I have loved railways all my life—an irrational and sentimental enthusiasm that springs from a childhood perched on fences at the edge of railway cuttings. More rationally and less sentimentally, I share the now almost conventional belief that they are important for social and environmental reasons. They’re a good way of moving people and goods around—faster (at least potentially) than roads, less damaging to the air and the countryside, cheaper (or they should be) than flying.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to think that Britain just isn’t culturally and technically equipped to have them—to build or maintain them, to run them properly. How vital are they to the British economy? Not very. With the large exception of London—a city which couldn’t function without rail transport—and a few lines that take imported coal to power stations, every line in the country could be converted into a special kind of road, regulated to carry only fast buses and lorries. For example: buses, exempt from the 70 mph speed limit, could leave King’s Cross for Newcastle and Edinburgh every five minutes, or at the same interval from Paddington to Bristol or Swansea. By doing this, you would, of course, abolish the idea of Britain’s railways as “a system”; it would be no more that than it was in 1840 (a map of unconnected parts—Liverpool to Manchester, London to Birmingham, lines from collieries down to the Tyne). But you would also rid Britain of the need to have the specialist technical expertise required to run a railway. Roads are a much simpler engineering proposition. The railways that remained could be handed into the care of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, or India—all of them countries that have preserved railway and other engineering skills, which Britain has so carelessly lost.
These are Adam Smith Institute sort of thoughts, which means that I am worried to be having them, that right-wing ‘think tank’ being partly to blame for the mess that British transport, particularly railways, is currently in. But only partly. The reasons why Britain has, as a government minister recently admitted, “the worst railway system in Europe” make a long list. The easy and obvious reasons are:
1. Decades of under-investment when the railways were publicly owned. To make a European comparison: In 1996 the figures for planned railway investment over the following four years were £40 per head of the population in Switzerland, £33 in Italy, £21 in France—and £9 in Britain.
2. A privatisation scheme so bizarre that it was bound to lead to mess-up and breakdown, as everyone outside a few brazen and mendacious Tory politicians appearing on Newsnight will now admit. (And oh, how annoyingly brazen they are.)
3. A Labour government that chose to do nothing to correct it and has spent almost five years looking the other way. The new “strategy” by the Strategic Rail Authority is neither new nor strategic. Apart from an extra £4 bn, all of the £60 billion promised in investment over the next decade was announced a year ago; the strategy amounts to a scheme here and there—nearly every one previously publicised—and depends heavily on private investment, which may or may not be forthcoming.
But there is another cause of the damage, and one less easy to quantify or explain. Britain, and in particular its political class, has become a victim of what you might call a Saatchi and McKinsey view of the world. Form matters more than substance, everything can somehow be “managed”, an MBA is worth 10 times as much as an MSc, and a lawyer or an accountant or a PR man has a value high above that of an engineer.
I once worked on a troubled newspaper that called in management consultants, and the only way to describe their methods, diagnosis, and prognosis is: crap, aka “blue-sky thinking”. What the paper needed was money to fund skill. So it is with the railways (and the drains, the roads, the airports). Technical skill, at both its humblest and highest level, hasn’t been valued in this country for a long time. It may be too late to change that—in which case, short of the railways-into-roads solution, the best hope for British public transport is that it is handed over to the Germans, the French, and Italians, with matching levels of public investment, which means matching levels of direct taxation. Hiring John Birt (the Grandma Moses of political consultancy) to paint a few naïve thoughts on the back of an envelope is worse than doing nothing at all.