Track to the Future - Book Review

by Paul K. Haeder & r & Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation by Al Runte & r & In this satellite-guided, supersonic age, books about resuscitating the once efficient and broad coverage of America's passenger rail system might seem quaint. Proposing that our policy makers, transportation planners and community groups take lessons from what the Bush Administration has labeled "Old Europe" to guide America through rebuilding its passenger rail systems is anathema to the mindset of SUV-loving Americans. Not so for Al Runte, author of the just published Allies of the Earth.

"Simply, Europe would be our classroom," writes Runte. "We would enter as often as possible -- as citizens, politicians, planners, academics and engineers -- observing the lesson and bringing it home. Europe is our future. We have a growing population and a dwindling land base; we have room to spare but not room to waste. We would agree that transportation should help us preserve the remaining glories of our continent."

Runte, who has taught at several colleges, consulted for the National Park Service and worked for the Smithsonian Institute, also spends time discussing how our most beloved places, such as the Grand Canyon, would benefit from passenger rail service. More people using trains would help relieve those national parks from all the negative impacts automobile traffic has created: paved-over land for parking and huge road-widening projects in ecologically fragile or pristine areas to accommodate more cars.

Runte's unabashed support of America's train heritage and his deep look at the history of how trains came to such a low point work to hook a more general readership. With such a deep history, and with so many nu- ances that touch upon our national fiber, from conservation, preservation, urban and regional planning, Runte's railroad world is pumped full of life, and his style of writing breathes authenticity and empathy into each page.

In the end, Allies of the Earth should convince any sound-minded American that the passenger train is vital to reviving America on many levels.

As final note to gracefully justify revitalizing America's trains, Runte quotes Aldo Leopold, one of America's great environmentalists: "Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

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