Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Rural Britain transported by ire over rail cuts


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Nothing better illustrates the late Congressional Speaker Tip O’Neill’s mantra that “all politics is local” than Transport Questions. To sit through it is to be exposed to a living gazetteer of little-known villages inadequately or unsafely served by rail and road links. “What progress [has the Secretary of State] made...” ran a typical question from the Tory Laurence Robertson, “... in improvements to the A417 and A419 at Nettleton Bottom and Crickley Hill; and [will he] make a statement?

But something more fundamental is also happening here: a belated recognition that the axe taken to Britain’s railways in the middle of the last century was a disaster. As the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin acknowledged, “when I was in the department 25 years ago rail was seen as yesterday’s industry. Everywhere I go now, people are lobbying for extra services, which I think privatisation has brought about.”

Quite what privatisation has to do with it, McLoughlin didn’t explain. But he’s right about the lobbying. Would the rail minister Claire Perry, the Tory Mark Spencer asked, support “the case for extending the Robin Hood line to Ollerton and Edwinstowe?” These two Nottinghamshire stations were closed respectively in 1964 and 1956. It won’t be long before an MP calls for the reinstatement of Adlestrop, the little Cotswold halt commemorated in Edward Thomas’s 1914 poem (“Yes I remember Adlestrop/The name. Because one afternoon/of heat. The express train drew up there.”) All the more poignantly because Adlestrop station was closed in 1966, when Dr Beeching slashed the network as worship of the car began to peak. 

Whether the relentlessly exuberant Ms Perry, who has been criticised for largely commuting from her Wiltshire constituency by car, is the right person for this desirable task is less clear. She seems pretty keen on roads, too. Labour’s Susan Elan Jones was worried about plans to raise the HGV speed limit given that the Government’s own assessment was that it would increase “deaths and serious injuries”. But, trilled Ms Perry, think about the benefits of “not needing to overtake platooning lorries driving far below speed limits that already apply to coaches and caravans”. She urged an unconvinced-looking Ms Elan Jones to consult a haulage firm in her constituency which was “investing in safe truck technology” and welcomed the change. A slight case of “They would, wouldn’t they”.

Pleading ministerial neutrality Ms Perry unsportingly sidestepped one of the day’s better questions. Labour’s Kevin Brennan had spotted that, as a local MP “shortly before her appointment”, she had complained “that direct services to London from Bedwyn and Pewsey would cease as a result of electrification proposals that she described as ‘mad’”. Could she say if “she had now received a reply from herself… [and] has had an opportunity to read it and whether she agrees with herself?