Nicholas Faith: Politicians are falling in love with the tracks

With this integrated, environment-friendly rail network we will catch up with Europe

Share
Related Topics

The announcement of the electrification of the rail line from London to Sheffield (at a cost of £500m) and further extensive plans is only the latest proof of an extraordinary revolution in political attitudes towards railways. For 60 years after the Second World War they were treated as a dying form of transport. We "invested" in roads but "subsidised" – reluctantly and inadequately – poor old British Rail. Privatisation in the mid-1990s was based on the assumption that rail travel would continue to decline, though it immediately started a sustained rise. Five years ago a senior figure at the Department for Transport refused to contemplate any plans for further electrification.

Yet today rail is the only form of government spending not to be cut, but benefiting from continuing increases in investment. In one way this is merely a belated recognition of the fact first stated by the great French railwayman Louis Armand 40 years ago in response to a remark that everyone was buying cars. Yes, he said "but once they all have cars they will return to the railways". And they have, everywhere in the developed world outside the United States.

Andrew Adonis was the first Minister of Transport to realise that, with increasing fuel prices and ever more clogged roads, the public switch to rail travel was a permanent phenomenon. But the big surprise was George Osborne's genuine enthusiasm for railways, which has translated into a steady stream of new projects, none arousing opposition, even from public sector lobbies furious at cuts in their own programmes – an absence of dogs-barking-in-the-night which showed that, for once, his political instincts were bang on.

With the great majority of long-distance trains in Britain due to be electrically powered within a decade we will have caught up with the rest of Western Europe by providing an integrated, environmentally-friendly rail network.

But a major threat remains in the form of the DfT. Where other countries enjoy a separate Railway Department, our equivalent employs an almost exclusively non-specialist staff, "generalists" lacking the technical skills to supervise our rail system. Typically it has cost the DfT several years and up to £100m in fees for consultants to provide proper bids for some new rolling stock.

Moreover, the DfT has put forward a ridiculously direct and environmentally disastrous route for the badly-needed HS2 designed to alleviate the increasingly crowded West Coast Main Line. Their preferred route gave an opportunity to the bunch of ignorant, hysterical Nimbys who opposed the line as a whole. All the DfT had to do was to copy the final route devised for HS1, which removed all objections from environmentalists by using tunnels and sticking close to the local motorways – but that would have demanded a dose of common sense and an ability to learn from experience.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own