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21st century rail - at last 06.08.09

Morning Star Editorial: When Michael O’Leary tells you an idea’s dreadful, you know you’re on to a winner. The union-bashing Ryanair chief is so consistently on the wrong side of any argument that you’d be forgiven for taking it with a pinch of salt if he told you to keep breathing.

So his verdict that building a new high-speed British rail network would be "insane" is decent evidence that the government’s on to something.

As indeed it is. It’s long past time Britain dragged its rail network into the late 20th century, let alone the 21st. The country which was the birthplace of the railways is now put to shame by the likes of Japan, France and Germany, which all invested heavily in their networks while Britain’s was being Beechinged and then privatised to death.

Spain too has come from nowhere to overtake Britain with new high-speed lines boasting 99 per cent punctuality for trains whizzing at over 180mph on a network which will eventually be the biggest in Europe.

Its new trains have more or less replaced planes between Madrid and Seville and are set to do the same from Madrid to Barcelona.

That’s exactly what Transport Secretary Lord Adonis wants to happen here. It’s "manifestly in the public interest" to get passengers out of planes and into trains, he says.

And quite right too. To borrow O’Leary’s choice of word, it’s insane that 46 million passengers travel by air every year within a country as small as Britain, when a modern high-speed train could whisk them from London to Glasgow in less time than it takes to slog out to Heathrow and wait in line to be X-rayed, poked and prodded.

Better for the environment, quicker for you - and cheaper, too, despite O’Leary’s griping.

He moans about the "inefficiency and high cost of rail services."

But who’s inefficient? O’Leary’s Ryanair is one of the beneficiaries of around £10 billion a year in indirect government subsidy in the form of tax exemptions.

Take that away from the airlines, give it to the new high-speed railway and let’s see how "efficient" Ryanair looks then.

That would be manifestly in the public interest too, as would the new jobs that building the network would bring. There’s another lesson to be learnt here from Spain, where Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has made rail a key part of his plans to combat the recession.

He plans to invest nearly £100 billion in high-speed rail by 2020 - all of it from the public purse, for publicly owned trains running on publicly owned track.

Lord Adonis, on the other hand, remains vague about where the cash might come from - but he knows he wants the private sector involved.

Now that’s the only part which does deserve the label "insane."

The private sector would make a shambles of any new high-speed network, just as it has with our current one. And letting privateers get involved in building the new lines would be doomed to failure too.

Britain’s only existing high-speed line, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, had to be bailed out by the government because, as then transport secretary John Prescott now admits, "the government was the only one that could find the resources."

The private sector will always struggle to find the kind of cash needed for such a huge project. It will always demand a huge return on its investment and it will always look to jump ship as soon as the going gets tough.

This new high-speed network would rank high on the all too short list of this government’s finest achievements - as long as it’s paid for by the public, owned by the public and run for the benefit of the public.

Morning Star

Peter Shield

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