affluent Connecticut residents opened their checkbooks to underwrite challenges to rail improvements in their town. The New Jersey project was launched by a Republican governor; the offending rails serve blue collar communities. In DC's famously liberal suburbs, opponents drew on a pro bono Brain Trust from the nearby University of Maryland. Even more worrisome, these dedicated opponents weren't combating invasive, troublesome, new construction. In all these instances, the tracks had been in place since the 1800s, and were either in still use (NJ, CT) or service had just recently been halted (MD).

One could argue that in time the electorate will come around. Maybe it'll just take a while. But how long is "a while?" Rail transit on par with other developed nations faces determined grass roots resistance: I fear it will be a long, hard sell. Mr. Wolmar is eminently qualified to explore this issue, and I personally look forward to his next contribution.
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