Simon Calder: Chance to rectify mistakes and ease the squeeze

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The Independent Online

Some of the world's greatest transport infrastructure began life as job-creation schemes: Highway 1 along the coast of California, Australia's Great Ocean Road and, arguably, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, the railway that opened up eastern Siberia. Compared with these mighty projects, George Osborne's plan to build the odd bypass and resurrect some stretches of railway may seem the feeblest of visions.

In fact, the provisions in the Autumn Statement should be broadly welcomed. As a nation, Britain opted out of transportational grands projets a generation or two back, with the exception of much-delayed essentials such as the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow Terminal 5. We left it to the French to build Europe's first proper high-speed rail network – starting 30 years ago, with the latest component opening 12 days from now, connecting the Rhine and Rhone. In comparison, electrifying existing lines will hardly inspire the Brunels of the future.

Yet Britain is a small, crowded nation that, thanks to visionary Victorians, has had its railway framework in place for a century and a half. Against all the odds, the network still mostly meets our needs. France and Spain are vast countries in comparison, with both the space and the necessity to build high-speed, high-capacity railways. Make do, mend and muddle through is the UK's strategy.

The excuse for dismantling much of our rail system was that car ownership was the future. As every British motorist knows, any joy in driving on our motorways and A-roads disappeared decades ago. Today you simply hope that the journey was no worse than yesterday. With neither the will nor the money nor the space to expand the road network, tactically relieving bottlenecks and removing traffic from towns and villages is the best we can expect.

This is not an acceptance of inertia – rather, recognition that in a cramped country with a mature economy the solution is better use of scarce resources. Heathrow and Gatwick are, most of the time, highly efficient: supreme examples of how to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. Terrestrial transport may yet catch up. Yesterday's announcement, if followed through, will make good some of our past mistakes and ease the squeeze for a few more years. And in any event some work will be found for idle hands.