On the roads with a man who hates the railways

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The Independent Online
I WROTE a letter the other day to John MacGregor. You know, the man who would be in charge of the Government's transport policy if the Government had one. Yes, that John MacGregor. I wrote to him in the space which has now opened up on the front of the other half of this newspaper - I think it's called II - where people write open letters to people.

I just wanted to tell him that I thought his policy of carving up the railways was disastrous, and that a government which after 14 years in power hadn't even started to build a high-speed rail link from Dover to London was not to be trusted with railways and would, in the real world, be out of business by now. I reminded him that government policy over the years had forced many railway lines to be closed down, and asked whether his Department of Transport, or Ministry of Roads, as it should be called, had ever closed down one single road.

The result was predictable. People said my case was so watertight that the Government would be forced to ignore it totally. But they were wrong. I actually got a letter back from John MacGregor] Yes, in person. The address is the Dept of Transport, the envelope was marked MORE CARS AND MORE ROADS NOW] and it was signed John Illegible, so it must be from him.

Nor was it marked 'Not For Publication', so I am pleased to bring it to you in full. Dear Mr Kingston,

Thank you for your open letter which was spotted by one of my eagle-eyed minions on the front of the second section of your newspaper, which I note is called II. (How is that pronounced, incidentally?) Perhaps I can take all your points in order. No, perhaps I'll just take the ones I can easily deal with . . . .

First, you challenge me to name any road that has been closed down by the Tories. That's easy. Downing Street. There was a time when this street was accessible to the public, but then it occurred to us that we didn't want ordinary vote-owners strolling past cabinet premises and staring in, and we certainly didn't want anyone spying on us the night we got rid of Margaret, so we had the road closed and huge gates put up to keep undesirables (that's people like you) out.

That was not the reason we gave, of course. We said it was for security reasons, to prevent any assault on No 10. The fact that we have had assaults on No 10 only since closing the road down, and not before, shows how wise the move was.

Now to our policy on railways. Generally, the idea is to win votes, which is what democracy is all about. Our research shows that very many voters own cars and very few own trains. Therefore there aren't many votes in doing anything for the railways. This speaks for itself, I think, and completely refutes all those who say we have no transport policy.

But there is another point at stake. We are often accused of dragging our feet in comparison to the French. They, it is pointed out, have already built a super high-speed link on their side of the Channel. We have not started ours. We have not even decided on the route. But this is not through inefficiency. It is a deliberate ploy to outwit the French.

You don't believe me? Imagine for a moment that you are a French exporter. You whiz to the Channel and through the tunnel. Then you slow down to 5 mph and never get going again - even if you crawl across Kent, you get stuck in London, either on the M25 or trying to find a non-existent through rail route. My faith] you say to yourself, I wonder if the game is worth the candle] And, as like as not, you give up the attempt to export to us and stay away, rather than grapple with our slow railways and crowded roads.

But it is different for us. We are used to our appalling conditions. We can take it. And when we get across the Channel, what do we find? Wonderful roads and a world-class rail service throughout the Continent] And who will that benefit? Us, of course]

No, monsieur, we in the Tory party have not quite run out of fresh ideas. Yes, of course we have been in office too long and yes, the country is being run by a bunch of idiots, and yes, we do exactly what the road lobby tells us to do, but give us credit for one thing - we have discovered that you can let the French do all the hard work so we can benefit, and they can suffer from our inertia.

There is no need to reply.

Yours etc.

PS: If you were to publish this letter I would expect to be paid for it at the same rate you were paid for writing your letter to me. Make the cheque payable to the Tory party and send it as soon as possible, as we are millions of pounds in debt, despite the generosity of the road haulage people, motorway constructors, Asil Nadir and other friends. Thanks]

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