Simon Calder: Why Britain still lags behind France

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The Independent Online

Victorian railway engineers, of whom Brunel was the greatest, would be proud to know that their achievements are still used by travellers every year.

Today, dozens of trains capable of speeds of 125mph will slow to a crawl to cross the single-track Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar outside Plymouth. In 2009 there will, no doubt, be great celebrations of Brunel's genius on the 150th anniversary of Prince Albert opening the elegant span to Cornwall. Mechanical genius, sure; but the fact that this ancient infrastructure is still an essential component in Britain's railway network shows how far behind the railway curve the UK has slipped.

Further evidence, if it were needed, is provided by the airline schedules. Between 6.30am and 9am today, three flights are scheduled to take off from Parisian airports for the 300-mile trip to Lyons. From the London airports to Manchester, less than 200 miles away, nine flights are scheduled. The French capital has had high-speed trains since 1981. When London's first such link opens in November, the only place you will be able to reach is France.

Showing how lamentable Britain's rail network has become is easy; explaining why is much tougher. The primary cause is decades of lack of political belief, from both main parties, that the railways should provide mobility for the masses.

As Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher shunned the train on both a personal and political level; John Major presided over a botched privatisation that saw funds diverted from investment to shrewd investors' pockets; and successive Labour transport secretaries have said all the right things in the House about greener travel, while showing no great vision about how to achieve it.

Spain, well behind Britain two decades ago and saddled with an antiquated network and a mix of gauges, has ploughed billions of euros into new lines and trains that are so reliable that fares are refunded in the event of a delay of five minutes. As the startling new line carving through the Pyrenean foothills shows, railways can – indeed should – be beautiful - something understood by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.