Steve Richards: Don't be fooled by this high-speed link to Europe – we are still stuck in the slow lane

Our timid leaders unite around a complacent inertia and conclude there is nothing more they can do
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The Independent Online

Europe moves a little closer. From tomorrow it will be possible to catch a train from the grandly refurbished St Pancras station and arrive in Paris a little more than two hours later. For a sizeable chunk of the British population it will be much quicker to travel to parts of France than it will be to head for Blackpool, the Lake District or Cornwall.

Not surprisingly, there is a genuine whiff of excitement in the air, at least among those who live close enough to benefit from the new service. We are not used to this in Britain, the opening of lavishly refurbished stations to greet the arrival of trains that take you somewhere at breathtaking speed. Currently, I bump into people all the time planning to book tickets for a day trip or a weekend. They are like teenagers in the old Eastern Europe discovering a pair of denim jeans for the first time. At last, parts of Britain get a sense of what other countries have experienced for decades, and they are thrilled.

In France, there is much less excitement at the news that London moves closer. The French media gives the prospect of the shorter journey times incomparably less attention than in Britain, where most newspapers have published special supplements. In France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Norway and the rest they are used to high- speed travel arising from ambitious, life-enhancing projects. For them, tomorrow's trains heading swiftly out of St Pancras are a mere incremental step on a familiar journey. On this side of the Channel, we leap with justifiable joy at the novelty of it all.

Sadly, it will remain a novelty. The fast trains do not signal a new era of high- speed travel in Britain. Blackpool, Cornwall and the Lake District will remain distant places if you do not live near them. London to parts of Cornwall takes up to six hours on the old trains and the partly ancient lines. The journey takes longer when the trains fail to run as scheduled, which is often the case.

Trips to Cumbria can take longer still. Engineering works seem to be a permanent feature on some lines, as if no task can ever be accomplished. Fares can cost hundred of pounds for the longer journeys unless booked months in advance. Proposals for high-speed trains linking London to Scotland have been rejected on the grounds that they would be too expensive.

Meanwhile, in London parts of the Underground seem to be on the verge of collapse, with signalling problems as long-term as the engineering works on the railways. How ministers can lecture the rest of Europe over how to run their lives when they cannot run a proper transport service is beyond me, and probably beyond those who are addressed with a patronising parochialism.

Some of the reasons for Britain's painfully slow progress are well known – the failure of governments to invest properly when the industry was statecontrolled and the subsequent catastrophic privatisation. In relation to London Underground, the expensively contorted public-private partnership, the most misjudged policy from Gordon Brown's decade at the Treasury, is largely responsible for the current chaos in the capital.

But why is there still a lack of political will to propel Britain forwards? In the summer, the latest Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, outlined her plans for the future (although they could not have been hers as she had been in the job for only a few weeks). The proposals were the usual familiar mix of initiatives shaped by a pragmatic stinginess. Government subsidies would fall. Fares would go up to pay for the investment. Schemes would take decades to reach fruition as investment was delivered meanly over the years. The usual reasons were given privately in ministerial circles for the lack of ambition: proportionately few people travel by train and there were other demands on spending.

As Chris Green notes in the latest edition of Modern Railways, there are not even discussions about setting up high-speed trains linking, for example, Heathrow Airport to the northern cities. Mr Green was a senior and innovative figure in the final years of British Rail and has since worked in the private sector. He notes that, without such a link, domestic flights will retain their appeal; madness at a time when the political parties affect concern about the environment.

Meanwhile, doubts grow as to whether the Government will have the political courage to go ahead with road-pricing schemes this side of the 22nd century. The infamous petition against such a plan on the Downing Street website has terrified an already fearful administration. Yet such a scheme would lead to a benevolent sequence, more space on the roads for cars and the payments for such a privilege going directly into improved transport.

The Conservatives join the political consensus in their narrow ambition. Their Transport spokeswoman, Theresa Villiers, has written to Ms Kelly calling on her to explore ways of introducing high-speed trains in Britain. But Ms Villiers will not say whether the Conservatives would be willing to invest more in such schemes, or even whether they would spend as much as the current government. I cannot see how its deliberately vague aspiration to spend the "proceeds of growth" on public expenditure and tax cuts will produce the level of investment required.

As I wrote a fortnight ago, in a general debate public spending tends to be regarded as a waste. When it comes to specific issues, there are cries for more spending. So each year, when it lobbies the Chancellor in advance of the budget, the CBI calls for a substantial investment in the transport infrastructure. Similarly, army chiefs call for bigger increases in defence spending now. None of them make suggestions as to where the money should come from and are probably in favour of tax cuts, too.

Decisions relating to public spending are held behind closed doors in Whitehall and announced to the wider public at the end of the agonising process. Mr Brown should consider opening it up, inviting figures from outside to debate and contemplate publicly the options available. Those that urge higher spending must explain where the money should come from, a useful discipline.

Perhaps there could then be a more realistically informed debate about questions relating to "tax and spend". More open discussions about the choices for public spending and earmarked taxes –money raised on transport charges being spent on improved transport – are two ways that would help propel Britain into the modern world.

Prepare for ecstatic cheers tomorrow as the 68-mile high-speed Channel Tunnel link leaps into action. But remember that continental Europe rolls out hundreds of kilometres of equivalent tracks each year, and the airlines are forced to rethink their strategies in the face of such competition. In Britain, the airlines can relax as timid leaders unite around a complacent inertia and conclude there is nothing more they can do. C'est la vie.