Christian Wolmar is the unrivalled expert on Britain's railways, author of On the wrong lines, a study of the dire effects of privatisation, and The subterranean railway, a history of the London Underground. He has now written a splendid history of Britain's railways `encompassing both their construction and their social impact'.
He celebrates the railways' achievement of opening up the world in an unprecedented way. He shows how the railways were both product and driver of the industrial revolution.
He takes the story from the world's first railway, the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830. The building of the railways was by far the biggest construction feat of modern times and arguably the greatest in human history. The decade of the 1840s added 4,600 miles to the network, the biggest amount ever.
He looks at the development of the railway unions, the tremendous contributions of the rail service in the world wars and the mergers of the 200 railway firms down to the big four in 1923. But he also covers the continued story of underinvestment and governments' failure to appreciate the railways' economic and social valued.
At nationalisation, the Attlee government over-valued the stock and so over-compensated the shareholders. British Rail was lumbered with annual interest payments of £27 million (equivalent to £675 million today). In the 1960s the Conservative and Labour governments closed 6,000 miles of track, leaving 12,000, and closed 4,000 stations, leaving just 3,000.
The 1996-7 privatisation broke British Rail into a hundred organisations, divided between track and operations. It costs taxpayers £5 billion a year, far more than British Rail. Railtrack collapsed; the Strategic Rail Authority was abolished.
We need a programme of electrification: only a third of the system has been electrified so far, compared to a half or more in Europe's countries. We need London's Crossrail to be built, not just talked about. And why not a high-speed network, like those being built in Spain and Italy? Currently we have just 62 miles, High Speed One, between St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel, and there are no plans for more.
The railways need investment because they "generate economic growth, enable people to travel comfortably and cause much less environmental damage than the alternatives." Rail is the cleanest, safest and best form of mass transport for the 21st century.