Waiting for the Train (October 2009)

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‘I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge’
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this:- ’

Thus begins Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Lady Godiva’ and it – or Philip Larkin’s ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere’ flicks up in the brain when the train slows into Coventry’s New Brutalist platforms. I have made such journeys for forty years, in the 1960s as a railway enthusiast headed for Wales to work on narrow gauge railways. As we rebuilt the Festiniog line we could see the lorries trundling up to Trawsfynydd Power station, whose reactors would ‘make electricity so cheap you wouldn’t need to be billed for it’. Trawsfynydd has now been switched off for 13 years going on 30,000, but the Festiniog trains most of the engineers as the area now produces.

 Network Rail has produced plans for a high-speed line to Scotland, and being President of the Scottish Association for Public Transport (an umbrella organisation for operators, unions, local authorities and passenger groups) I was expected to comment on the scheme. I had plenty of leisure to do so, since on Bank Holiday Friday my Virgin Shuttle from London to Birmingham took over twice its 90-minute journey time, much of it stationary on the track just south of Coventry. The reason given for this – at a peak holiday period – was ‘signal failure’ first between Milton Keynes and Rugby, then between Rugby and Birmingham New Street. The breakdown (I suppose the worst, proportionate to distance, I’ve suffered in twenty years, were I still counting them) was on a line which has already swallowed several billions in reconstruction and resignalling costs.

The Tannoy – ‘ping-pong! We are sorry to announce … ’ (a Virgin Train is noise- pollution on wheels) – registered there was crew aboard but none of them materialised to help elderly passengers, or families. Though – yes! – we would get a complimentary cup of tea if we struggled along to the shop. At Birmingham International we had an ‘incident with a passenger’ when four police removed a distraught young mother …

Anthony Trollope had, a bit later than Tennyson, written that railway journeys were there to write in. Three hours later the elderly Arriva Wales diesel railcar rounded the Dovey estuary in the sunset, with about half this piece typed, and before the sun had gone I was cooking supper at Llanbadarn and reading in the Cambrian News that we might be getting our direct train to London back. Not a very fast one and running to Marylebone, not Euston. But mercifully distant from Branson’s operation and its missed connections. Devolved Wales has done well in improving its railways, including a splendid new narrow-gauge line across Snowdonia, which would have impressed the historian L T C Rolt, who saved the antique Talyllyn Railway sixty years ago and tried to stop Beeching’s closures. Nearly all Rolt’s twenty-odd books are still in print. A recent check-up on C P Snow, prophet of science in the 1960s, a decent novelist and a witness to the ‘scientistic’ mind of that time of white coats and reactors, showed him apparently fallen out of memory.  

Ten years ago a man from the Economist of all places admitted to a conference of German conservatives that market forces could make little contribution to public transport in general and railways in particular. The commercialisation of this key public service has turned out the most ominous aspect of the UK’s post-Thatcherian malaise, now perhaps in its terminal stages. Lady Thatcher herself memorably said that any adult using public transport was declaring himself (sic) a loser. This was Jeremy Clarkson blague although Sir Arthur Sherman, one of her advisers, probably believed it and campaigned energetically for railways to be converted into roads. John Major passed rail privatisation legislation so contorted (the operations of a complex command technology were split by Sir Christopher Foster, a Labour man, into a myriad of market transactions) that the system simply fell apart. Tony Blair couldn’t give a toss, and Gordon Brown (Shriti Vadera at his shoulder) responded to the Strategic Rail Authority’s first head Sir Alastair Morton’s plea for proper funding by showing him the door. Brown-Vadera’s monument has been the catastrophic privatisation of the London underground.

A peculiarity about Labour’s many and forgettable Transport Ministers since 1997 has been their mainly Scots provenance. It had always been a convention that a ministry which was devolved – such as the Home Office or Agriculture – could not be held by a Scottish MP. But after 1999, when transport was theoretically transferred to Holyrood, five out of the eight Labour ministers were Scots: Gavin Strang, Helen Liddell, Lord Gus MacDonald, Alistair Darling, John Reid. The exceptions was Stephen Byers, whose obliteration of Railtrack in 2002 started the shift back to co-ordination and de facto nationalised Network Rail, Ruth Kelly, who didn’t linger, and the present rather promising Lord Adonis. Brown’s Scottish munchkins ensured that in the division of government after the Granita Pact of 1994 transport was one of ‘Gordon’s Things’. Being based in Scotland would keep ministers away from furious commuters picketing their doorsteps, and close to the Boss at his eyrie at North Queensferry.

The high-technology express link to the north is slated to turn up about twenty years’ time and at the cost of over £30 billion, but will it be any more reliable than the accursed West Coast Main Line? Ian Jack some years back suggested not utterly facetiously that perhaps the modern Brits weren’t up to running something as sophisticated as a railway, let alone a high-speed one, and ought to content themselves with a slow but supposedly reliable piece of low-tech like a trolleybusway, something that even Clarkson could manage (this was, in fact, seriously proposed by the Adam Smith Institute in 1990). But looming Peak Oil will within 20 years, and probably less, dispense with that option, and Thatcher’s ‘great car economy’, too. Middle Britain remains trapped in a peculiar Anglo-Saxonist transport squalor, a more antique version of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, marked by its disused monorail, and hitting civil society at both ends. Expensive and unreliable expresses at one level, and civic sloth at the other. Where 36 % of Copenhagen people cycle-commute, only 2% of Edinbourgeois do so. It registers, in a society whose obesity figures are catching up on those of the US.

Despite more expensive fares and continual assurances that investment is being increased (as MSPs we now receive a letter in such optimistic terms from Network Rail’s CEO Ian Coucher before every public holiday sees the system break down)
Things won’t get better under the Tories, when the Thatcherite undead scramble from their last ditches. Such a collective enterprise is anathema to them, however necessary, and is unlikely to be adequately funded north and west of the M 25.

The railway which Britain gave to the world has managed simultaneously to show the scars of an ‘early leader’ – small trains, low bridges, steep gradients – and of being subject to crazy experiments during the UK’s affair with the car: Thatcherian neglect, the privatisation cock-up, zigzagging ‘strategies’ under Blair/Brown. The unending logo-changes and makeovers of the PR men have resulted in liveries of passing vulgarity, stations whose quality averages out at the sixties tackiness of Euston, ‘Manglish’ on the Tannoy – ‘customers’, ‘station stop’, ‘last and final’, ‘arriving into’ – interspersed with the pings and clangs, and the growing fear that Virgin’s tiny seats will struggle to bear the increasingly Great Britons perched on them.   

Since last autumn the bills have been coming in. Successive governments have been starry-eyed about such magic sources of taxation revenue as financial services or the ‘housing-retail driver’. They have connived not just in the run-down of public transport infrastructure but in the dismantling of manufacturing capability which is the only means of remedying such chronic failure.

This took two main forms, visible from the Pendolino when in motion: the ‘Milton Keynes’ pattern of diffused if not exurbian growth. Low-density development, out-of-town malls and dispersed travel patterns have been allowed to ramify, supposedly to facilitate car use without congestion. And secondly the coach as ‘cheap n’ cheerful’ alternative to the train. The first has been a major factor in Britain’s headlong and accelerating urban decay, facilitating the out-of-town shopping-mall, leisure centre, multiplex cinema which have sucked life out of the town centres. Apart from a few routes of a suburb-to-suburb sort, coach travel has scarcely increased, as any interurban acceleration grinds to a halt when it hits the commuter tailbacks. The dystopia was already around in 1977 when Margaret Drabble’s grim The Ice Age chronicled metro-culture’s uneasy affair with property and theft; it hasn’t got any better since, but now impinges even less I’d reckon on the metroliterati than on  those who can stay away from urban England for as long as possible.  

Returning to an equilibrium gets increasingly difficult. Command of technology-training and innovation depends on the state of the manufacturing sector, which has to provide a high proportion of qualified personnel for research, maintenance and innovation. In the rightly-respected German ‘dual-system’ technical instruction is divided 50-50 between private industry and government, and in the leading industrial regions up to 75% of the training work may be carried out by the firms. A country, therefore, which no longer has a reputation in advanced engineering will be at a steadily-worsening disadvantage in this respect. In the UK this will be aggravated by the current desire – by both the Conservative and Labour parties – to spend the billions needed for railway modernisation on nuclear-armed submarines, giant aircraft carriers, and pointless foreign wars. Not to speak of the wealth leaching out of the City to the bonus boys in the form of Porsches, watches, Caribbean villas, etc. Compare the booty of the latter with the haul after the arrest of any provincial thug, or football bankruptcy – bling and fast cars remain a consistent two-fingered gesture at Adam Smith’s ‘social union’.

Add to the railway crisis recent BBC news stories about road freight dominated by overloaded trucks and overworked foreign drivers, and the UK seems to have reached a degree of breakdown, not just in environment and transport but in social morality, that some sort of policy revolution has to be contemplated. It is no longer possible to achieve rational reorganisation of transport on a low-energy basis while feeding the beast of what Matthew Arnold called ‘doing as one likes’, in the UK’s case personified by the road and car lobby. And can the privileged position of finance capital and its fortress in the United Kingdom of London be allowed to remain if we want rail improvements to come speedily and within budget? A clutch of ambitious schemes will cause a seller’s market, and the contractors’ cartels exposed in 2007 by the Office of Fair Trading will do their work. Look how comprehensively legal-commercial ‘sinister interests’ destroyed the £ 60 million Jubilee Line fraud case in 2004.

A Liberal politician as well as a philosopher, John Stuart Mill wrote in the 1860s that a nation which wasn’t able to manage its transport system would not remain a nation for long. He had the privatisation of Austria’s railways in mind, but this describes pretty accurately what’s now happening. Scotland could probably cut a deal with Europe to see the North-South express route accelerated in the interest of renewable power exploitation, but comprehensive modernisation of the system will anyhow demand close co-operation. Things have got to the state where the UK could take the initiative in amalgamating Network Rail into a European arterial rail consortium with the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn. This could handle long-distance passenger and freight infrastructure, handing over the organisation of local services to the regions and nations. But can one seriously see such a plan coming from a Cameron government?    

Twenty years is far too long to wait for high-speed links, and any possible costings must be queried for the ‘sinister interests’ who will inevitably push up costs: Adam Smith’s ‘rental occupations’ – lawyers, bankers, property men, as well as contractors – through their expertise in social uselessness. In technical terms a short-range programme of by-passes, resignalling, flyovers and new stations could knock an hour off London-Scotland timings in a decade and set up a Berne-gauge freight network to handle standard continental wagons. By then, Peak Oil will take effect and much motorway capacity will become available for conversion to rail. With the ‘great car economy’ running out of road almost as fast as the UK, some political reforms might loosen things up in strategic terms, regardless of the ultimate constitutional outcome. For a start the Transport Ministry, in the past consensual at its best – say in the creation of London Transport in 1929-30 – could be made answerable to the nations as well as to Westminster.

Otherwise 2009-10 could be our revolution. Has the point not been reached where even the most dimwitted  fixation on sport and celebrity has to awake to the inscrutable tax and investment deals of Rupert Murdoch and his kind, the ego-driven antics of the City’s millionaires, and the bleak future ahead of a consumerdom devoid of skills, enterprise or self-government? The demand for judicial vengeance on Adam Smith’s old rogues, Luxury and Corruption is legitimate and timely. Remember whom Theodore Roosevelt, an American conservative, christened the ‘malefactors of great wealth’? The railway barons and investment bankers of the 1900s. And remember that the £ 20 billion bonuses paid in 2006 to the City’s finest could have got the new express line as far as Manchester!