Editor-At-Large: If we can travel in space, why are our trains at a standstill?

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The Independent Online

I'd never heard of the "third rail" until last Thursday, but suddenly this mysterious piece of metal was catapulted into the spotlight, blamed for the disruption to our rail network. Country in shutdown mode? Commuters trapped all night on trains in Sussex? Economy losing £1.2bn a day because no one can get to work? When it comes to accepting responsibility for last week's chaos, we're told the third rail must shoulder a large part of the blame.

Housebound last Friday, I heard one pompous chap announce on Radio 4, "trains aren't running in the South-east largely due to the third rail, antiquated 1920s technology we would not invest in again".

At this point, any rational listener would (like me) be jumping up and down in their seat shouting, "Well, you've had nearly a century and a hell of a lot of snow since then. Why the hell didn't you get rid of these ruddy third rails if they cause so much trouble?" The problem with transport experts and railway executives is that they talk an opaque language designed to deter ordinary customers from arriving at the truth.

Fact: our railways don't work if it's too hot, too cold, the wrong leaves fall on the line or if anyone has decided to chuck themselves off one of the many bridges over the track. The men in charge claim these are "unusual" situations. Sadly, their excuses – given that we live in an age of fast-moving technological change – just don't wash. If we can get to Mars, how can taking a train to Gatwick in all weathers, 365 days a year, be so difficult?

The third rail runs alongside the two carrying the train, and carries the power. The problem lies with something called the collecting shoe, which sits on top of it: it ices up very easily, breaking the contact and stopping power getting through. This system was designed more than a century ago and is still in use, although on newer trains such as the Docklands Light Railway the shoe sits underneath the rails, so it's less likely to be affected by snow. Network Rail runs around 30 special ghost de-icing trains (which doesn't seem very many to me) but last week they couldn't operate because broken-down locos blocked the lines. That's what Network Rail says, anyway. Unions say they weren't using enough de-icing fluid in the first place. In 1904, a leading engineer, Silvanus P Thompson, said the third rail was "obsolete", so why is it still being used today?

Meanwhile, Network Rail is experimenting with heaters to stop rails icing up. Sadly, rail travellers are still being treated like guinea pigs when it comes to providing a fast, reliable, cost-effective service. Last week, one in five trains didn't run on Wednesday and Thursday, and services were still curtailed in huge areas of the country on Friday. Meanwhile, Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Transport was refusing to describe the situation as a crisis. Instead, he ordered an inquiry into the standstill – to be carried out by David Quarmby, the transport expert who carried out a similar review for the last government after the snow chaos last Christmas.

Amid accusations that councils hadn't stockpiled enough grit, and as the Government imposes cutbacks on public spending, Mr Hammond had the brass neck to announce "there are lessons to be learnt from our performance in every bout of bad weather, and it is important that we learn them now". Last December and January the snow caused chaos and the then government ordered an inquiry so that "lessons could be learnt".

What a joke. Ask anyone who lives in the countryside or suburbs and they'll tell you that they see no one gritting side roads to enable them to walk from their homes to public transport – if it's running.

As we shivered at home, unable to work, the Prime Minister defended government plans to spend £30bn on a high-speed rail link between London and Leeds. David Cameron said he profoundly believed it was a good way of bringing the North and South closer together. I beg to differ. What will get our economy functioning again is far more prosaic – millions of tons of salt and grit applied to pavements and roads by council workers who are not being laid off. Second, we must prioritise rebuilding our existing railways so they don't rely on a piece of rubbish, 1920s equipment.

For £14, you too can look like the royal clothes horse

Kate Middleton's £349 engagement dress by Issa has spawned some gruesome copies. Tesco was hot off the starting block with a short-sleeved "tribute" number in their F&F range at £16. That sold out smartly, and now Peacocks, a Welsh budget clothing chain, is offering a long-sleeved version at £14. In polyester and available up to size 18, this garment will hardly make the wearer look like a future queen, but maybe I'm being picky.

There's no doubt that we do not have the same fascination with Kate that we had with Diana – being with someone for eight years, some of that under the same roof, doesn't give an engagement much of a fairy-tale quality, does it? In an opinion poll last week, 28 per cent of the public said they were largely indifferent to the forthcoming royal wedding, and 31 per cent absolutely couldn't care less. Perhaps Waity Katie should donate that historic blue dress to be auctioned for a charitable cause. That might increase her appeal. At the moment, she's little more than a perfectly nice clothes horse.

Life has its ups and downs

There's no better place to lift your spirits than in a theatre surrounded by 100 eight- to ten-year-olds in school uniform, engrossed by the antics of a man in pyjama bottoms wearing a ludicrous pair of paper wings. My Dad's a Birdman, at the Young Vic in south London, is a wonderful piece of writing by David Almond, and within the space of just over an hour it touches on bereavement and depression in a most affecting way. With music by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, this small-scale production is more impressive than most musicals on the West End stage, and offers a great lesson in how to connect with an audience. Jackie's wife has died, and his daughter, Lizzie, is trying to cope, but even she gets swept up in his bid to be the first man to fly in the Great Human Bird Competition. You don't need to be a kid to enjoy this show.

It's raining facts, hallelujah...

Is our arctic weather a by-product of global warming? The Science Museum in London is hugely popular with young visitors, but its new Climate Science Gallery, opening this weekend, will attract thousands of adults, eager to unpick the debate about our changing weather and CO2 emissions. The gallery is a high-tech installation of interactive exhibits and games, and showcases historic objects such as the fascinating notebooks of Guy Callendar, the British engineer who painstakingly collected data on temperature changes between 1938 and 1964. There are samples of the wonderfully named Hertfordshire puddingstone, formed during global warming 56 million years ago. The gallery cleverly uses the latest technology to bombard visitors with data – and allows you to sort through the options for the future. A controversial subject has been demystified in an entertaining way.