Saturday, January 06, 2007

Off the Rails

Britain pioneered the railway. But you’d hardly think, so looking at the mess it’s turned into now.

George Stephenson’s Rocket was not the first locomotive but, in 1829, it did show the way for designs of steam locomotives that used many of its features up until the 1960’s, when Diesel and Electric power took over.

The first disaster was the abandonment of Brunel’s broad gauge, the 7 foot wide system that allowed for heavier loads, higher speeds and greater stability. The prime reason was the financial interests of the railway companies who preferred the cheaper option of the standard gauge. Profits came before efficiency, still the mantra of the modern day companies as the passengers will have noticed. Toilets are now being removed from some trains in order to provide more standing room!

Those who now sit in their exorbitantly expensive seats ( if they’re lucky) as their train creeps across the countryside might reflect that in 1904, a mail train pulled by the City of Truro, ran from Plymouth to London, at times reaching 100 m.p.h. and, in spite of setting out some 30 minutes late, contrived to arrive on time.

In the 1930’s, the London to Newcastle service took four hours at an average speed of over 67 m.p.h.

But the rot had set in before the Second World War. Lack of investment in both locomotives and rolling stock was acerbated by the conflict and, when peace came, under the aegis of British Rail, little was done to remedy this. And everything since has been a Band-Aid on a terminal wound.

The long suffering British public now pay three times as much for the pleasure of their train journey in less comfort and at a slower pace than anywhere else, other than in a third world country.

It’s been twenty five years since the French introduced their high speed train, the Train Grand Vitesse, TGV, and its service has revolutionised travel in a country that is four times the size of Britain. With guaranteed seating, spotlessly clean trains and a service that for punctuality rivals the vaunted Swiss rail system, it comes at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent journey in Britain. And is, of course, immeasurably faster.

The key was investment. And the French government, who have immense pride in their country in spite of its defects, must be congratulated on seeing the value of putting the taxpayer’s money into the system. The taxpayer for once got his money’s worth from a government.

And the service is matched, if not in speed, in comfort and cost almost everywhere on the Continent

I can remember fondly the days of steam in England and did much travelling on the oft maligned British Railways. Perhaps time has dimmed these memories but I feel that the whole business worked far better then than the present arcanely complex and expensive system. I recall that the worst aspect was the dreaded British Rail sandwich.

With the demise of steam, a friend of mine purchased an express locomotive, “The Bahamas,” for a local railway museum. As he had paid for it, he felt that he was entitled to drive it from the engine sheds at Bury to its final home. And he did, on the footplate complete with engineer’s cap and his hand on the throttle. As he was also a director of a large textile corporation, it so happened that that afternoon he also had to attend a board meeting.

He reported: “I sat down and looked around at my stuffy colleagues grouped around the table. All so intent upon the tedious business at hand. And I reflected to myself, not one of these has had the glorious experience that I had this morning of being at the controls of such a magnificent piece of machinery.” I’m happy to report that this locomotive still exists in the Keighley and Worth Valley museum – Geoffrey Potter, the man in question, would be pleased to know that “Bahamas” is still around, although in need of an overhaul, I believe.

And now to add insult to injury, whilst British trains rumble uncertainly over the tracks at a pace that is barely in excess of the stagecoaches of a bygone era, in Taiwan there is now a high speed train, comparable to the TGV, which whisks their citizens from one end of the country to the other at 190 m.p.h.

For a nation that invented the business, it’s all rather sad. It’s just as well Brunel is not here to see it.


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