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Off The Rails (January 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

British trains are twice as expensive as German ones, and four times more likely to be late.



New Year begins with new rail franchises, new logos and uniforms - Oh joy to the munchkins of PR and corporate design! - coupled with whacking fare increases and trains which fail to run.

I ended 2007 meeting regionalists in Mallorca, where the British built the railways in the 1870s, American-style planners replaced them with motorways in the 1970s, and the Mallorcans brought them back after the Millenium, with cheap, fast diesels running across the island, trams and metros slated for Palma, and the goal of 25% of journeys by public transport. Keeping up with Spain, where the trains run mainly on the plain, and very fast.

Come back to Britain and weep. Someone remarks in a CP Snow novel: "You know you're an elite when you've got someone to drive you." Put more vividly in the story of a Tory MP who leaped on to a London bus, shouting "House of Commons, quick as you can!" Our masters have never made much sense on transport, but recent events - skyrocketing fares plus technological paralysis - seem to bear out John Stuart Mill's line that nations that can't run their transport won't remain nations for much longer.

Mill, I think, had Austria in mind, which during the 1850s sold off its railways, until in 1859 it found that they had all passed to French consortia - just when war with France had become inevitable. Remove the guns, and something of the sort could be facing Brown's Britain.

In Where there is Greed (1989) - good book, pity about its fate - a younger and more thoughtful Gordon Brown made the reform of transport a priority. But once in office all such notions vanished. The fuel crisis and truckers' revolt of autumn 2002 led the Chancellor to grovel before Steve Bell's Fat Blokes, and his position has subsequently remained prone. Tom Bower's hostile biography lets loose with the vitriol but the account in it of Brown's relations with Sir Alastair Morton, the first chair of the Strategic Rail Authority, showed a decision maker who knew little and cared less about the issue; and the fact that Europe had surface transport taped (quite different from his beloved USA) seemed to make matters worse.

This wasn't helped much by the Broonite policy of appointing as transport ministers the more malleable of his fellow-Scots MPs: Strang, Liddell, Reid, MacDonald, Darling, Alexander ... (Who? I hear you ask). On the face of it this fest of the forgettable seemed odd, since practically all transport powers had been devolved to the Holyrood parliament. Then one recollects that Scottish munchkins are 400 miles away from incandescent commuters, but (at least until recently) within pelting range of North Queensferry.

The fact is that on the continent high-speed passenger trains run on dedicated tracks with motorway gradients. The UK has attempted to combine high-speed running with use by freight trains, and the latter are bashing the rails to the extent that weekend closures are essential. After about 10 years' use of German and British trains (I am the sort of anorak that keeps notes), the latter are twice as expensive and four times more likely to be late. At weekends they are a wretched embarrassment when passengers, bled dry for their tickets, are tipped into a bus for a 100-mile run.

Quoth Eric Burdon of the Animals, when Gordon was still quite a young intellectual: "We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do!" How? We let Europe (translated: the French and Germans) take the railways over. Shock, Horror ... At the end of June the state-run Deutsche Bahn took over most of UK freight operations, and not a word was said. It's time to have a system run by engineers, not by bankers and lawyers saving up for Caribbean yachts.

This should be able to reorganise the arterial routes, giving reasonably fast passenger links to Scotland and the west - perhaps more important - facilities that enable Berne-gauge goods trucks to travel directly to most parts of the UK. A sensible government will do a deal which gives some sort of UK state presence, conserves construction capacity, fosters training, and hands local links over to the nations and regions.

And the Fat Blokes? Well, they proclaimed their intention to see off the government over fuel costs ... and no-one came. History is turning against them, and over the last couple of years, thanks to the lorry charge on German autobahns, rail freight is coming back. Already Austrian railways are moving 35% of the country's freight, and - no mean straw in the wind - Sarkozy has cut road expenditure in favour of rail and trams.

You never know, Brown might even manage a U-turn, tyres smoking ... The housing-retail motor is failing fast, and big public works may be necessary to avoid the approaching slump. Seeing his kingdom like a pizza, held together only, in Andrew Marr's splendid metaphor, "by strands of molten cheese", he might feel that some iron road might work wonders.

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