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.