Leading article: Back on track

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The Independent Online

The construction of the original St Pancras train station in 1866 was the apogee of the golden age of the British railways. William Barlow's 240ft-wide, 100ft-high train-shed arch created the largest enclosed space in the world, and opened up a world of technological possibilities. The first train to depart from it ran 97 miles - the longest non-stop run in the world.

When the Queen opens the refurbished St Pancras today, hopes will be high that it will inaugurate a similarly gilded era for UK rail travel. The construction of the station has been almost as painstaking as of the original. The boost to train travel also promises to be almost as dramatic. A new high-speed line (Britain's first) will cut the London to Paris Eurostar journey time by 20 minutes.

Of course, circumstances now are very different. Public investment in the railways today is inspired less by a Victorian sense of man's potential than a profound sense of the environment's fragility. We urgently need to cut emissions from car and plane journeys, and promoting more energy-efficient rail travel is the most obvious way to achieve this.

Moreover, the revolution at St Pancras merely emphasises the scale of the task ahead. The rest of the UK's rail infrastructure remains woefully neglected. It is all very well opening up a high-speed line to France, but what about a high-speed line to the North? Surely any government truly concerned with reducing greenhouse emissions would have this as one it its main priorities. When it comes to railway travel in the 21st century, there is a lot to be said for those old Victorian values.

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