Rail 595: John Prescott – an apology 10 years late

I owe you an apology. A sincere one. It is now a exactly a decade years since you published the 10 year Transport Strategy, a document that we rubbished at the time, but was far better than anything produced by your predecessors. It promised a 50 per cent increase in passenger kilometres, 25 trams schemes and a 10 per cent rise in bus passengers. Actually none of these targets has been met, and while the rail passenger mileage has increased in the period by around 30 per cent, there has been just one tram scheme completed and bus passenger numbers continue to decline other than in London.

However, that is not the point. The trouble when you were Transport Secretary (and lots more, as the head of the mega department created specially for you) is that you were a figure of fun and ridicule, some of it partly deserved (you could have ditched one of the Jags), but much of it the result of snobbery and disdain. You were an easy target. Your chippy attitude, your difficulties with the English language, your working class origins and the feeling that your position was given to you as a powerless sop to Old Labour all contributed to the endless lampooning.

The ten year programme was, therefore, dismissed as bluster when, in fact, it had more substance than we realised at the time. It was a genuine attempt at planning and creating a real transport strategy, although your failure to get the Treasury sufficiently on board meant it was doomed before you started.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that you are a man of more substance than we gave credit for. Even in your failings, such as your bulaemia, you have shown that you are a more thoughtful and considered person than we thought. Your courage in raising the issue of eating disorders and prompting a public debate was truly commendable and made me feel ashamed of having joined the throng who mocked your every move. And clearly your sexual charisma was greatly underestimated by the tabloids (sorry, John, couldn’t resist that).

Seriously, though, and much more important, I have to concede that at least you cared and you tried. The Public Private Partnership for the Underground was a disaster and you probably knew that right along, but at least it has delivered improvements albeit for a ridiculously high price.

On the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, you thrashed out a scheme that saved it when, probably, your mate Tony would have been happy to ditch the second half, leaving us with half a high speed line and the embarrassment of Eurostar trains crawling through the London suburban network. Without the second section, of course, we would never have got the Olympics. Again, I am sure that you knew you were wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money on a complicated scheme which would have simpler to just renationalise, but again you did what you had to do to keep the show on the road.

And I suspect that had you still been in office, you would be batting for electrification, a north south high speed line and far more investment in the rail system in a way that Ruth Kelly and her junior ministers have, until recently, shown no interest in doing. Certainly, you would never have been guilty of the kind of muddled thinking which resulted in Ms Kelly performing a massive U turn in support of electrification a mere year after the White Paper had ruled out any schemes.

Above all you dared to put your head above the parapet. You were brave enough to say that if you had not managed to get more people out of their cars and onto the roads, you could be considered as a failure. Now, as we see with my interview with Tom Harris in the previous issue of Rail, we have a rail minister, who actively eschews that idea, saying that he is ‘modally agnostic’, words that I am sure would never pass your lips, even if you could understand them (ooops, sorry, sorry, lapsing into old habits).

You created the Strategic Rail Authority, which you saw as an embryonic British Rail, and was, at least an attempt to give some rationality to the fragmented structure of the industry that you inherited. It was, though, too Old Labour and was killed off by your second successor, Alistair Darling a man who, unlike you, could never have been accused of trying too much. Or indeed, trying anything.

The interview with Tom Harris is, too, revealing in that he says that he would have wanted to see Labour privatise the rail industry had he been an MP in 1997. I know that, genuinely, that was not your position. You saw, quite rightly, that an industry that requires massive subsidy sits unhappily in the private sector. That’s why the New Zealand government has just renationalised its railways. I am sure you would have done the same had it not been for Blair and his ‘teenyboppers’ in Downing Street whom you so rightly viewed with contempt.

I know you never liked me or, for that matter many other journalists. I have for years dined out on the moment when I was introduced to you at a New Statesman summer party and you simply spat ‘I know him’ and walked away. Priceless. And I still have the vitriolic letter you wrote to the editor of the Evening Standard commenting on a piece I did about Tesco’s being allowed into Gerrards Cross and you added bits in handwriting such as where it said ‘He is wrong’ you wrote in ‘as usual’ and ‘I suggest Mr Wolmar leaves planning to the experts’ and you could not resist scribbling ‘and transport too’. Again, priceless.

But I can even understand why you disliked the media so much. They never understood what you were about. Sure, your vanity and chippiness did not help, but they – and indeed I – could have made more effort. And we could have done more to applaud the genuine efforts you made. For that I apologise and wish you luck, and hope that you become a useful and stroppy member of the House of Lords.

Yours, with regret and hope,

Christian Wolmar

Travels but few travails on the Continent

In an effort both to reduce my carbon footprint and to enjoy the experience of travelling, I have started using the train to travel to Europe whenever it is feasible. Which, actually, is nearly always. I have been to Germany, Holland twice, the Alps and even Italy by train over the past few months and the experience, largely, has been wonderful.

The best trip was travelling from Amsterdam overnight to Florence in Italy, using a German ICE train, a sleeper from Frankfurt to Milan, and then an Italian Intercity service. The connections were all 15 minutes and achieved easily. Arriving in the middle of the night to take the Frankfurt sleeper was a truly memorable moment. Under the huge station roof, the board showed destinations right across Europe, making me realise that there is something different and appealing about being part of a large Continent which we, as an island race, miss out on. I felt not only that I was seeing something of the country through which I was travelling through but that I was taking a real journey, part of a real experience, something that one never feels when hopping on a plane.

There are, though, downsides. It is not an inexpensive way of getting around. Virtually every journey could have been done more cheaply on a low cost airline, although not necessarily if all the extras, such as transport to and from distant airports are taken into account. And of course, this is changing as fuel price rises will hit the airlines far harder than the railways.

It does, generally, take longer too – though again, the difference can be less than expected. I managed to get back to London from Maastricht in just over four hours door to door (cheating a bit as I live near St Pancras and the hotel in Maastricht was opposite the station) and only by using a connection that was seen as too tight to advertise by Eurostar.

The amazing Deutsche Bahn website (which oddly asks for your age before giving you information – which gives connections for virtually any train in Europe, together with information from the Man at Seat 61 website (http://www.seat61.com/), make it easier to book train travel though it is by no means a seamless operation. It is best to book with individual international operators, though the service offered by Rail Europe is better for complex journeys, even though there is a booking fee and sometimes smaller operators like Ffestiniog Travel are better, especially as the profits are helping a preserved railway.

Websites can, though, be misleading. I tried to book a trip to Italy for this summer through Rail Europe and it was offering a ridiculous £700 per passenger whereas when I rang up it turned out to be only around £275 – quite a difference! It took a phone call of almost an hour to sort it out, because so many different systems had to be used. Despite the arrival of Railteam, the European booking service for high speed trains, the railways are still mostly in the dark ages when it comes to ordinary services on the lignes classiques. But persevere, as it is worth it.

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