Scrutator: Britain is way out of line

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AS GO a country's railways, so goes the whole society. As Paul Theroux, rail aficionado extraordinary, put it: 'The seedy distressed country has seedy, distressed railway trains: the proud, efficient nation is similarly reflected in its railway stock, as Japan is.'

By these standards Britain is less seedy than it believes itself to be. Poor British Rail, perpetually short of capital, abused, treated like a battered spouse by the British public, still provides services which, by and large, are clean, reliable, and fast. Indeed, apart from France's TGV, some of BR's services are the fastest in the world. Foreign railwaymen greatly admire its capacity to provide any kind of service on the inadequate funding from a parsimonious government.

The fastest is the newly electrified East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh. But BR is not going to be allowed to modernise the electrified West Coast Main Line, even though it connects most of the big cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, etc) and the cost would be a mere pounds 750m, a tenth of the money required to upgrade the M1 and M6. The Department of Transport is even rumoured to be dusting down earlier plans to downgrade the line north from Preston to Glasgow.

The refusal to invest is particularly piquant since the lines between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool formed the first big railway network in the world, built in an amazing 10 years between 1830 and 1840, a network run by the country's first modern- style business giant (the London & North Western Railway Company, to be precise).

Today's equivalent to the London & North Western is the ultra- fast railway lines now being built by every serious industrialised country in the world, from France to South Korea, from Japan to Switzerland. Here, by contrast, the Government subsidises company cars (and their parking spaces) and insists that railway projects shall be profitable - ignoring pollution, the environment and all that kind of thing.

It also seems to believe that the magic term 'privatisation' is an adequate substitute for investment as far as railways are concerned - even though no private company would dream of coughing up the pounds 400m required to replace the 30- year-old track and signalling on the WCML.

All this with barely a squeak (except from the unions and the Opposition). For the Brits are profoundly ambivalent about railways. They love trains, but prefer to regard them as quaint historical relics, rather than the only realistic hope to relieve overcrowding on the roads. They cannot even grasp the obvious fact that the Channel tunnel, properly exploited, could switch the majority of Continental juggernauts from road to rail.

PS: The real reason why Whitehall won't cough up to modernise the WCML? Simply because the electrification of the ECML came in on time and under budget. And this is so alien to the culture of Whitehall that our lords and masters are not going to risk being shown up again by BR's (relative) competence in project engineering.