Leading Article: Laying the tracks for a new golden age of rail

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The Independent Culture
TWO TOOTS of welcome for Railtrack's investment plans. Pay no attention to the very large pounds 27bn (over 10 years) headline figure. The real new money from Railtrack, as opposed to joint funding schemes, comes to just pounds 140m a year. But the possibility of reopening the third main line from London to Scotland, the old Midland Railway route from St Pancras via Leeds and Carlisle to Glasgow, should gladden the hearts of more people than steam-age buffs.

What a contrast with the last time a Labour government came to power with a parliamentary majority. In 1964, Wilson was elected on a pledge to stop the Beeching cuts. Within months, the Cabinet was trying to wriggle out of its manifesto promise, a victim of wider socio-economic trends. This time, the Government finds itself working with the grain of change. It has continued the Tory policy of pushing up tax on petrol and diesel. The truckers who blocked Park Lane this week were the visible proof that the policy is working. A "green" tax shift, along with the application of private-sector marketing techniques to the railways and the rationing of scarce road space by queueing (that is, traffic jams), is poised to produce a new golden age of rail.

Privatisation, for all its design faults and stumbling irritations, has been a success. Passenger volume is up. New stock is rolling off the production lines. True environmentalists should jump for joy at the prospect of re-laying track on what have become woodland walks and letting the train take some of the strain off the roads. Because of the history of Britain's railways - a frantic free-for-all - this country is still relatively well-endowed with a dense network that offers plenty of scope for reopening old routes.

If John Prescott is to meet his targets for cutting greenhouse emissions for traffic, he needs a rail renaissance. Fortunately, it looks as though he has got one.