Thursday, 16 August 2007

Steam Train Blues

With the August Bank Holiday almost here many of us would normally be heading for Kidderminster or Bridgnorth to indulge ourselves in a bit of nostalgia with a trip back in time along the Severn Valley Railway. There is no doubt that just seeing a steam engine at work lifts the sprits.

There is probably something deeply Freudian going on here. It can’t just be nostalgia for the days when all railways were steam hauled and children stood on the embankments waving as they went past, as they did so successfully in the Railway Children.

That would not explain the joy that modern children (of all ages) get from seeing steam when their only experience is a DVD of the ubiquitous Thomas. No, there is something about steam engines.

They seem to be alive and it’s not just with Thomas that we indulge in this anthropomorphism. All steam locomotives seem to have an element of humanity about them. They need a lot of fuel before they do any work, once they start they huff and puff about it, often stopping for a drink. I am sure we can all think of people with these characteristics.

Steam trains have been running up and down the Severn Valley since
February 1862. The line originally to carried a lot of freight; as there was china from Coalport, limestone from Wenlock, firebricks and tiles from Broseley, iron from Coalbrookdale, carpets from Bridgnorth and coal from Alveley and Highley. The line carried passengers too but I am sure in carrying over 200,000 people annually in recent years the line carries more passengers today between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster than were ever carried when the line was part of the national network.

Movement on the original line ceased in 1963 by which time most of the industry that had supported the line had disappeared and the valley, rather than being a centre of industry, was reverting to the natural beauty it had always possessed.

There is something deeply evocative about the country railway. The sunlit platform, birdsong and then, as Edward Thomas wrote so memorably, “The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came. On the bare platform. What I saw was Adelstrop – only the name”.

Well for Adelstrop read Arley, Highley or Hampton Load, what could be better than to run steam trains through this wonderful landscape?

The story that followed was a bit like that wonderful Ealing comedy the Titfield Thunderbolt except these people were in deadly earnest and their efforts at re-opening the line took many years of effort.

The story of the early years of the railway was full of characters like, Keith Beddoes who called the original Save the Railway meeting at the Coopers Arms in Kidderminster on 6th July 1965, and the MP, Sir Gerald Nabbaro who went on to chair the holding company.

They struggled against enormous odds for almost twenty years determined to create the railway we know and love today. Now the Severn Valley Railway is one of the most important tourist draws in the region. Thousands travel on the trains and thousands more come just to watch the steam over those blue remembered hills.

That was until this summer’s rain. Who would have thought that a summer shower would damage the line in 45 places, nine of them seriously, washing away sections of the track and undermining the track-bed causing some £2million worth of damage?

Today the railway is facing the greatest crisis in its long history. Over the years thousands of volunteers have kept this symbol of our industrial past alive lets us hope that, like John Garth who in 1965 gave the first five pounds to set the Save the Severn Valley Railway fund in motion, lots more five pounds will flow into the new fund that has been set up to rebuild this severely damaged railway.

For me the railway cannot return to normal running soon enough – it always will be the ideal way to spend a British Bank Holiday.

Whilst I never fail to enjoy my trips on the railway (or the first class real ale at the station bars at either end) I have always felt slightly disappointed that it only went as far as Bridgnorth. Nothing against Bridgnorth its market, cliff top walk with funicular and splendid views mean it is like a seaside promenade for Black Country folk.

Once the railway is back on its feet my dream is that they keep the fundraising going to raise sufficient cash to extend the line into the Ironbridge Gorge. The industrial legacy of the Gorge has made it a World Heritage Site but recreating the railway as part of the Gorge would add enormously to its tourist value. Imagine being able to arrive at the Ironbridge by steam-hauled train - now that would be a sight!

The Flood Damage Appeal can be reached at, The Severn Valley Railway, The Railway Station, Bewdley, DY12 1BG. Or go to:

Friday, 10 August 2007

Happy Birthday India!

August the fifteenth 1947 is a date that will be forever in the memory of the people of the Indian sub-continent. It was the date when India was partitioned. Partition does not sound too bad a concept. But in the case of India it forced people to choose, tearing asunder thousands of years of integration to rip families and communities apart. It triggered one of the largest migrations in world history some five million people took to the road leading to terrible violence with the death of some half a million people.

So when later on this year this year the 60th year of independence of India and Pakistan is celebrated it will be tempered by the cost. Partition continues to divide the great states of Bengal and the Punjab and there is still the running sore of Kashmir. Today many of these divisions are still represented in the communities here in the Midlands. Many modern young people find it hard to believe when you look at the scale of India, a continent within itself with a population almost three times the European Union, that it was once ruled from a small island on the North West coast of Europe.

Despite that painful birth today India is on the move its economy is turning in consistent annual growth rates of eight and nine per cent. No mean feat in a country of over a billion people. The reforms of successive governments have at last begun to unleash the vast talent of India’s people. Sure there are problems, as any country would face undergoing an economic revolution, multiplied by the shear scale of the country. But the fact that they have been able to retain their secular democratic state during this revolutionary process is a great achievement.

It is worth remembering even all these years after partition that the Muslim population of India is greater than the total population of Pakistan. And despite the fact that Britain was responsible for the disaster that was partition there is still tremendous goodwill towards Britain. As well as the railway network we left them something else that helps to unite India, the lingua-franca of the modern global economy - English.

Today there are more people speaking English in India than the entire population of the United States. Listening to the great Sunil Gavasker, one of India’s greatest ever cricketers, on Test Match Special it’s a bit chastening to hear that he speaks better English than I do. This is not just true of the best Indian sports people it also true of India’s leaders in business and politics. Hardly surprising when you think of the competition they face to get to the top in such a vast nation.

The best of India are very good indeed their top people are fantastically articulate, have a global view and are very well educated. Not always characteristics that our leading politicians and business people have. This is way beyond our everyday perception of who and what Indian’s are. Yes they run the Curry House on the High Street, but they are also many of our best medical consultants. Yes India has some of the world’s poorest people but it also has some of the richest.

Sixty is a time of maturity and it is time that the relationship between Britain and India became more mature. Today it is India that is the superpower and we need to have a different relationship with this great nation. India is a land of opportunity and the challenges it faces in accommodating economic growth and the social and cultural changes that will come in its train will bring great opportunities. Many people and businesses here in Birmingham and the West Midlands have special links with India which offer us a chance to exploit these new opportunities but only if we drop the patronising tone of the past and enter into a modern relationship with the new India.

Multicultural Birmingham is a great Indian City. We need a set of new institutions to celebrate our partnership with the new India. As the former colonial power they know more about us than we know about them. There is no doubt that Indian style is having a big effect on British fashion and design. How about a new gallery for contemporary Indian art including a cinema complex for Indian movies? How about a new joint venture between a major Indian University and one of Birmingham’s universities’s to create an Institute dedicated to Anglo-Indian understanding? Giving us greater insight into modern Indian politics, culture, law and business.

As a post-industrial City Birmingham seems to be looking for a new purpose - well there will not be a single purpose - there will be many but one of them could and should be as a gateway to India.

After all we have already adopted their cuisine. More popadoms anyone?

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Keeping the Midlands Moving

It is rare for the West Midlands to agree about anything. The capital can usually ignore us because rather than hear one voice they hear a cacophony. Yet almost everyone in Birmingham and the West Midlands seems to agree that traffic congestion is endangering the economy. All of our modes of transport are bursting at the seams. Look at the M42, M6 or New Street Station.

There is simply no spare capacity on any of our modes of transport. That is why there is such chaos when there is the slightest disruption to traffic at peak times.

We have been investing in our infrastructure. But after fifteen years of continuous economic growth we have not invested as quickly as the traffic has grown. So despite the M6 toll and other road improvements and huge investment in the West Coast mainline the infrastructure is getting worn out faster than we are replacing it. And as for increasing capacity forget it.

Gerry Blackett CEO of Birmingham Chamber recently indicated how with a relatively modest spend we can eliminate some of the key pinch-points in our transport networks. But the existing networks do not reflect the needs of the present economy. Key major routes say Birmingham to Southampton or Birmingham to Lowestoft do not have sensible rail routes for containers.

It is equally absurd that all road traffic from Manchester to Bristol has so long to look at Bescot Stadium as it leaves the M6 to join the M5 that it has become a prime advertising site. Similarly the main road from Dublin to the Hook of Holland has to go around two small islands as it leaves the M6 to try and gain access to the A14. I am sure we all have our own favourite absurdities in the transport network and this is before we get into trams or airports.

The Seven West Midlands Councils and Centro have sent the Government their wish list with a £4.6 billion price tag. A bit steep when you think we currently get only £90 million a year for the whole region for major transport projects.

For a change it seems we know what we want. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the Government is going to pay for it.

The fact is we need an income stream that reflects the growth in the economy. It must be clear to everyone by now that our politicians are not going to ask the wider electorate to vote for higher taxes to pay for better transport systems. The Centro bill shows they can be very expensive and there is already the £3.5 billion to widen parts of the M6. The electorate have good reason to distrust politicians the temptation to rob long term spending on infrastructure for short term spending on more eye catching things is very difficult to resist.

So the real question is, if not from HMG, where is the money to come from?

The fact that the recently announced improvements to our rail network are mainly to be paid for by passengers is a clear signal. The user is going to have to pay.

We must look again at road pricing. Some argue that vehicles are already paying enough tax for using the roads and that any system would be a tax too far. Or that we should wait for a national system – the cost of such a system will I fear out strip our ability to implement it.

The challenge we have I think is to decide what the issue is we are seeking to tackle. Do we wish to increase the capacity of our networks or do we want to choke off some demand for movement by price?

The fear for many who hear about road pricing is all they hear is the latter. Many people cannot afford to live where they work and to further punish them by increasing their already excessive transport costs does not seem fair. But this is the uncomfortable truth road pricing has to do a bit of both, increase capacity and change behaviour. For a tax to relieve congestion - it has to be high enough to change what people do and there is no doubt if there is no pain there is no gain. It will hurt those less able to pay and also will hurt disproportionately those businesses that have to deliver into the congested areas.

The real choice we have is unplanned rationing by congestion which has a cost but does not generate any revenue. Or to attempt to raise revenue from congestion with road pricing which at least offers a new revenue stream for capacity improvements. And surely we can come up with varying the charges for essential deliveries or for essential workers.

We will never be able to have enough capacity to satisfy the demand if everyone decides to go to the same place at the same time but we can get nearer to matching demand with supply and thereby not choke off the economy.

If we do not do this the gap between the transport systems we need and what we have will get wider and wider and with it the attraction of the region as a place to invest, work, visit or live.