How every country ends up with the trains that it deserves

A community in motion, a nation on the move; Nicholas Faith, introducing our summer series, says railways are undergoing a worldwide renaissance
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The Independent Online
Railways are back. Over the past few years people and governments the world over have realised they are the only environmentally friendly means of mass transport for passengers and freight.

Congestion, combined with the social and environmental cost which is the result of unrestricted use of motor vehicles, has led to a return to what was decried in the post-war decades as an outmoded form of transport, doomed to be superseded by the all-conquering motor.

Immense sums are being poured into railways and organisations which had often dwindled into bloated bureaucracies are being reshaped on more businesslike lines.

Over the next few weeks the Independent will be reflecting this renaissance of rail the world over in a series of articles. They will not be mere accounts of Great (or Lesser) railway journeys.

They will be snapshots of every aspect of rail travel, from the economic to the architectural, reflecting the sheer excitement engendered by every aspect of a rail journey as well as the whole world of railways, trains, stations - and railwaymen.

We hope these reflections will provide a picture of the way railways remain an essential part of social and economic life of countries throughout the world.

We also hope they will not only fascinate our readers as much as they do the Independent staff but also provoke them to think about what we should be doing to encourage the new era of rail travel.

The series is based on a simple observation: that today, as in the past, railway systems represent a country's capacity to organise its transport systems and thus, by implication other less obvious public functions, in a sane and economic manner.

It has often been said newspapers represent a nation talking to itself. Similarly, railways represent a society, a community, in motion. Their re-emergence is an echo of the way that during the 19th century they created the modern world.

Nations such as Belgium, Italy and Canada could not have existed without them. Empires steamed along the lines built by the conquerors. They defined time, they defied distance, they liberated man's imagination.

The industrial revolution depended on them. They alone could transport the masses of food required to feed growing cities. The railway between London and Wiltshire was known as the Milky Way and the fishermen of far- off Cornwall timed their arrivals in harbour to coincide with the train timetable.

Mass movement of people, as emigrants and later as tourists, relied on them. The very stations were rightly called "temples of steam" and remain some of the finest monuments to the Victorian age.

Some of these themes find their echoes today. Splendid stations, like Nicholas Grimshaw's masterpiece at Waterloo, are being built for the first time in half a century: and the association of railways with imperialism is finding a new echo in railways being built by Iran to strengthen its links with the Central Asian republics and steer them towards thinking of the Gulf, rather than Moscow, as their natural link with the outside world. Now, more than ever, railways and "light rail" - the new term for the tramway - are the only way to move masses of people within large conurbations.

And travellers still prefer train to air travel for journeys up to three hours - time in which a modern train can travel up to 500 miles.

Yet they are recognisably the same means of transport first developed to carry coal between the mines and rivers and the sea in north-east England in the 1820s.

The new ultra-fast trains, running at up to 200mph through France - and Spain and Germany and Japan and Italy - still rely on steel wheels running on steel rails which are still set, as in George Stephenson's day, 4ft81/2in (1.435m) apart.

So, of course, is Eurostar, the train service which, steadily but surely, is drawing London and south-east England into a closer relationship with the Continent than with far-off, and equally foreign Scotland and thus doing more for our links with Europe than a thousand speeches.

In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux summed up the feeling that today, as in the past, railways provided an accurate reflection of the moral, cultural, social, economic state of a particular country.

"The seedy, distressed country has seedy, distressed trains; the proud, efficient nation is similarly reflected in its rolling stock, as Japan is.

"There is hope in India because the trains are considered vastly more important than the donkey wagons some Indians drive."

By these standards most countries throughout the world are striving towards the better society represented by a superior railway system and prepared to pay heavily for the benefits.

They are building tunnels - between Denmark and Sweden as well as under the Channel - they are constructing high- speed lines, not only throughout Western Europe, but also in Korea - and between Moscow and St Petersburg.

They can even be adapted to take masses of lorries off the roads - in the United States, road-haulage companies are transferring much of their long-haul traffic on to the railways, which had been pronounced near dead until the late 1970s, but which have been miraculously rejuvenated by freedom from government regulation.

And, finally, how does Britain fare in these comparisons? Bluntly, as a country which is slipping inexorably into the Third World.

Britain, a crowded island eminently suited to rail travel, is the only country apart from the United States unable to contemplate abolishing the subsidies given to road transport in the form of company-car allowances, ludicrously low taxation of heavy lorries, and relatively cheap petrol.

Privatisation, this government's magic cure-all, is simply a pathetic attempt to evade society's responsibilities towards its transport systems, combined with a fragmentation which makes the simplest and most obvious investment an intolerably prolonged affair - and ensures that the rails themselves, unlike the roads, let alone the rails in other countries, actually have to make a profit.