Drive your own train - what a way to ruin a railway]

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The Independent Online
I FULLY intended to write something about railway privatisation today. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of anything funny to say about the sad mess that the Government is about to make of our railway system, so instead I'd like to write about . . .

What do I mean, the mess the Government is about to make of our railway system?

Oh, come ON] Everyone knows that the Government is about to make a mess of our railway system. I have the figures somewhere. They are a bit difficult to read because they are covered in tears. My tears. Tears of frustration and rage. And coffee stains as well. Coffee stains of rage and frustration, as a matter of fact.

Anyway, you don't need the figures to tell you that the Tories are about to make the most almighty cock-up of our railway system. You can feel it in your bones. It's a bit like the way everyone knew in their bones that the Government was going to make an almighty cock-up of the bidding for ITV franchises. Everyone except the Government. And they did.

You just know instinctively, this time round, that although most of us like railways, the Government doesn't. Margaret Thatcher used to hate the railways. She probably still does. Not surprising, really, because the railways are against everything that a Tory government stands for. Railways are designed to provide an efficient, available public service to everyone across the country, and the last thing the Tories want is an efficient public transport service available across the country - what they want is more and more roads, with more and more people owning and driving their own cars, and more and more roads, and more cars . . .

I'm oversimplifying a bit. What am I saying? I'm not oversimplifying at all. The Tories don't like railways, for at least one very simple reason: the way railways work doesn't allow for us all to have our own trains and drive them ourselves. If we could do that, the Tories would love them. That is what the Government would like - a train-owning society in which we all had our own little four-door saloon trains, which we could all drive off whenever we wanted to.

But they can't have it. So instead they are slowly going to throttle the system. Their main method is to pour money into roads, but they have tried other methods over the years. The first one the Tories used in order to slow down our rail system, 30 or more years ago, was to put ex-army officers in charge of British Railways, old army generals who had knighthoods but no idea how to run a railway, and who never learnt. After that, successive Tory governments tried the good old method of not giving the railways enough money, so that they couldn't carry out essential improvements like electrification, then blaming BR for not doing the things they never allowed them enough money to do in the first place. (This happens to local government as well, I understand.) And now they are grinding on ideologically with this crazy, doomed notion of carving the system into unworkable separate bits. . . .

I am not, incidentally, indulging in rosy nostalgia for the days of steam. I think it took far too long to convert from steam to diesel or, even better, to electrification. The LNER locomotive Mallard may have beaten the world steam engine record before the war, but, interestingly, the record was beaten again before the war even started. We don't often hear about the engine that went faster than Mallard. We don't even remember its name.

One reason for this is that, unfortunately for the steam legend, it was a diesel engine that went faster than Mallard. Even more unfortunately, it was a German diesel engine and 1939 was not a good time for people in Britain to go round saying that the Germans were pointing the way forward in rail transport.

But I digress. As I was saying, I can't think of anything funny to say about the way the Tories are ruining our railways, so instead I'll just point out a new trick the Tory government has developed. It has noticed that a lot of the things that it does are unpopular. It hates to admit that anything it does can be unpopular for the right reasons. It knows that, sometimes, brave radical reforms can be unpopular. So it is now standing logic on its head by saying that whenever a government action is unpopular, it must mean that it is brave and radical and long overdue .

Sorry. We seem to be back to the railways again.