Tories' take fast track for victory

HAVING constantly accused the Government of double and triple announcing the same policy, it was rather fickle of the Conservatives this week to make a big song and dance about their promise to build a high-speed rail line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Graham Dines

HAVING constantly accused the Government of double and triple announcing the same policy, it was rather fickle of the Conservatives this week to make a big song and dance about their promise to build a high-speed rail line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

This is the same super railway that formed one of the main planks of the party's raft of policies which came out of the Tory conference held in Birmingham last year.

And to herald that good news, an exclusive interview was given to Birmingham's morning regional newspaper giving details of the proposed high-speed link to the capital.

The Conservatives, having privatised the railways in 1996, must secretly wish that had done it differently. Britain's trains today may be booming but they are operated by too many companies and the decision to make infrastructure investment the responsibility of a stand alone company fell apart with the demise of Railtrack.

To say that Margaret Thatcher was not a fan of rail travel is a gross understatement. She never used trains, going everywhere by car and plane, and she battled with French President Francois Mitterand before caving in to the French insistence that the Channel Tunnel should be a railway rather than a road route.

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Under successive governments, investment in the railways has been shamefully low. Once the transition from steam to electric or diesel was completed and the Beeching axe was wielded, little cash was pumped into the network and passengers had to put up with ageing rolling stock, overcrowding, late running, and a general air of languid indifference.

At the same time, continental railways flourished as governments realised that trains, and especially high speed lines, were the best way to move people.

Privatisation was meant to drag the rail network up to the European standard. Yes, companies have invested and punctuality has markedly improved, but the short term nature of the franchises and the need for shareholders to be paid dividends has not lead to the modernisation anticipated when British Rail was broken up.

Allied to this is the British disease - the inability to complete large scale projects on time and to budget. The West Coast main line upgrade is a prime example - it has caused misery for passengers, was not completed to the original timetable, and has cost millions of pounds more than anticipated.

It is therefore questionable whether Britain could finance and build a completely new high speed route from London to Lancashire and Yorkshire and eventually Scotland similar to the TGV and Thalys arrow straight networks of France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

However, the Tories are determined to go into the next election campaign with a manifesto commitment for a major investment in the railways to correct what shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers says is “chronic” overcrowding and the need for longer trains, longer platforms and additional lines.

The Conservatives are proposing a high-speed line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which would, for example, reduce London-Birmingham journey times from 80 minutes to just 45 minutes. The line would later be extended to Newcastle and Scotland with further new lines linking up major cities across the UK.

The Tories reckon short franchises discourage private sector investment. They would make 15-20 year franchises the norm to give greater certainty and encourage investment in new on building on disused rail lines. This will last for at least a Conservative first term in Government and will conserve any disused railway lines still in public ownership.

Meanwhile, the Government yesterday announced a new generation of InterCity trains, the first of which will enter service on the East Coast mainline in 2013 and become fully operational from 2015, linking London with Cambridge, Leeds, Hull, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh and connecting the capital with the Thames Valley, Bristol and South Wales.

The fleet will comprise an electric, self-powered (diesel), and a bi-mode variant and will replace rolling stock now upwards of 30 years old.

Transport secretary Geoff Hoon also revealed that the Department for Transport is in advanced negotiations with National Express East Anglia to provide 120 new carriages for the Stansted Express service from London Liverpool Street to Stansted Airport. The preferred bidder for this order is Bombardier Transportation, which plans to build them in Derby.

Thus the commitment is there from both major parties that the railways are a priority. From which bottomless pot of gold the money is coming from to pay for it is by no means clear, especially as the consequences of the global economic meltdown gobble up any spare billions lurking in the basement of the Treasury.

RETREAT FROM UNITARY GOVERNMENT

LOCAL government reorganisation in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Devon has been put on hold because of legal uncertainties. The delay is almost certainly fatal unless Labour wins the next General Election by a margin big enough to guarantee parliamentary approval for the necessary statutory orders.

So it won't happen.

It could be at least a decade Labour before is in a position to order the destruction of England's system of shire county government - but when it does, expect a wholesale reform and the nationwide introduction of unitary authorities, rather than the piecemeal change and chaotic uncertainty which has been the botched hallmark of the current bout of tinkering at the edges.

112, 112

IT may have passed you by this week, but the European Commission has declared the 11th day of the second month European 112 Day. Great! Let's welcome the European directive that the emergency number throughout the 27 member states of the EU is now 112.

There is a sort of sense about it - whether you're in Helsinki or Donegal, Cyprus or the Shetland Islands, there's only one number you need to know when involved in an accident or medical drama and that's 112.

Of course, it's a federalist's dream come true. Liberal Democrat Euro MP Diana Wallis admonished wayward states like the UK which have not been spreading the 112 word. “Member states are still not showing the necessary enthusiasm to take this issue forward,” she harrumphed like only a good federalist can.

“It is about time national authorities and European institutions started raising awareness of 112, and evaluating how appropriately 112 calls are handled in the member states.”

112 has long been the number to key in on your mobile phone for emergency help, and it doesn't yet replace 999. But give it a year or two and the Brussels bureaucrats will soon consign yet another of our treasured traditions to the history books.

So caps off in future years for 112 Day - February 11th will be marked by dancing around the maypole on Frinton-on-Sea's greensward.

CHELMSFORD'S STREET PASTORS PRAISED

CHELMSFORD West MP Simon Burns took his experience of spending a Friday night with Chelmsford's street pastors to the Commons debate on the Policing and Crime Bill. Mr Burns says he was “deeply impressed by their dedication and commitment, and the work they did helping people of all ages who found themselves in trouble or in difficulties after a night out in the pubs and clubs around the High Street. They do a fantastic job providing assistance, comfort and just being there to talk to people, and we are blessed to have their services in the town.”

`ONE-EYED SCOTTISH IDIOT'

JEREMY Clarkson's outburst in Australia that Gordon Brown is a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” is nowhere near as insulting as some of the abuse endured by George W. Bush. “You've been a drunk, a thief, a possible felon, an unconvicted deserter and a cry baby” said film maker Michael Moore while Democrat political consultant and media pundit James Carville also had a go at Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton: “In the Clinton administration we worried the president would open his zipper. In the Bush administration, they worry the president will open his mouth.”

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