Wrong kind of tears on the Great Western track sentimentalists go for a quick sale What price a piece of Great Western sentimentality?

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The Independent Online
Two of the small rules that govern my averagely large range of indefensible prejudices are these. One, a film that includes the line "try and get some rest" is bound to be no good. Two, beware of anybody who hero-worships the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I think it was Roy Hattersley who once said of Trollope-worshippers that they tended to be people who otherwise didn't like novels, and you can (snobbishly, wrongly) extend this idea to other fields of endeavour - eg Van Gogh (for people who otherwise don't like painting) and Tchaikovsky (for people who otherwise don't like music). Brunel is for people who don't otherwise care much for engineering. There may be all kinds of reasons, including a memorably odd name and a swashbuckling portrait photograph (clenched cigar and stovepipe hat), but perhaps the main appeal of Brunel above other, more successful engineers comes from the notion that he was a thwarted genius born ahead of his time. He designed big, impractical things, steam- driven Leviathans, the widest railway the world has ever seen - which smaller, pettier men destroyed. He knew that rules were there to be broken.

This is an easy story to grasp, and it's not surprising that David Tredinnick, the Tory MP for Bosworth and another rule-breaker, has grasped it. At Wednesday's debate on railway privatisation we got a more rounded picture of Mr Tredinnick, previously known to most people only as one of the men who was prepared to ask a parliamentary question in exchange for pounds l,000. Not only did Mr Tredinnick help inspire the consequent inquiry by Lord Nolan into standards in public life, he is also a Brunelophile.

Mr Tredinnick told the Commons that Brunel would have been proud of the newly privatised Great Western. "He built that railway to a higher standard than those in the rest of the country, with a gauge of seven feet and a quarter ... If the Great Western decides to run an improved service to the West Country, it has the benefit of wider tunnels ... It is possible to run wider trains out of Paddington into Bristol Temple Meads."

He meandered on nostalgically like this for some time - his speech spreads across four pages of Hansard - and he was not the only Tory to praise "the proud names and traditions of the old private railway companies", though the said names and traditions died long before any of the speakers was born and often close to bankruptcy. A common charge against the opponents of railway privatisation is that they are trainspotting sentimentalists.

The real mushy heart of the railway debate lies on the other side, where the desperation of flogging off a great national asset to raise a quick billion or two is inflected with a schoolboy's reading of history and Heath Robinson-esque schemes for wider trains from Paddington. It is a tragic sight, and beyond satire.

The debate on Wednesday was not well attended. From my seat in the press gallery I could count at most 20 MPs on both sides of the chamber, their words witnessed by a procession of foreign tourists, two busy recorders from Hansard and two or three reporters with pens held immobile over their notebooks. There was so much empty woodwork, in fact, that I and a friend on the opposition benches could easily spot each other and wave, which is probably against the rules of dignity. Nobody who knows Westminster will be surprised by these facts. They will tell you that the Commons as usually televised gives a completely false impression of crowded intensity and uproar. Still, this wasn't the first reading of a private member's Bill promoting stoat conservation in Louth but a debate on a Labour motion "that this House ... believing that the flotation of Railtrack will damage the national interest ... calls upon Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the present plans". Of course, even if the motion had been passed, the Government would not have withdrawn its plans. They are already enacted in law. But a vote against the Government might have done that difficult thing, embarrass it, and a vote required the overture of a debate.

The tempting verdict here runs: empty theatricals in prominent piece of heritage architecture, more fun (certainly more Members) to be found in the Palace of Westminster's many bars, no minds changed and nobody better informed. It was not quite like that. Tam Dalyell, for example, yielded interesting information in his dogged pursuit of the Forth Bridge's decay. The pity, it seems to me, is that the press now gives so little space to parliamentary reporting, the humdrum, orthodox stuff of who said what. The humble recorder, the poker-faced witness, to parliamentary proceedings has been elbowed aside in most newspapers by the sketch-writer. Many are witty writers, but we're less well informed. In any case, how do you improve on:

Mr Peter Luff (Worcester): "...as a family man, I am especially keen on the new family carriage that is being introduced on Saturdays on Great Western trains ... there will be a special children's food menu, and the company is considering the possibility of providing an entertainer on the trains."

Mr Brian Wilson (Cunninghame North): "You should do it."

Mr Luff: "I would not mind volunteering for the job ... I have always wanted to volunteer to be Santa Claus on the Severn Valley Railway, and I will do that one of these years, when I have the time."

In last week's list of dodgy doctor-politicians, prompted by Dr Brian Mawhinney (who showed heartening signs of breakdown in a later interview with Sue MacGregor), I forgot to include Dr Eamon de Valera. My grandmother would never have forgiven me - no friend of republicanism, she used to refer to the Irish leader as "devil-era". For the record, he was a doctor of mathematics. Also for the record, in 1945 he called on the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Herr Hitler.

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