There are some subjects that government ministers love to talk about. Ask them about cracking down on anti-social behaviour or modernising the NHS, for example, and they will soon have your head spinning with a list of achievements past and present, targets, policies, initiatives, statistics and ambitions. Phrases such as ‘hard-working families’ and ‘record investment’ fall from their lips as easily as leaves in the autumn.
But there is one topic that no self-respecting Labour high-flyer will touch with the proverbial barge pole. The very thought of it brings them out in a cold sweat. Ask them about it, and they will turn pale, mutter darkly about ‘mistakes made in the past’ and ‘no easy answers’ before checking their watch and finding that, sorry, must dash.
The dreaded word is, of course, railway. The UK’s rail system has for so long been a national symbol of financial, technical and managerial failure that even when things are getting better (which, believe it or not, in many respects they are), we scarcely notice.
There is still so much perceived to be wrong with the railway industry that success stories such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link or the modernised West Coast Mainline barely register, and even Labour knows that trying to spin good news out of the railways is beyond its ability.
But the government will have to say something about the railways soon, because its own special adviser, Sir Rod Eddington, will shortly release his report on the long-term future of the UK’s transport system.
Stories in the national press have claimed Eddington will come out against plans for a high-speed north-south rail link of the type advocated by many campaigners, including The Engineer. Let’s see what he actually says, but if the reports are correct, it will be a shame.
Recent events in the aviation industry gave the UK’s battered and bruised rail system a big opportunity to show what it can really do as passengers flocked from the airports to take the train instead.
Given the lift of a bold, visionary project such as the north-south link, the rail network could begin its transformation from symbol of failure to popular alternative to road or air.
In this context, shadow chancellor George Osborne is to be congratulated for talking up the railways issue, and expressing interest in how high-speed Maglev technology of the type used in Japan could be applied in the UK.
Osborne — admittedly from the comfort of the opposition benches — appears to have decided that talking about the rail network is back on the political agenda.
This is good news. Let’s have a debate and some ambitious thinking about what remains a vital national asset, even if it is too often treated as a liability.