Fri Sep 7th, 2007 at 10:22:40 AM EST
[Wednesday]'s headlines in Britain [were] all agog about the running of a demonstration train on the new high-speed link from London to Paris. Considering that the Channel Tunnel, at the time one of the major civil engineering feats ever accomplished, itself took less time to dig than building a railway line from Maidstone to London it is hard to feel anything other than ashamed at the paucity of ambition and cheapskated attitude to public infrastructure in the UK.
From the diaries ~ whataboutbob
Yet look at a map of Britain, compared with the size of the country, London is practically next door to the Channel. What are the rest of the country, people in major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, supposed to do ? Get on a plane and fly seems to be the dismissive opinion of our Lords and Masters safely esconsed in their pieds-a-terre in Westminster (approx 3 miles from St Pancras).
As The Independent demonstrates;-
Between 6.30am and 9am today, three flights are scheduled to take off from Parisian airports for the 300-mile trip to Lyons. From the London airports to Manchester, less than 200 miles away, nine flights are scheduled. The French capital has had high-speed trains since 1981. When London's first such link opens in November, the only place you will be able to reach is France.
Britain's railways have suffered decades of under-investment and neglect from politicians of all stripes, but without doubt the greatest blow came from Dr Beeching during the 60s. It was true that the railways at the time were losing over £100 million a year, but such was the naivety of the times that nobody worried if Ernest Marples, the Transport Minister, a man whose personal fortunes were based in road construction, might have a conflict of interest in deciding the fate of the entire railway system. He appointed Dr Beeching, whose brief suggested that the railway system should be run like a business and not a public service, and that if parts of the railway system did not pay their way--like some rural branch lines--they should be closed. His reasoning was that once these were closed, the remaining core of the system would be restored to profitability. All of the feeder services lost could be replaced by "bustitution" (bus + substitution) with no loss to the network.
Howeveer, Beeching did more than close a few branch lines; he closed a quarter of the railway network and half of all the stations. It wasn't just minor routes that disappeared, it was major trunk routes were deleted by one wave of a pen. Large towns and entire regions were removed from the rail map. So what happened was that, without a railway on their doorstep people simply drove; "bustitution" failed. The passengers were entirely lost to public transport (SNCF beware). The whole affair was entirely typical of British politician's contempt for public transport.
Which is why it was that when trains first came through the Channel tunnel, slowing from 180 mph in France to the 60 mph of British rails suburban network, President Mitterand was able to joke of travellers "enjoying the Kent countryside at their leisure". And it is why it has taken 13 years to build 50 miles of railway. The Victorians did better with steam and muscle.
Are there plans to extend the high-speed network thorughout Britain ? Sadly if Gordon Brown has to pay for any it, there won't be.
And yet...and yet if we return to Beeching, one of the major trunk routes that he closed was the Great Central Railway, running from London to Manchester via Sheffield. Completed just before 1900, an age when Britons could still be be bold & forward thinking it was supposed to eventually connect with an imagined Channel Tunnel and, built to continental loading gauge and allowing sustained running at 100 mph plus, provide a conduit for high speed railway links between the Continent and the North of Britain. But in this age of bean counters and ministry men who can only say no, it was bulldozed to save less than a million quid.
If only...but welcome to Britain, land of the car and the airport. London may, at last, be on the European hi-speed railway network, but Britain never will be.