RADIO: Essential history of a bad rail trip

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The Independent Culture
A series of programmes about the state of the railway network has been running on the BBC under the umbrella title of Track Record. Whether it has been unusually under-publicised, or whether I have just coincidentally managed to avoid the trailers, I don't know - but the first I heard of it was the programme aired on Tuesday night. Called The Rail Sale and presented by Dennis Sewell, it took us through the history, and indeed the prehistory, of rail privatisation.

Is it simply good timing that this series has come out when it has - that is, in the immediate wake of John Prescott's U-turn regarding Railtrack's possible involvement with the London Underground? It should make him uncomfortable. The Rail Sale had a nice clip of him making a speech in 1993, which I transcribe verbatim for your amusement. It is delivered in ringing tones. "Let me make it crystal clear to any privatisation of the railway system which, where on the arrival of a Labour government, will be quickly and effectively dealt with, with the full support of the community, and be returned to public ownership ..." The rest of the sentence is inaudible, thanks to the cheers and applause he got.

Well, anyway. Here is what Clare Short said in March 1996: "Railtrack would only be rationalised depending on the availability of resources, and as priorities allow." "That's New Labour-speak," glossed Dennis Sewell, "for 'when pigs fly'."

It was a very good programme indeed, deadpan and not afraid to go into detail. The interviews with those responsible for the break-up of the railway system were clearly recorded pre-Paddington, as there is none of the guilty evasion that apologists for privatisation have been forced to adopt in the aftermath. Instead, they were repulsively gung-ho. Some of the people interviewed were themselves just plain repulsive. I mean, I had to listen to Brian Mawhinney. I hope you appreciate the things I do for you.

One of the first gargoyles on show was one Kenneth Irvine, who worked for British Rail and, in the way that some employees fantasise about the destruction of the companies they work for, drew up a proposal with another dissatisfied manager for the break-up of BR.

What he produced was a blueprint that reflects the current corporate structure of the railways, although one presumes he had not concluded with the words: "And it will all be a complete shambles".

BR wanted to move the 25-year-old Irvine to York, away from his girlfriend, a decision that was to have unforeseeably momentous consequences. Irvine decided to stay put, quit his job, and presented his paper to the Adam Smith Institute. The truly astonishing fact is that a 25-year-old who drafted plans for the privatisation of the rail network had a girlfriend.

Why, we were asked rhetorically, did the Tories go ahead with it? Ideology, basically. But the first reason that Brian Mawhinney gave was that BR used to be "the butt of music-hall jokes", an allegation which does not square with the fact that the music hall had long ceased to be a medium of popular entertainment. One always suspected that the Tories lived in an alternative time stream.

It was all quite spooky and horrible. We had Stephen Dorrell complaining in an indignant voice about Bob Reid "frustrating" the wishes of John MacGregor and then Brian Mawhinney, for which I hope Reid has been praised. It was like a footnote to The Major Years - which was compulsive viewing, I suspect, because watching all those freaks was like watching monsters from Doctor Who.

Radio 4 had another go at attempting to explain the inexplicable with its programme about quantum physics on Wednesday, Quantum. Presented by the suspiciously prolific John Gribbin, it did a good job of explaining how light can be a wave and a particle at the same time. (Think of the wave as, say, a crime wave, and not a fluid wave; that is, a probability composed of individual elements.)

There was also an elegant illustration of superposition and the collapse of the wave function: when you don't know whether you want the soup or the salad, that is superposition; when the waiter asks you to make your effing mind up and you do, that is the collapse of the wave function. It does not explain why you wish you'd ordered the other thing but at least it helps to let Schrodinger's poor cat out of his box.