Journalism

More Travel

August 1st, 2001

August 2001

Why do the French do it better? Don’t worry, I’m not thinking about sex, though that was well under way in the cabin next to me, as I travelled by night from Calais to Brieve.

French MotorRail is a delight. The beds are comfortable, and there is a small seating area by the window, where you can watch the train unzipping the countryside.

A commitment to movement and pleasure is what the French enjoy and the British don’t understand. Our journeys are predicated on misery. Our transport policies are focussed on slowing and reducing traffic while refusing to invest in any civilised alternative. No wonder everybody goes abroad for the holidays.

As the French roar ahead with their rail links, we have scrapped our overnight services to any destination bar Penzance. I used to visit Scotland regularly when I could load the car at Euston or Bristol and wake up in Fort William. Now I go to France.

Talk of reviving the tourist industry here since Foot and Mouth takes no account of congested roads and wasted time. Trains, and small privately owned stations, like the one at Ledbury, could return Britain to a visitor’s paradise. Part of the pleasure of travel is not having to climb into the car and sit on busy roads. What could be better than reading the paper and seeing the world go by from a safe fast train?

It’s not going to happen is it? Urban initiatives and rural policies take no account of how Britain actually joins up. For instance, the planned new villages around Cambridge focus on the route into London, but nowhere else. In fact, there is nowhere else, as public transport across country from Cambridge is dire. What happens when all those people in all those new houses want to go somewhere other than London? Answer – the roads will gridlock, there will be an outcry for bypasses, more countryside will go under tarmac, and we will be as unhappy as ever.

A Frenchman on the train told me that the British are masochists. He says we like to suffer because suffering is what we did in the war.

Is it too much to say that our road, rail and planning polices have been in chaos for fifty years? Slum clearance, high rise, council estates, the axing of the rail network, our over-reliance on roads, the Greenbelt, and now then pressure on the countryside to provide new homes, are all disaster polices. In Britain, we do not seem to have found a way to evolve into a modern society. Our reforms, typically misnamed as improvements, have dismantled the past without providing a sustainable future. We know we can’t go like this, but no one in Government has any idea of how to turn things round.

The question of transport needs to be addressed at the planning stage of any significant new development. Off-street parking and a quick route to Tesco are not enough. Moving large numbers of people quickly and pleasantly is a necessity. Developers must be made to cost- in transport, and not assume that private cars on inadequate roads will solve the problem.

The French are investing in rail because they know that significant numbers of people want to compress time and distance while still being able to work, sleep, eat, and talk to their friends. Roads do not allow this – only a sophisticated mass transit system can make the twenty first century possible. The revolution in telecommunications is here, but where is the public-private partnership Britain needs to make sure our bodies keep pace with our minds?