As I waited for a delayed train that would take me to a station where I would then take a rail-replacement coach to another station that was still far from my end destination, I had plenty of opportunity to ponder on the noble - if totally ineffective - British railways. Last week was a roller-coaster week for UK infrastructure and you’ll have to forgive the clichéd turn of phrase. There were ups, there were downs – and that’s if there was any service at all. But the roller-coaster reference does not stop there: the UK watched as bad weather turned into calamitous structural failures on the coastal railway linking England’s southwest peninsula to the rest of the country. The railway line literally fell into the sea.
Bad weather happens, you might say, and given the crashing waves and weeks of driving rain, damage like this might be expected. However, should it be expected that towns and cities of a whole region might instantly be cut off for months? The journey to Plymouth, a sizable city on the way to beautiful, rugged Cornwall, is a fraught one at the best of times. A car journey from London can take more than four hours on substandard choked highways. The journey by train is usually more comfortable and involves the train tracks hugging the coast – the blue English Channel splashing just a few feet below wheels of the carriage, ravishing sea views, Idyllic and genteel, like so much of the UK’s infrastructure. This particular line was built by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself in the 1850s.
When it comes to connecting cities and providing a 21st-century transport system, genteel should not be the only option (and now even that option has fallen away). From Paris to Brest and from Rome to Trieste, western European governments have been busying themselves connecting their far-flung regions with high-speed networks. Meanwhile, support for the UK’s proposed link between London and Birmingham (yes, its second city) is sluggish to non-existent.
The UK lives and breathes an old-world attitude to its railways and this is even seen in the current spate of advertising inspired solely by nostalgia. Wooded hills and country steeples beckon visitors with station posters. Double or at most triple-carriage trains (which strangely seem to lack a front or back locomotive) are pictured bumbling across a patchwork of uninhabited regions of green.
Last week brought some good news for the transport industry with the announcement that all rolling stock for London’s new Crossrail rapid transit system will be made in the UK in Derby by Canadian firm Bombardier. And this country is reacquiring the will and enthusiasm for much-needed big infrastructure. However, investment is occurring only after an unfathomably slow bureaucratic process that is entirely centered around those who own affected property. Rightly so, say so many Britons wearing this maxi-consultation culture as a badge of honour.
It's democratic but slow and the longer the British stoically languish with their archaic railways of strange shiny carriages that roll on rather shaky Victorian lines, the more deprived and less competitive its far-flung regions will be.
David Plaisant is an associate producer for Monocle 24.