Leading Article: A passion for roads

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The Independent Online
IT MAY not be his fault, but the British railway enthusiast has a lot to answer for. There he goes with his packed lunch, off for another weekend of polishing, stoking and track-laying on the preserved Little Overcoat and Great Titchfield light railway. There he sits with his Trains Illustrated, reliving the days of the Cheltenham Flyer and the Sunny South Express. To live in such an industrial twilight zone may not damage the individual, but in Britain it has made the word 'railway' synonymous with 'eccentric', as Robert Adley, the Conservative chairman of the select committee on transport, and steam locomotive buff (cries of 'puff-puff, here comes Bobby the blue engine'), knows to his cost.

It should not be so. All over the world railway lines are being built and re-equipped, at state expense, as a transport system which moves people and freight quickly and efficiently and takes them off overcrowded and environmentally damaging roads. That, however, is not the British way, not the way of this government, and Mr John MacGregor and the Department of Transport in particular. Mr Adley's committee has been taking evidence on railway privatisation since early autumn. No witness has had a good word to say for it. The committee's report, in an extraordinary show of cross-party unanimity, will find ministers have failed to answer serious questions. None the less the Government will press on with its Bill this week. Why? Because it is stubbornlacks imagination, and has nothing better to offer - and because the Department of Transport ('honk, honk, here comes Mr Toad') derives its small virility from a blinding passion for roads.