I don't just mean John Major's government; rather, I am talking about the 19th century when the potential of steam and the railway system became apparent. It was the conceit of speed that laid the foundation for the current embarrassment suffered by railway systems in Britain and many other countries. Trains went so fast in comparison with other means of travel that it seemed obvious that people, rather than freight, should take advantage of that speed. Railways were so popular for moving people that great landowners pestered railway companies to pass tracks across their land. Towns and cities grew up at the junctions and stations became the heart of cities. People in their millions went by train and prospered from the age of steam.
Life being as it is, however, it was not long before humans had other toys to move them about: cars and aeroplanes. Trains lost their speed advantage and the railways languished in a state of disrepair. Private railways around the world went bust; others, owned by the state, were trimmed so that they ceased to be a real service. Always, it seemed, the railways cost more and provided less.
In the 1990s, John Major decided to privatise British Rail. But instead of doing as Margaret Thatcher had done with British Airways – writing off its debts and putting a new and energetic management in place before selling it – Major and his cabinet decided to get rid of the railways for as much money as they could. Instead of returning the system to its historic structure of regional companies with regional links and regional loyalties, they chose to let a single company run the tracks while diverse companies ran the trains.
This was folly – railways are hard to run. The result was that the chancellor got loads of money and the public got a lousy railway service.
Major's government left a landmine in place for its successor. Add a series of terrible disasters and the landmine grew to the size of a nuclear warhead. It seems that Stephen Byers and his colleagues have stepped on this.
It is no good tinkering with the existing railway system. The problem must be thought out again
So, what to do? A state of suspended animation cannot continue for long. Someone has to admit that the system does not work very well and set about changing things. Disaster must be turned into triumph, chaos into imaginative, thought-out order.
The rub, of course, is that the proper solution needs large sums of money – money that should have been spent years ago. But let's, at least, spend it now. Britain, along with the rest of the world, teeters on the edge of a recession. Money spent on a new railway system could improve our nation's industrial performance and save us from a serious downturn. A new railway system, imaginatively planned, could be the linchpin of a great expansion of our already successful industry.
But it is no good tinkering with the existing system. The problem must be thought out again and, when careful thought has been given to the railways, the ideas must be backed up with huge funds. The railway system must be turned from a millstone around the neck of government to a delight that is the envy of the world. Britain's transformed railway, connecting us to Europe, should aim to make the use of cars and aeroplanes a second – and far less desirable – choice.
The access to city centres already exists; we have the engineers, architects and contractors to provide a successful, attractive rail system. New track, new trains and new stations are what the railways need. Roads should carry freight, aeroplanes should carry freight; railways should be for people.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.